Rawls on natural talents

Rawls writes that “the extent to which natural capacities develop and reach fruition is affected by all kinds of social conditions and class attitudes” (TJ 2nd ed 164).
What are natural capacities in Rawls?
It is tempting to think that natural capacities are those characteristics whose development is influenced in a minimal part by ordinary external interventions such as education and training and in a major part by a person’s genetic endownment. In this sense, a natural talent for music would be that part of or factor in a person’s characteristic way of playing music which could have not been created by ordinary external interventions.  

Notice the implication of this interpretation for Rawls’s principle of fair equality of opportunity. According to Rawls, his own principle implies that people with equal natural capacities, and willingness to develop and use them, end up in similarly good positions. (ibid. p. 63, assuming equivalence between “natural assets” and “natural capacities to be”.)

In the light of this interpretation (which is wrong, as we shall see), fair equality of opportunity obtains when there is a rough correspondence between the genetic endowment of persons and the social positions they end up in, assuming equal efforts for cultivating and using those genetic resources.
Now it might be argued that there is a different interpretation of natural talents, that matches the role that the concept of a natural capacity plays in Rawls’s theory better than the former . According to this second interpretation, what makes a human capacity a natural one is its not resulting in a systematic and predictable manner from intentional human acts or from the working of human institutions.

Hence the fair equality of opportunity principle would be satisfied when (assuming equal willingness and efforts to cultivates those characteristics which are abilities and which do not result from systematic and predictable manner from intentional acts or human institutions) there is a rough correspondence between positions and possessions of such characteristics.

The two conceptions differ in relation to genetic interventions. According to the first conception a personal quality deriving from genetic enhancement or genetic screening technologies would still count as a natural talent, while on the second it would not.
Arguments against the first interpretation and in favor of the second:
1. the second interpretation is more plausible in the light of our judgments of fairness about a society which would make extensive usage of genetic interventions.
What would we think of a society were the best social positions (meaning those characterized by a high level of income and prerogatives of power) were occupied by people whose parents could afford expensive genetic treatments? This would be a society were individuals who – for no faults of their own – are born in low-income families are deprived of any significant chance to end up occupying privileged positions. I think that we would not say that these institutions guarantee equal opportunities in a fair sense.
Unfortunately, according to the first interpretation of “natural talents”, the first society could be fair. It would be enough that people characterized by similar genetic endowments and similar efforts end up occupying positions of similar wealth and autority. This is perfectly compatible with all positions of wealth and responsibility being occupied by people whose parents could afford expensive genetic treatments.
According to the second interpetation, however, this would not be the case, as the qualities granting access to privileged social positions would not count as natural anymmore.


2 responses to “Rawls on natural talents

  1. Revision by the author:

    The definition
    “According to this second interpretation, what makes certain features of a human capacities natural is the fact that they do not result in a systematic and predictable manner from intentional human acts or from the working of human institutions.”
    does not work.

    For the decision to choose a sexual partner is an intentional human act and features of a person’s capacity (arguably) result in a predicable manner from such decisions. For example, a musician may choose to procreate with another musician in order for their children to have higher chances of being musically talented. Moving from capacities to other qualities which cannot be considered capacities: someone may marry a beautiful person in order for their children to come out beautiful. Or more simply, marry a blond person in order for the child to (have chances to be) blond.

    Generalizing, according to the definition almost any quality will not count as natural.

    Given the paradoxical result, the reformed definition should be rejected.

  2. Pingback: on reformulating equality of opportunity « Philosophical.journal

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