On a genetically distorted playing field

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On a genetically distorted playing field
Thursday 1 June 2000

We once thought that increasing prosperity would bring increasing equality. That was a characteristic of the post-World War II boom. But a distinctive feature of our current boom is greater inequality. Defenders argue that the boom and the inequality are connected: the economy is more efficiently exploiting and rewarding special human talent and energy. Maybe that's true.

If so, the two standard justifications for financial inequality become even more important. One is that a rising tide lifts all boats: the gap may be growing, but even those near the bottom are better off in absolute terms. The second is the notion of equal opportunity: we all have an equal chance in life, and what you make of it is up to you. No one believes equal opportunity actually exists, but many believe that the goal of social policy should be to get us closer rather than worry about unequal results.

But just as equal opportunity becomes morally more important, biotechnology is making it practically more difficult and logically more incoherent. Writing about this recently, I brazenly violated the Opinion League Code, clause 4(b)7 ("The opinion writer shall always have an opinion") by raising the problem and offering no solution.

I noted that almost everyone is in favor of outlawing discrimination on the basis of genetic tests (such as denying you a job if you're more likely than average to get cancer), but that discrimination on the basis of attributes that are at least affected by your genes (talent, good looks, maybe even - we are discovering - personality traits such as ambition) is a universal human experience. And discrimination of this sort is specifically essential to free-market capitalism. Tolerating genetic discrimination and trying to outlaw it are equally offensive. We need a line to draw - but I can't think of one.

There is a difference between not hiring a person because of what her blood cells look like under a microscope and not hiring her because of actual job qualifications that may result from a stew of genetic and other factors.

There is indeed a difference, but is it a moral difference? The great flaw in "equal opportunity" is the idea that we deserve individual moral credit for most of what determines our stations in life. Even if there were no genetic component at all, talents and values are partly inherited from parents, just like genes (or money), and partly absorbed from society. Discoveries in biogenetics don't really change anything. They merely emphasise how little we have control over who we turn out to be - even "the content of our character", in Martin Luther King's famous phrase.

Other thoughtful correspondents say genetic tests are unfair because they penalise many people based on invalid assumptions. Assuming someone is going to get cancer just because she has a higher genetic chance of it is like assuming women aren't tall or strong enough to be firefighters because on average they are shorter and weaker than men. We're comfortable outlawing the generalisation without forbidding fire departments from having reasonable job-related height and strength qualifications.

That's pretty good. But even in the firefighters' case the generalisation isn't statistically invalid. We find it morally repugnant, and we can outlaw it because you can test for what you really want in a firefighter - height and strength - so you don't need the generalisation. All you can test for genetically, by contrast, is a higher-than-average chance of getting some diseases. It's generalise or nothing. And would people really feel better if we allowed discrimination only against job-seekers who are 100per cent certain to get cancer?

My own conclusion - and I do have one this time, sort of - is that we ought to recognise the limits of equal opportunity and think harder about more equality of result. Calm down. This needn't mean radical income redistribution (though a progressive tax system is certainly desirable).

Typically, when we talk about fighting "discrimination", we actually mean replacing bad discrimination (based on race or sex and so on) with good discrimination (based on "merits"). Maybe the next phase of the struggle should concentrate less on which specific forms of discrimination are intolerable and more on where discrimination itself may be unnecessary.

Michael Kinsley is the editor of Slate (www.slate.com). This article first appeared in The Washington Post.


An interesting article to mull over, in a distorted sort of way.

Regards from OZ

-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), May 31, 2000


Soon, too soon our Brave New World Order will be here. First we map the human gene code (nearly done), then we manipulate the genes (genetic modification). With invertro fertilization, we build our firemen etc. You want your child to succeed, don't you? Why take the chance of him/her being the village idiot; worst a welfare case sucking on society for life. Screen for birth defects and promote euthanasia, Utopia is here.

This attitude will get sold over and over again starting with the childern in school and when the young grow up believing it's the right way then there will be no going back to 'natural' children.

Directions to Gattica please.

-- r (r.1@juno.com), June 01, 2000.

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