Monday, September 17, 2007

Taking People for What They *Really* Are (Part 2)

I wrote this post Friday afternoon while waiting for a flight from Montreal airport. But I’ve just been able to post it this morning:

Earlier today I gave my talk entitled “Genetic Justice: Where to Begin?” to the Montreal Political Theory Workshop at McGill University. Many thanks to Daniel Weinstock and Jacob Levy for their hospitality, and thanks also to those who attended the talk. I really enjoyed the question period. A diverse range of points were raised, and I really benefited from the helpful and insightful questions and comments.

Over lunch with Jacob he mentioned my last post , and asked me to elaborate on what I thought might happen if we really did take our biology seriously. So I thought I should write a few explicit thoughts down here.

Let me begin by stating that I really don’t know where things would take us if we invested more of our intellectual resources into these issues. This is why I love thinking about these issues (and why it is important that we rise to the challenge). But I do have a few hunches concerning what important insights might be reaped. So let me float a few ideas here.

I think the most important thing that taking our biology seriously would do is that it would compel us to re-think what the fundamental principles of morality and justice are. In other words, it would lead us to revise the content of the social contract in important ways—updating it to the realities of the 21st century. And I think that is a pretty good reason to take these issues seriously.

Why do I think such a profound impact would be likely? My reasoning is rather simple-this is likely to be the case because most of the principles and theories on offer have been derived by theorists who have not taken our biology seriously. They either ignored the issue by assuming all people fall within “the normal range” of functioning (and we all know what that means, don’t we?..) or that we could incorporate healthcare into the story of justice by expanding Dworkin’s insurance scheme to cover natural inequalities or simply expand Rawls’s principle of fair equality of opportunity, etc... and this would take care of any complications that might arise. I think that these potential routes are all misguided, primarily because they fail to take people for what they really are. That is, intrinsically vulnerable beings whose expected lifetime acquisition of natural primary goods will be influenced by a complex mixture of external factors (education, diet, lifestyle, etc.) and internal factors (e.g. genetic endowments).

If we take our biology seriously we realize that many different things influence a person’s health prospects. And adopting this “big picture perspective” will, I believe, had a profound impact on our moral and political sensibilities. It might, for example, bring to the fore the importance of the family as an institution. The home environment parents provide their children will greatly impact the physical and mental well-being of their children. From our procreative decisions, to the food we feed our children and their exposure to sports and friendship, the family should play a much more prominent role in contemporary discussions of ethics and justice than it has. And I think taking our biology seriously would help guard against the tendency to ignore or marginalise the importance of the family.

Taking our biology seriously might also show us that stringent *self-regarding* duties apply to us (to be pro-active about our health). This is something every family physician would tell their patients but yet it is something that remains largely absent from the moral landscape in philosophical discussions about ethics. Why? Because doctors, unlike most academic moral/political philosophers, understand how significant our decisions about diet, lifestyle, etc. can be, given the kind of species we actually are.

Following on from these various points…. I think we would realize that a division of labour is required and that this division of labour should receive a lot of attention (it terms of our illuminating what it is, its ethical, social and political implications, etc.). Some things the government can reasonably be expected to do it terms of empowering us to live better, healthier lives. It can help make our working conditions safe, our drinking water safe, implement a minimum wage, ensure there is fair access to basic healthcare and education, etc. And there are many things only people themselves can control (though perhaps the government can indirectly influence)- what we actually consume, our lifestyle, how we raise our children, etc. How we pitch this division of responsibility so that we are attuned to the realities and constraints facing governments and individuals is something we should spend more time pondering.

Another (related) consequence of taking people as they really are is that we would realize how much *perceived* feasibility constraints really influence our stance on what the fundamental principles of justice are. If we ignore the potential benefits of the genetic revolution, for example, then important science policy issues will simply fall off (eh, perhaps it’s more accurate to say would never appear on!) the radar of political theorists.

Anyways, those are a few tentative thoughts on why normative theorists should take people for what they really are. It would help us formulate a new, or at least more updated, social contract.