on reformulating equality of opportunity

I want to come back on a problem that I had already confronted in a previous post.

As I pointed out there, social barriers to access germ-line engineering appear to be outside the scope of the Rawls’ Fair Equality of Opportunity Principle (from now on FEO), at least in the formulation Rawls gives. This is, shortly, because the principle does not require equality of opportunity for people with different talents. ( “Fair” equality of opportunity is really inequality of opportunity, operationally defined). In other words FEO aims to abolish social barriers against the use of a person’s fully realized talent (careers open to talents), the cultivation and expression of talent potential/natural ability (through wide educational opportunities), but social barriers in the access to germ-line enhancements are not social barriers against the use of realized talent or the cultivation of talent-potential, they are social barriers to factors that pre-exist the ascription of talent-potential to one individual .

As I explain in this post this formulation leads to a bunch of counterintuitive consequences, since it would allow a sort of “genetic aristocracy” to exist without apparent violation of FEO. To avoid that implication, it seems, socially manipulable biological factors affecting talent-potential should not be considered  “natural”, even if they are biological.

It is unclear how FEO should be formulated – as to make clear that biological factors affecting talent potential should not be considered “natural” when they are subject to “social manipulation”. One possibility would be to stipulate that “natural talents” in the Rawlsian explanation of FEO only refers to “that portion of the determinants of a person’s talent that is not subject to manipulation”. This would exclude “genetically enhanced” (or engineered) abilities and disposition from a person’s asset of “natural talent” (with respect to FEO), but it would not work with another kind of “social manipulation” that closely resembles genetic enhancement in its social and moral consequences, but that does not count (at least, arguably) as a “manipulation” of a person’s biological (genetic, or otherwise) endowment: the selection of embryos and gametes with “desired” and “favorable” characteristics. (For by selecting embryos or gamates one is not changing (“manipulating”) biological matter; it is only deciding which among several possible configurations of biological matter to allow to exist.) The point I am making is that exclusive access to screening technology would also confer the families of the wealthy unfair advantage over the families of the poor as the richest would be able to have children with advantageous characteristics (say – children requiring less economic and human resources for achieving the same educational results).

For this reason, in this post, I suggested that “natural talents” in the context of Rawls’ FEO should be understood as those characteristics which do not  “[result] in a systematic and predictable manner from intentional human acts or from the working of human institutions”. The problem with this solution, however, is that many human characteristics that we normally consider talents result from the intentional actions of parents in a quite systematic and predictable fashion. For instance, a man who marries a very talented musician and decides to have a child with her certainly acts intentionally (by so doing) and can predict that her child will have higher than normal chances of being musically talented. A woman who marries a very handsome man and decides to have a child with him also certainly acts intentionally and can foresee some good chances that her child will be more than average handsome. The difference between such decision and the decision to use biological information to select gametes (or embryos) with “advantageous” genes is, at most, a matter of degree, rather than a qualitative gap. (Of course, I’m deliberately leaving aside questions on the moral status of embryos; if that is believed to imply disanalogies with respect to justice, the same questions can be framed in terms ofthe selection of gametes.)

Hence, if we decide that “natural talent” should be understood (in the context of RAwls’ FEO) as “a talent which does not result in a systematic and predictable manner from intentional human acts or from the working of human institutions” we end up denying the existence of natural talents (at least, among characteristics affecting access to offices and careers) and FEO becomes an empty principle.

For this reason, reflection suggests leaving FEO as it is and adding a further clause for dealing with genetic enhancements:

“In all sectors of society there should be rougly equal prospects to improve the inheritable genetic determinants of the “all-purpose-talents” or “natural primary goods” of one’s child.”

This principle, I believe, closely resembles FEO in meaning and function. It does not imply that society ougth to aim at the equalization (or more broadly, some form of patterned distribution) of the inheritable biological bases of talent (e.g. certain human genes), the sort of result that those embracing luck-egalitarian intuitions should embrace. But it is not also wholly indifferent with respect to the way in which social factors – in particular wealth and social standing – affect the distribution of “genes”. And its inclusion in a theory of justice would allow us to object in a principled manner to the distribution of “genes” that would lead to a genetic aristocracy.


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