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