Let me preface this by saying that I’m not being critical of Rawls. I’m just using Rawlsians to clarify why sophisticated people think about being personal these days:

One scenario is that genetic enhancement might be regarded as no different from the way we now view elective cosmetic surgery—expensive and not covered by health insurance. The result might be the emergence of a “genobility” based on the obsolescence of the empirical foundation of democratic equality. The aristocrats of old thought of themselves as different kinds of beings from most human beings, but they deluded themselves. The new aristocrats might come to think of themselves as radically better because they are. They will have the power to get themselves the genetic right to rule.

As Alexis de Tocqueville points out in Democracy in America , however, we modern democratic persons refuse to defer to the privileged claims of aristocrats even or especially when they’re deserved. So Fukuyama concludes that “it seems highly unlikely that people in modern democratic societies will sit around complacently if they see elites embedding their advantages genetically in their children.” If all the significant social positions were occupied by children whose parents could afford expensive genetic treatment, and most people’s children had no significant chance for success no matter hard how they worked, then we might finally have the revolution that comes when most people think they have nothing left to lose. The Marxian prediction of the emergence of inexorable division of labor that reduced great mass of people to, relatively speaking, nothing would finally become true. But it’s highly unlikely that things will ever go that far.

Much more likely, of course, is the emergence of government programs aimed at making the current level of enhancement available to every particular person. “If banning biomedical enhancements would be foolhardy and if restricting their use to socially desirable ends would require a repressive police state,” Mehlman sensibly concludes in The Price of Perfection, “the only alternative is to make sure that enhancements are available, not only to the well-off but to everyone.” We now agree that “basic education” has become a right, because without it success is almost impossible. Why would at least “basic enhancement,” so to speak, be any different? In deciding what enhancements to make generally available, it make sense to say, Mehlman goes on, that “The government decision-maker might look to John Rawls’ notion of ‘primary goods’—those that every rational person should want.”

Maybe it will be easy enough to limit the universal genetic entitlement to what genuinely contributes to health, security, and autonomy on which rational agency depends. Because biomedical enhancement would spare many from the ravages of particular diseases and other physical disabilities, it can’t really be compared to cosmetic surgery. It should be covered, it seems, by any health care plan as easily the most effective kind of preventive medicine. And our children and our children’s children can be presumed to have consented to our species permanent, germline enhancement, if that becomes possible. Nobody can argue that any person would be better off with worse health or a shorter lifespan or fewer or weaker capabilities. We can, from a Rawlsian view, presume that consent from all future generations; persons will always be for changes to nature that make them more free, responsible, and rational. It would surely be personal exploitation to choose for dependence, debility, and every early death for persons whom we could allow to escape those indignities.

People still take unreasonable pride in their natural gifts, and the members of any meritocracy—even or especially a natural meritocracy—can’t help but often have an unreasonable sense of entitlement. Enhancement will serve justice both by equalizing those gifts and making it clearer than ever that being who we are depends on the conscious intention of other persons. Justice is served by eroding the sense of entitlement that the gifted now have to genes better than most. Maybe we can actually make ourselves better Rawlsians, as Rawls himself expects. The conscious pursuit of genetic justice will bolster the otherwise languishing social and dutiful dimension of personal or individual consciousness. The belief that our liberties and capabilities are the gift of a personal God has faded almost into insignificance, but now we have a new foundation—in a way both natural and socially constructed—for personal responsibility to other persons.

There is, however, another way of thinking about enhancement. Today, we don’t blame people all that much for being less productive than others. We know there are natural differences, and so we know that even if everyone were virtuous enough to be all that he or she can be outcomes would remain unequal. Our general, Hobbesian tendency to equate dignity with productivity—or personal power—can’t help but be moderated some by compassion or pity. It is also moderated some by our dedication to the proposition that all men are created equal, meaning that all persons are of infinite and irreducible worth. The equal significance of persons, only the most heartless libertarian denies, should be some limit on meritocratic inequality. It’s true enough, though, that we can already feel our productive meritocracy eroding our pity, and that’s why we’re more anxious than ever about personal productivity.

Today, we already see ambitious and loving parents using the available enhancements, most of all, to give their kids an edge in the competitive race that is life. Parents of very short kids use growth hormones to make their kids more fit for production and even reproduction. The mainstreaming of the ADD drug Adderall is all about keeping kids focused on personal success. Not only does it help them pay attention in mind-numbing classes, studies show it keeps the kids’ heads in the game that is the boring standardized test.

More generally, we see that the use of cosmetic neurology and cosmetic surgery so far is mostly about making oneself look younger and smarter, feel more positive, be more engaged and engaging, think more clearly, and remember more precisely. We can see that enhancement is mostly about enhancing the personal productivity that contributes to personal security. Personal safety requires a lot more than being healthy and avoiding diseases. Designing parents aren’t really, as some claim, trying to instrumentalize or commodify their kids in their own eyes. It’s because they love them as particular persons that they’re so paranoid about securing their contingent personal existence in an increasingly hostile environment.

If our genetic endowments were biotechnologically equalized, the race of life would become much tougher and more judgmental. Personal failure would be connected more clearly to one’s own lack of industry and dedication. And nobody would be smart enough to soar above others without trying very hard. The result might well be less pity for those who fall behind, and perhaps a greater sense of ownership of one’s success. “Nature or God didn’t give me my edge, I did” would actually make more sense than ever; people would have more reason than ever to take proper pride in what they’ve accomplished.

If everyone becomes pretty equally gifted, then gifts no longer make the difference. A person with an enhanced memory and powers of concentration still has to study. And if our physical capabilities we’re equalized, we’d still have to train to excel. How hard and smart a person studied or trained would make all the different (abstracting, for the moment, from environment).

In The Case Against Perfection , Michael Sandel writes, in (despite himself) a kind of Rawlsian spirit, that “if our genetic endowments are gifts, rather than accomplishments for which we can take 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 been given advantages that we did nothing to deserve, and they’re a chief cause of our productivity. “We therefore,” Sandel goes on, “have an obligation to share this bounty with those, through no fault of their own, lack comparable gifts.” Because a particular person doesn’t really earn all of his bounty, he must give share some of it with the unfortunately ungifted.

The engineering of genetic justice, of course, blows that sharing argument out of the water. Now that our gifts are comparable, why do we owe each other anything at all? John Harris in Enhancing Evolution gives us the good news that “enhancement provides more to redistribute”—overall there’s much more bounty because people are much more capable—“and less need for redistribution,” because there’s less need to act socially or politically (as opposed to biomedically/technologically) to correct the inegalitarian injustice of nature.

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Articles by Peter Lawler

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