on equality of opportunity, talents, and genes

Rawls’ principle of fair equality of opportunity says:

“those who are at the same level of talent and ability, and have the same willingness to use them, should have the same prospects of success regardless of their initial place in the social system.”

So the school can promote the goal stated in this principle. It is supposed to cancel the impact of social disadvantage, that  prevents the expression of the talents of some (but not all) citizens.
But certain characteristics that we may want to enhance can be viewed along similar lines. For we should not think of genetic enhancement as suddenly “creating” a talent. This would not be just scientifically undefendible genetic determinism. It would, rather, amount to not understanding what a talent is. A talent is not a simple disposition or function; rather, it is a complex interaction of dispositions, leading to superior performance in certain specific areas of human activity. Think about what we call musical talent, which includes as a vast arrary of psychological functions such as (at least): processing sound information in terms of pitch and rythm, in terms of expressive meaning, in terms of social meaning, capacity to translate emotional meaning into musical meaning and vice-versa, and manual dexterity. Each of these caracteristics may be subtly influenced by the performance of one or the other brain function. An enhancement would contribute to the development of a talent, not by, so to say, creating it from scratch, but by modifying one aspect of a characteristic into one that better contributes to the functioning of the whole. An example may clarify. Some musicians have the so-called “absolute ear”: the capacity to instantly recognize the pitch of a note. The absolute ear is neither a sufficient, nor a necessary condition for being a great musician. However, few would deny that it greatly simplifies the acquisition of musical skills and that it confers a competitive advantage to those (talented) musicians who have it.

Let us then suppose that some enhancements can be viewed by analogy with an improvement in social circumstances. What would the principle of fair equality of opportunity imply if we think about them in this way? If we have to think enhancements by analogy with the school system, then what FEO requires is basic education for all, and additional resources for higher education, open to the most talented, only to the extent that they contribute to the conditions of the worst-off. An analogous principle would be: guarantee normal functioning (through genetic technology, if needed) and put additional resources for enhancements, open to the people with the most talent and willingness to use them, only to the extent that they contribute to the conditions of the worst-off.

Do we have a problem here? With regard to the school system, FEO selects the recipients of higher education in virtue of their talents and displayed willingness to use them, which is a good predictor of their efficiency as converters of educational resources into social wealth and progress. Most liberals are convinced that talents are not the monopoly of wealthy, so the potential beneficiaries of higher education rarely happen to be all from the same social class of origin, and the resources injected into higher education do not lead a strongly stratified society. If this conjecture holds when one is thinking to enhance capacities through education, then, it seems that it should also hold when one is thinking to enhance capacities through genetics. What would be the problem, then, in providing further enhancements to the people displaying the best natural talents?

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