Germ-line enhancements and education.

So I had a chance to present some of my ideas concerning the lottery for germ-line enhancement to a very good audience at Oxford University (James Martin Seminar Series – Future of HUmanity Institute). As it happens, I have received some good feedbacks. One of these led me to revise my argument quite a lot.

Basically my old argument started by taking Mehlman’s “genetic nobility” hypothesis as a plausible description of the destiny of a society able to produce germ-line enhancements but lacking egalitarian institutions. The lottery solution had the purpose of achieving a more “egalitarian” distribution of access to germ-line enhancements.

One of the objections I received concerned the plausibility of the hypothesis in question. As it has been pointed out to me, genetic technology will lead to a genetic aristocracy only if genetic enhancements will always bee expensive, so they can only be afforded by the rich. But why shouldn’t we think that the price of genetic enhancements will go down, like that of computer or cell phones? If that happens, we won’t get a genetic aristocracy. The idea of a genetic aristocracy requires the possibility of an accumulation of good genes in the genomes of the most well off families, as the children of the richest members will both have higher than average chances of receiving enhancements and moreover will inherit germ-line enhancements from the previous generation. But if the price of enhancements goes down, old inherited enhancement will simply confer no competitive advantage, as new and probably better enhancements will be available to all. Inheriting your grandfather enhnacement will be like inheriting your grandfather’s computer and have no moral significance at all.

This criticism led to aks me if genetic enhancements in a society where everyone has access to them will pose a threat to justice. My answer is that they pose a threat to justice because genes are not magic, they need to be complemented with education. Rich  parents will be able to pay special education for their enhanced kids, while poor parents won’t. So rich kids will profit from enhancements while poor parents won’t. And this will lead to a greater gap between the abilities of the rich and the poor than is now thinkable.

It may be objected that this just assumes that education is not available to all on a fair basis. The problem can be fixed by simply making sure that people have fair access to education.

The answer to that is that fair access to education may become a more difficult goal to achieve in a post-geneticenhancment society. Some  enhanced talents and abilities may be very difficult to train and it is implausible to think that the school (under ordinary budget constraints) will be able to offer the needed services.

It may be objected that fair access to education cannot be too expensive: it simply requires making private education illegal. If people know that no opportunity to get special education is available, they will only buy those enhancements that confer an advantage under normal (that is public school) conditions.

This is an interesting result on its own right. The idea that justice requires prohibiting private schools is a controversial one for our societies. It signals a limitation most people (outside the academia) are less willing to accept than any limitation on human enhancement. So what looks as an argument for prohibiting private education could be turned into an argument for prohibiting enhancements, once non-ideal theory factors are factored in. Quite simply one may argue that:

1. access to germ-line enhancements leads to a fair society only if private schools are prohibited (or if parents stop sending their kids to private schools)

2. it will be much easier to make germ-line enhancements illegal than to make private schooling illegal (or to convince parents that they should not send their kids there)

3. hence a just legislator who takes into account the difficulty of enforcing norms that the public do not regard as fair would rather prohibit germ-line enhancements than prohibit private schooling



4 responses to “Germ-line enhancements and education.

  1. This argument begs the question in an obvious manner because it just assumes that enhancements will be available under free market conditions. Instead goverments may use enhancements to make people initial endowments more equal which (under fair access to education) will lead to higher equality overall

  2. Author: that is true. I actually have assumed (tacitly) that society endorses the principles of justice of Rawls theory. This principles tell society how inequality in income and wealth and access to careers ought to be regulated. For instande they require fair access to education, that is education which redues, rather than reproduces class barriers. But Rawls’ principles of justice won’t tell society how access to germ-line enhancements ought to be regulated. Or if they do, they give the wrong answer. In particular the principle of Fair Equality of Opportunity (FEO) does not require to equalize opportunity between people with different natural talents. Hence it cannot be used to justify a “more egalitarian” distribution of human genes. Neither does the difference principle,which only requires a distribution of genes to the maximal advantage of society’s worst off members.
    I discuss the matter here:

  3. I have an objection. In this argument concerning opportunity, genetic enhancement is a red herring. The real question is whether private education is compatible with fair opportunity or not. If it is compatible, then we ought to accept it today – even if it creates substantial inequalities – and in the future, where it will still continue to create inequalities. If it is not compatible, then we should simply ban private education. Without private education, parents won’t buy expensive enhancements that won’t be advantageous for their kids if they send them to public school.

  4. Reply to the objection.A couple of points. First of all, even if private education poses the same problems in both the pre-genrevolutionary and the post-genrevolutionary society, the possibility of enhancements changes the payoffs involved. In a pre-genrevolutionary society, for instance, part of the advantage due to private school is mere positional advantage, due to network effects and other non-intrinsic goods connected to elite education. This has important implications with respect to both the decision to prohibit it and to allow it. If we decide to allow it but we also have a well functioning public school system open to all, the competitive advantage of people who have access to public schools is quite limited. This is because both “network” and “branding” advantage, by their own nature are weak forms of advantage, that do not shield privileged children from competitors from less privileged social classes. Moreover the distorsions due to network and branding advantage can be attenuated by cleverly designed institutional “filters” placed in crucial junctions in the economy – e.g. hiring practices cleverly designed to minimize sensistivity to this sort of distortions. This means that in a pre-genrevolutionized society with a good and fair public school system, the inequality produced by private education is bound to be limited. On the contrary, in a post-genrevolutionized society the inequality produced by private education in conjunction with special genetic endowments can really be significant. The possibility of genetic manipulation which can boost REAL talent or even CREATE new, previously unthinkable skills, when combined with the appropriate form of training (that only the rich can buy), leads us to think that the effects of private education in a post-genrevolutionzied society could be more significant, long-lasting, and hard to attenuate by other means than the effects of private education as we know it today.

    With respect to the decision NOT to allow private education, the difference is that in the pre-genrevolutionized case there might be little to loose in prohibiting private education – at least if the goverment does ALL THAT IT CAN to improve public education. After all, beside network and branding effect, there is not much real advantage that private education could give to children, that a reasonably well funded public school system could not in principle deliver. But if part of children in the population are enhanced, things are different. There could be a lot that is valuable (leaving aside mere positional advantage due to network and branding effect) that would be lost by prohibiting private education, simply because under reasonable budget constrains the public school system might simply be unable to offer a service comparable to that which could be offered by a package of genetic+educational services delivered by private firms to rich parents.

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