Philosophical Interventions: Book Reviews, 1986-2011

By Martha C. Nussbaum | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
Review

ALLEN BUCHANAN, DAN W. BROCK, NORMAN DANIELS, and DANIEL WIKLER (2000), From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice


I

Katherine and Bill apply for the same management position in a large firm. Katherine’s application contains a genetic enhancement certificate from Opti-Gene, stating that the bearer has purchased a package of genetic services that improve memory and boost the immune system. Bill, who could not afford genetic enhancement, protests that hiring on the basis of genetic enhancement is a violation of equal opportunity. He insists that the job should be assigned on the basis of merit. Katherine replies that merit means that the position goes to the best candidate, and she is the best candidate, so what is the problem?

Our growing knowledge of the human genome will pose complex ethical conundrums. Some of them are extensions of familiar perplexities. Looked at in one way, the dispute between Katherine and Bill is not unlike problems of equal opportunity that we have debated for a long time. Had Katherine been healthy and mentally sharp owing to a middle-class upbringing, and had Bill been less so owing to poverty and unkind circumstances, each would have had defenders, in the familiar debate over the meaning of equal opportunity in a context of social inequality. Had it been clear that Katherine inherited her good qualities from her parents’ genes and Bill his defects from his parents’ genes, most Americans would have said, well, that’s who they are. But some determined egalitarians would have insisted that they do not deserve to reap any advantage from traits that they got by the luck of birth. They would have insisted that the job should probably still go to Katherine, but society’s general scheme of rewards and opportunities must be adjusted to give Bill extra support. Katherine’s talents are social resources that must be fairly used for the benefit of all.

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