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Genetic enhancement and the point of social equality

Debates about future technological developments, and their social acceptance or rejection, frequently involve claims that these developments will challenge equality or that their emergence will be inconsistent with egalitarian political aspirations. Sometimes it is difficult to get clear exactly what argument is being put here.

For example, it is frequently claimed that the benefits of new technologies will be disproportionally available to the rich, and so (it is suggested) are not morally permissible and ought to be suppressed. Attempts at suppression would most likely involve the enactment of criminal prohibitions, but there are other ways for the state to flex its muscles, such as by refusal to grant patents for certain categories of inventions, the imposition of burdensome taxes, and so on. The relevant powers of the state go far beyond the criminal law.

Can’t the rich do anything?
The obvious rejoinder to such egalitarian arguments is that very many things are disproportionally available to the rich - think of fine wine, good grooming, fashionable clothes, fancy cars, piano lessons, international travel, and opportunities to meet famous or beautiful people - so should all those things be suppressed by the coercive and other powers of the state?

If yes, then the conversation is at an end. Someone pushing this line may be invincible in argument, as is anyone prepared to bite all possible bullets. In that case, though, the position being put is sufficiently radical to have no practical prospect of influencing policy. I see no need to deal with the merits of such a view (at least not here). If the answer is no, a further question is raised as to what distinguishes, say, access to genetic enhancement from access to all the other good things mentioned in the previous paragraph.

The question is not merely rhetorical - there may well be reasons why we can be relatively relaxed about allowing the rich disproportionate access to fine wine, international travel, and so on, while still worrying about genetic enhancement. However, to understand what those reasons are, and how far they should concern us, we need a theory to help us decide what sorts of things are and are not dangerous, or otherwise wrong, to place in the hands of the rich.

My approach so far has already ruled out the kinds of radical egalitarian theories that deny the rich differential access to any good things at all (and thus, in effect, deny that anyone should ever be allowed to become richer than anyone else). That is all to the good. Apart from the fact that such theories have no practical political prospects, they are far too demanding. They rule out all economic competition between human beings as morally impermissible. That immediately contradicts the almost-universal intuition that at least some degree of economic competition is okay, that it is more a question of what limits it should have. Those limits will based on a theory about the point of applying a degree of social pressure in the direction of economic equality.

Okay, so we need to find ourselves a plausible theory of social justice.

Democratic equality
Enter, stage centre-left, Elizabeth S. Anderson’s account of what she calls “democratic equality” (in the journal Ethics, 1999). Anderson is critical of the luck egalitarianism that is prominent in much recent political philosophy since the publication of Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. Instead, she seeks to ground a conception of equality in political opposition to oppressive hierarchical relationships between persons in a society. Within inegalitarian societies, she says, “Those of superior rank were thought entitled to inflict violence on inferiors, to exclude or segregate them from social life, to treat them with contempt, to force them to obey, work without reciprocation, and abandon their own cultures.” (page 27)

For Anderson, egalitarian movements oppose hierarchies of this kind, denying that there are natural aristocrats and slaves, seeing all persons as moral agents (with no gradations of moral agency, so they can be described as “equally” so) who are able to exercise moral responsibility, cooperate with others, and pursue a conception of their good. Egalitarians in actual political movements seek a society without oppression, one in which all individuals stand as equals in public discussion - which means having the ability to participate, having views listened to and answered respectfully, and not having to bow and scrape or represent themselves as inferior. (pages 27-28)

The goods that must be available to all citizens are those that are required to make possible an egalitarian society in this practical sense. Thus, according to Anderson’s account, it is not required that all individuals be brought down to the same level of wealth, or that the cosmic injustice (if so it can be called) of differential natural talents be eliminated, or its outcomes nullified. Something more modest, but also more apt for political mobilisation, is called for - essentially ongoing action to stop oppressive social relationships.

All this, of course, is still somewhat idealistic. Do we have to give respectful attention to literally anything that someone might put to us in political debate, no matter how irrational or illiberal? Perhaps not. But Anderson’s theory is clearly not meant to be interpreted in a literal-minded way. At a more theoretical level, she quite rightly does not deny the obvious fact that people vary in both talent and moral virtue. However, she does appear to rely on the dubious claim that we are all equal in moral worth because we have an equal capacity for moral agency. It is difficult to see how that claim can be either a conceptually necessary truth or an empirical fact, so what else it can be that compels us to accept it (is it a kind of moral prescription, a transcendental presupposition, a useful fiction, or what?)?

