Genetic Determinism At the Cost of Justice - Sites@Duke

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Dec 12, 2012 (4 years and 6 months ago)

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Genetic Determinism At the Cost of Justice

By Soroush Jamali Pour

Over the past few centuries, we as a

society have worked continuously
, if slowly, to
eliminate the harsh realities of arbitrary discrimination, from the abolishment of
slavery to the
granting of women’s suffrage.

Collectively, we have

determined these
forms of discrimination to be

u
njust, because they pamper only to the
subj
e
ctive and
irrational fears of
segment
s

of society, rather than respecting the basic rights of all
human beings.
In Andrew Niccol’s 1998 film Gattaca however, we see a new form of
discrimination in a new kind of society, in which genetic engineering has created a
new set of classes within society, based on the degree to which individuals have
been “improved” to have
more favourable genetic traits
,

from superior

health to
intelligence to beauty.

As the narrator states, in this society, “
We now have
discrimination
down to a science.”

(GATTACA, 1998)

While this society claims to
have discovered the ultimate meritocracy,
where people

are

judged objectively
against their genome, in reality,

this society is far from ideal
.
As argued in Beckley’s
“Capability as Opportunity: How Amartya Sen Revises Equal Opportunity”
,

by

removing the right to strive for the same high
goals as
o
ther individuals, a society

removes

an essential
component

of
true
justice


the
freedom

of opportunity
,
which
entitles all people to have an equal opportunity to earn any position within society
.

In fact, t
he reliance on the genome

as a measure of human
ability

is equally as
arbitrary as any form of discriminat
ion that is based on anything other than

an
individual’s actual actions and demonstrated abilities.

By determining the life path
of an i
ndividual by measuring him or her

against an arbitrary measur
ing stick

at
birth,

withou
t equal opportunity
for these individuals to prove their

worth
ot
herwise, this
sort of
society creates an inherent injustice

by violating the right of
freedom of opportunity.

Kirby argues further in
The New Eugenics in Cinema: Gen
etic Determinism and
Gene Therapy in "GATTACA”

than an injustice is committed not only against the “in
-
valid” citizens of this society who have not been genetically engineered, but also
against those that
have

been engineered, as they also face a predetermined life path
that they are expected to fulfill, again
a case of

individuals
being deprived
of the
basic right to determine their own life. In
apparent
contrast to these view
s
,
Rothstein
in his text
Genetic E
xceptionalism & Legislative Pragmatism

argues
for

genetic discrimination in certain contexts, rejecting the notion of “genetic
exceptionalism”

(Rothstein, pp27)
, where the gen
ome is considered to be

something
that must be excepted from all decisions regard
ing an individual. Rothstein argues
that in certain contexts, particularly in the pursuit of preventative healthcare,
genetic discrimina
tion is acceptable and even the fairest solution
, considering the
fact that individuals have

specific
healthcare

needs a
nd costs
based on their genetic
predispositions and
that the resulting
burden
then should not fall on the rest of
society.

Through the ethical and moral implications explored in these texts, we
determine that the social discrimination seen in Gattaca is f
ar beyond the arguably
just rejection of genetic exceptionalism discussed in Rothstein’s application of
genetic discrimination, and that by de
priving individuals of
freedom of opportunity,
the societal structure of Gattaca is inherently unjust.

As discusse
d in Beckley' interpretations of Amartya Sen’s concept of equality
and freedom of opportunity,
the society in Gattaca

is inherently unjust due to a

lack
of freedom of opportunity. Buckley states, “Justice requires ‘respec
t for the
attainment equality’
of t
hose disabled by naturally allocated deficiencies.”

(Buckley,
pp. 112)
In interpreting Amartya Sen’s philosophy, we see justice being defined by
the notion that “attainment equality”

(Beckley, pp.112)
, where an individual is given
an
equal chance to pursue

and compete for their desired life path, should be an
assured right, regardless of the natural abilities of the individual.

Sen’s philosophy
also contends that human ability is impossible to measure perfectly, because any set
measure would be entirely arb
itrary, “Nevertheless, a limited capacity to compare
the value of capability sets diminishes society’s ability to achieve fully equal
capabilities, even if policies could and should be implemen
ted to achieve this end.


