Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Win Sharon’s Money 5: Bioethics, Sandel

So does anyone have an interpretation of this argument of Michel Sandel’s against genetic engineering *even when it’s feasible for adults to genetically modify themselves and if these opportunities are subsidized and equally available to all* which makes any sense? As usual, $5 to the first convincing answer.

“Why, after all, do the successful owe anything to the least-advantaged members of society? The best answer to this question leans heavily on the notion of giftedness. The natural talents that enable the successful to flourish are not their own doing but, rather, their good fortune—a result of the genetic lottery. If our genetic endowments are gifts, rather than achievements for which we can claim credit, it is a mistake and a conceit to assume that we are entitled to the full measure of the bounty they reap in a market economy. We therefore have an obligation to share this bounty with those who, through no fault of their own, lack comparable gifts.

A lively sense of the contingency of our gifts—a consciousness that none of us is wholly responsible for his or her success—saves a meritocratic society from sliding into the smug assumption that the rich are rich because they are more deserving than the poor. Without this, the successful would become even more likely than they are now to view themselves as self-made and self-sufficient, and hence wholly responsible for their success. Those at the bottom of society would be viewed not as disadvantaged, and thus worthy of a measure of compensation, but as simply unfit, and thus worthy of eugenic repair. The meritocracy, less chastened by chance, would become harder, less forgiving. As perfect genetic knowledge would end the simulacrum of solidarity in insurance markets, so perfect genetic control would erode the actual solidarity that arises when men and women reflect on the contingency of their talents and fortunes.”

-- from The Case Against Perfection http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200404/sandel

So far as I can tell he is intentionally ‘splitting the difference’ between two bad arguments. One argument says that the best and indeed only sufficient moral arguments for social services for the worst off depend on the fact that our talents are merely gifts. In this case if subsidized voluntary genetic engineering in facts stops peoples’ talents from being gifts of fortune then allowing it will indeed stop people from supporting social services but (by hypothesis) it will also bring an end to the moral need for social services! It is no argument against a policy that adopting that policy will prevent people from doing something they are now obligated to do, *by creating a situation in which they accurately realize that they are not longer obligated to do that thing*.

Maybe Sandel could try to work some magic with saying that having social services are always morally good, but would not be morally obligatory post genetic engineering and we want to create societies where people are morally obliged to do as many as possible of the things which would be good, but I can’t see this working. I mean, would it even be good for people to be taxed to support someone who refuses to undergo the (subsidized, freely available!) gene therapies they would need to make a living?

The other argument is that people *erroneously* feel that our moral obligations to provide social services come from the fact that talents are gifts of fortune so preventing genetic enhancement is a good propaganda move in that keeping talents a gift of chance makes people keep voting the right way for the wrong reasons. This is at least *some* argument against genetic engineering, but it’s a very poor one. It reminds me of the bioethics argument against human cloning, that if you choose to raise the clone of your dead husband as your child you might then be sexually attracted to them and find this awkward. Surely this isn’t an argument against cloning, but an argument for cloning with some kind of advisory/legal mechanism to say ‘hey, cloning your dead husband might make things awkward so don’t do it!’ Surely given the potential benefits of genetic engineering (to lifespan, human dignity in the face of senility and professional obsolescence not to mention all the environmental, medical etc advances that could come from improving human abilities) we can find another less costly way to make sure we act on our genuine, independently existing, obligations to the poor.

So, given that Sandel teachers here and whatnot (and of course given my ignorance about bioethics) I feel there must be something more going on here that I am missing. I am offering $5 to find out.

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