Nonetheless, the ideal of social equality that Anderson argues for is something that it makes sense for us to embrace as individuals and as members of societies. By and large, we do indeed work on the prima facie assumption that adult citizens are capable of distinguishing right from wrong, shaping their own lives, and so on, and that all should be under a set of common responsibilities in their society (e.g. to obey the law) and should enjoy a broad range of similar rights. It is one thing, we might naturally think, to allow a level of economic inequality as a result of competition and an element of luck; it is another to expect someone in a modern society to internalise a sense of her own inferiority, or to act outwardly as if she did. We want a society (don’t we?) in which all citizens are entitled and able to stand up for ourselves, and their beliefs and values, with a proper pride. In the absence of something like a theory of divine rights for the aristocracy, or of the sub-humanity of some categories of people, any contrary ideal is untenable. This way of putting it lacks the Kantian ring that sounds throughout Anderson’s article, and it may not give her all the foundation for democratic equality that she wants - but I think it gives her all she needs.

Democratic equality as described to this point might seemingly amount to no more than political libertarianism, since libertarians grant human beings equality in something like the same sense, without developing any moral imperative to equalise wealth or constrain economic inequalities. However, Anderson persuasively suggests that more is required than libertarianism is prepared to grant. For example, a society based on democratic equality will not allow relationships of oppression to develop, even if they are freely chosen (for example, if someone willingly sells herself into slavery) or emerge without official backing. Such a society will not allow individuals to become outcasts, or an underclass to develop, no matter how this comes about. (page 35)

Anderson relies on the capability approach of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum to add more flesh to the conceptual bones of democratic equality (for her exposition, she references Sen’s Inequality Reexamined). According to this approach, there are various states of being and doing that constitute a person’s welfare and her goals for how she will live her life - e.g. she may want to be physically fit, play soccer, enjoy sex, raise children, and so on. These states can be called “functionings”. A person’s capabilities are the functionings that she is capable of achieving, given her circumstances and resources. In other words, capabilities measure a person’s positive freedom to achieve valued functionings.

As described by Anderson, democratic egalitarians seek to equalise certain capabilities. The question is which capabilities should they focus on. Her answer is those capabilities that are needed (1) to avoid oppressive social relationships and (2) to enable people to function as equals in a democratic society - the distinction between (1) and (2) is fairly subtle, since these negative and positive aspects of democratic equality will often, though not always, demand the same thing. (page 35)

From this starting point, Anderson develops a rich description of the range of capabilities required for each of us if we are to live as equal citizens in a society that lacks oppressive social relations. From what seems at first to be a relatively unambitious conception of social equality and its point, she expounds a detailed agenda for social democracy. This is all to the good. What we seem to need is a theory that will not castigate us morally for any attempt at all to pursue our own economic good in competition with others, but will give due recognition to what we find attractive about movements for equal rights and political efforts to provide a strong socioeconomic safety net, while offering some substantial guidance on public policy.

Importantly, Anderson emphasises that what is required is not identical functionings, or even capabilities, for everyone. What is required is universal access to those capabilities that we each need in order to stand as equals with others in our respective societies. In some cases, this may involve strict equality (as in each of us having one and exactly one vote); in other cases, something different may be appropriate.

How much equality do we need?
This theory leaves the degree of economic equality required within a given society somewhat indeterminate - it will have to be a matter of inquiry just how far economic equality is needed in Society X to achieve the goals of the theory. Once everyone has a fair chance to bring themselves to a certain basic level of wealth, sufficient to obtain a range of important capabilities, including the ability to take part in public activities without shame, it may not matter greatly if some individuals in Society X are at a considerably higher level than most. The important thing is to ensure that this additional wealth cannot be used as a weapon to create oppressive relationships of dominance and subordination.

While the theory of democratic equality is attractive for its mix of idealism and realism, in what seem intuitively to be the right places, it also promises to offer plausible answers to questions about emerging technologies and new social developments. For example, would differential access to genetic enhancement be socially acceptable? Yes, the theory should say, as long as this is not likely to result in oppressive relationships or the kind of inequality among citizens that the theory rejects. (Unfortunately, whether that will happen is a further question, a difficult empirical one, but no political theory ever comes with ready-made, all-things-considered recommendations for every situation to which it might be applied.) Is it morally required for the state to make genetic enhancement available to everyone? Not necessarily - but yes if the point is being reached where this is a practical requirement for participation as an equal citizen (in the general sense described above) in a democratic society.

An approach based on democratic equality is, I think, compatible with theories that emphasise the need for social cohesion or preservation of the social contract. All these related ways of looking at the issue stress that, on some futuristic scenarios, relations within a society may become strained, or oppressive, or may even begin to break down.

Whether differential access to a new technology, such as genetic enhancement, is likely to cause any of these undesirable social effects requires empirical investigation and a great deal of practical thinking in the absence of clear data. Meanwhile, there is no need for us to rely upon any unrealistic and unjustified theory that requires us to eliminate luck, prohibit all wealth differentials, or rectify cosmic injustice. Such theories outrun the concerns that underlie real-world campaigns for equal rights; the proponents of these theories miss the point of social equality.


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Russell Blackford
Russell Blackford Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, an attorney, science fiction author and critic, philosopher, and public intellectual. Dr. Blackford serves as editor-in-chief of the IEET's Journal of Evolution and Technology. He lives in Newcastle, Australia, where he is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.

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