(Beckley, pp. 117)

Directly quoting Sen, Beckley writes, “in many situations no clear
judgement can be made as to whether there is more equality [of capabilities] in
situation
a

than in situation
b
.”
(Beckley, pp. 116)
Therefore, in hoping to develop
“perfect” individuals th
rough genetic engineering, the society of Gattaca merely
picks one “capability set” over another. Most importantly, Beckley relates this to
Sen’s notion that this arbitrary selection of one “capability set” ultimately leads to an
individual’s loss of freed
om of opportunity in c
hoosing their own life path, “[The
choice of a capability set]

also resists the temptation to measure and equalize
capab
ilities intertwined with specif
ic goals, which we have seen would limit
persons’ latitude and responsibility to ch
oose and develop their preferred
functionings and goals. Thus, consent to unequal functionings also preserves respect
for the freedom and responsibility associated with equal opportunity.


(Beckley, pp.
117)

In the society of Gattaca, the genetic engineeri
ng of individuals leads to this
exact reduced

latitude


of opportunities. Vincent, through his genetic
predisposition at birth, must automatically resign himself to life as a cleaner or
similar line of work, with no freedom to pursue his own desires. In a

demonstration
of the strict genetic determi
nism and complete lack of

freedom

of opportunity

in
this society, the narrator states, “
"the best test score in the world wasn't going to
matter unless I had the blood test to go with it”

(GATTACA, 1998)
. Therefo
re, in this
society, freedom of opportunity as a basic right is violated on two separate fronts


firstly, through genetic engineering of individuals such that their genome at birth
automatically limits the freedom they have to choose their own life paths,

and
secondly, the societal constraints placed on the opportunities

of individual where

demonstrated abilities and character mean nothing in the face of measured genetic
traits. Thus,
justice and the basic right of freedom of opportunity, as advocated by
B
eckley and his interpretation of Amartya Sen’s work, is undeniably violated in the
society we see in Gattaca.

In
The New Eugenics in Cinema: Genetic Determinism and Gene Therapy in
"GATTACA",
Kirby considers the notion of
that in the society in Gattaca, th
e very
notion of “humanness”
(Kirby, pp. 199)
is linked to and ultimately thought to be
determined entirely by the genome, “the genetic
-
determinist ideology as a way of
defining humanness”

(Kirby, pp.199)
. While the concept of humanness and what
makes us h
uman is a hard one

to define, at the very least, we can be argue

that it
requires a far broader definition
than one based merely on genetic information
. Just
as identical twins with identical genomes grow up to be two distinct adults,
humanness and our

hum
an

nature can be clearly seen to be greater than simply the
sum of our genetic code. Buckley quotes Sen’s own belief in a broader definition of
what makes up a person, “variations related to sex, age, genetic endowments, and
many other features give us une
qual powers to build freedom in our lives”

(Beckley,
pp.119)
. By considering this broader definition humanness and human capability

beyond merely the genome
, Kirby
questions the notion that the society in Gattaca is
a meritocracy and therefore demonstrates

that like other forms of discrimination,
genetic discrimination is not objective but instead just another form of arbitrary
discrimination. We see the film strongly contending a similar idea by demonstrating
the drive and ultimate success of the protagoni
st, Vincent, who despite being given a
genetic prognosis for mediocrity and ill health at birth,
eventually
succeeds in going
to space on a Gattaca Corporation space mission. While he must disguise his real
identity and hide his genome to achieve this, the

fact that he ultimately has
every

capability to achieve this goal clearly refutes the apparent meritocratic determinism
of the society in Gattaca. Therefore, with the idea of a genetic meritocracy no longer
credible, we again realise that this form of dis
crimination is an unjust violation of
the freedom of opportunity of individuals to seek out and realise their goals if they
have the capability to do so.

Even more profoundly
, the
film
also explore
s

the
injustices
experience
d by

Eugene Morrow, one of the most carefully engineered “valids”

(GATTACA, 1998)

in
this society, “
[Eugene’s]

credentials are impeccable. An expiration date you wouldn't
believe. The guy's practically gonna live forever. He's got an I.Q. off the regis
t
er.
Bet
ter than 20/20 in both eyes. And the heart of an ox


(GATTACA, 1998)
. While
Eugene has been engineered to perfection, and is

therefore one of the few chosen
elite in his society, he

is
also extremely unhappy with his life and

we learn that
his
inability to

walk is a consequence of

a failed attempt to commit suicide.

