So I’m writing an article about liberal eugenics and all that, and I’m actually using Rawls. Here’s (a very rough draft) snippet:

American sophisticates usually speak of the significance of persons in terms of the theory of John Rawls. Rawls has become, many think, the political philosopher of our liberal democracy. Our friendly French observer Pierre Manent seems perfectly right that “Rawls does not qualify as a political philosopher,” because he “presupposes the validity, truth, and excellence of our democratic principles and institutions.” All he really does is “ingeniously tinker with parochial details.” What Rawls really claims to do is articulate with rigorous consistency what we free persons assume to be true.

Rawls claims only to articulate a “political liberalism,” but Christopher Wolfe is right to notice that his “political liberalism is really a comprehensive liberalism” based on the principle that there’s nothing worth knowing or protecting but the security and autonomy of every free person. His aim is to educate people on how to live comprehensively liberal or coherently personal lives, to help people in being personal—nothing more and nothing less—these days.

What Rawls and Rawlsian think they know for certain is both modern and Christian: All persons deserve equal respect, and that respect that doesn’t depend on their intelligence, moral excellence, or productive accomplishments. And no person can be used as a means to the better life of other person or as a mere part of some great whole (such as a country). That’s because the person is not fundamentally a natural or biological being; the person is free from nature in the way members of the other species aren’t. Every person is equally significant and equally irreplaceable. As rational agents responsible for who they are, persons are free, unlike the dolphins, to chart their own destiny and act morally. Rawlsians almost never think that anything they know is specifically Christian, and so they can or should think of themselves as post-Christians guardians of the personal insight about who we are.

That’s not to say that Rawls thinks that persons aren’t somewhat dependent on nature. He generally assumes that “the [inegalitarian] distribution of natural assets is a fact of nature” with which we are stuck. We persons have no choice but to work with what nature has arbitrarily given us. It’s certainly “not in the advantage of the less fortunate to propose policies which reduce the talents of others.” I don’t have more if you have less, and it’s senselessly self-destructive to reject anything any of us has been given by nature. But that doesn’t mean that each person’s natural abilities are his or hers to be used as he or she pleases; no moral being can affirm some absolute right to self-ownership. That’s because no person deserves—or has earned on his or her own—his or her lucky breaks in the natural lottery. We can and should regard “the greater abilities” some have “as a social asset to be used for the common advantage,” because what distinguishes me by nature is not, from a moral point of view, my own.

It would be better, Rawls almost suggests, if we, in the name of equality or justice, could redistribute what persons has been given by nature. But we can’t figure out how to take extraordinary mathematical ability from one person and give to another who’s numerically challenged in order that they both have equal quantitative skills. And it’s far from clear any person would really want that. It’s not in my interest to surrender what I’ve been given, and it’s not anyone’s interest to have no one around who excels in the skills required for science and technology—from which all persons benefit—to progress. From a personal view, we most of all want more than what nature has given us; it remains “in the interest of each to have greater natural assets.” Who would have no use at all for what we now regard as extraordinary mathematical ability? We persons really have two objections to impersonal nature—it’s both arbitrary and stingy.

That fact obviously has eugenic implications. “In the original position, Rawls explains, “the parties want to insure for their descendents the best genetic endowments (assuming their own to be fixed).” That means, of course, that a just society would aim to correct genetic conditions that undermine personal security and flourishing, and that would include providing genetic enhancements that promote personal success. We have to think of biotechnology in terms of making nature itself less arbitrary or more just and less stingy by raising everyone higher. The Rawlsian goal is to give every person equal access to an enhanced or engineered genetic endowment. We should do everything we can, Rawls says, to improve “the general level of natural abilities,” as well as “to prevent the diffusion of serious effects.”

The (sort of) Rawlsian legal philosopher, Ronald Dworkin, says straight out that we’re ethically commanded to struggle against blind or personally indifferent nature with our “conscious designs in mind,” “to make the lives of future human beings longer and more full of talent and hence achievement.” We must consciously redesign nature with the freedom and security of persons in mind. As David Schaefer observes, the Rawlsian moral “exhortation that we work to overcome the moral arbitrariness of nature” requires “the exercise of what the biologist Edward O. Wilson calls ‘volitional evolution.’” The more evolution is in our willful hands, the more it will serve (as it clearly does not in its impersonal, natural form) our personal purposes.

Until the possibility of genetic enhancement (especially after the sequencing of the human genome), we couldn’t take responsibility for natural inequality. And so we had to begin with the fact of what people have been given by nature—a fact that arbitrarily limited our personal freedom andr made our imperfectly free world imperfectly just. Rawls, of course, laid a value judgment on nature by articulating the duty of the naturally well endowed to the naturally unfortunate, but the unfortunate, unfortunately, were stuck with remaining somewhat unfortunate. Now we seem to have the responsibility to start thinking about changing nature to produce genetic justice—not by dragging anyone down but by raising everyone up.

Certainly, this possibility will weaken the libertarian (or Randian) position: I have a right to everything I’ve been given by nature and everything I’ve mixed my labor with or earned. I have no duty to the envious or allegedly “unfortunate” who want to drag me down. Surely my natural rights can’t include my ability use my property to make myself even more naturally better or more enhanced than others, and certainly we can’t have a few using money or influence to be able to engineer themselves out of the natural equality described by our Declaration of Independence.

How can we be devoted to the proposition that all men are created equal if we’re think of ourselves as free to creatively negate that fact? Personal or conscious and volitional evolution can’t be understood to be at the service of a few persons at the expense of others. It must be consistent with our belief that every person is equally significant.

Articles by Peter Lawler

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