Eugene
suffers because he was predetermined for perfection yet only achieves a silver
medal placing

in a swimming even
t
, and is therefore disillusioned with his entire
life.
By po
r
traying Eugene

in such a se
verely depressed state, the text

again
represents the massive burdens this society places

upon its citizens.
As the film
states
,

Eugene suffered under a different burden to invalids like Vincent, but a
burden nonetheless,

A 'val
id', a 'vitro'
, a 'made
-
man', [Eugene]

suffered under a
different burden, the burden of perfection


(GATTACA, 1998)
.

Clearly, b
y
taking
away the right to freedom of opportunity

and predestini
ng individuals to a life they
did

not choose, a
ll individuals suffer under thes
e

immense injustic
e
s

in this society.

In
Genetic Exceptionalism & Legislative Pragmatism
,
Rothstein explores in a
political and legislative context the
practicalities

of moving away from genetic
ex
ceptionalism

to forms of genetic discrimination,

whereby genetic information can
be legally considered in the context of health insurance

policies
.
He argues that by
ignoring genetic information, “Genetic exceptionalism undercuts this essential
reconsideration of the role of predictive health informatio
n in society”

(Rothstein,
pp.64)
, and that by igno
ring genetic information, we are

essentially
merely
risk
-
pooling

groups of people in order

to

be able to

ignore the very real consequences of
genetic information for the health status of individuals. He arg
ues that this has
occurred both due to the risk of genetic discrimination as well as misinformation,
“genetic information often carries stigma, and the misuse of genetic information has
led t
o eugenics, racism and genocide.”
(Rothstein, pp.61)
However, Rot
hstein also
argues that currently enacted and proposed laws can be largely ineffective,
“[Genetic exceptionalism] allows elected officials to avoid difficult issues by enacting
genetic
-
specific laws that seem to respond to a perceived new crisis, but in fa
ct offer
little or no protection and
may even be counterproductive.”

(Rothstein, pp.64)

Clearly, in the society in Gattaca, genetic exceptionalism does not exist, and the
genome is very much considered in every aspect of society. We have already seen
the s
evere injustices this causes in terms of the encroachment on the freedom of
opportunity that we reserve for all people. Also, in the film, we see a rapid
progression, from when Vincent is born with no genetic enhancement

at all,

to the
birt
h of his younger

brother
Anton a few years later, when Anton is

then is
genetically engineered to remove almost all of his possible negative traits. This
forces us to question the ab
ility of a society to start and then limit genetic
discrimination to

very specific context
s such as health insurance or predictiv
e
health as Rothstein contends.
The less broad but more specific genetic
discrimination laws that Rothstein proposes are also brought into question, because
in the society of Gattaca, gender discrimination is, to the
letter of the law, illegal, and
yet
, genetic discrimination

occurs constantly anyway, “
Of course, it's illegal to
discriminate


‘genoism’

it's called
-

but no one takes t
he
laws seriously.
” Therefore,
while Rothstein’s suggested forms of genetic discrimin
ation to the extent that he
proposes may themselves b
e arguably just when considered against

the societal
costs of ignoring predictive health information,
it
is
also easy to see how rapidly
these laws may lead to subsequent injustices as w
e as a society be
gin to feel
comfortable with the use of

genetic information in our consideration of other
human beings


from social encounters to employment opportunities to the
development of social classes based on genetic traits.

The society in Gattaca would justify t
heir social hierarchy

by claiming that
through the geneti
c identity of individuals, they
formed a just and fair meritocracy.
Yet as we have seen, a society that determines the lives of their citizens based on
their genetic information is
neither

objective
n
or meritocratic


it instead fails to
identify some of the key elements of our humanity, from our character, to our drive,
to our experiences and even to our current abilities that our genome did not seem to
predict. Much more importantly, such

a society
fails to provide
freedom of
opportunity for all individuals to determine their own future and is therefore
inherently unjust. And while arguments for fair use of genetic information exist, the
risk of becoming an unjust society such as that in Gattaca is
great, and therefore, as a
society
,

we must remain constantly vigilantly about how the implementation of
technology in our society affects the basic values and rights

that we
hold
in
our
search for

justice for all in our society.

Bibliography

Gattaca.

Dir. Andrew Niccol. Perf. Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and




Jude Law.
Columbia TriStar Home Video
, 1998.




DVD.


Kirby, David A.

The New Eugenics in Cinema: Genetic Determinism and Gene Therapy
in "GATTACA"
.
Science Fiction Studies, Vol.

27, No. 2 (Jul., 2000), pp. 193
-
215


Rothstein, Mark A.
Genetic Exceptionalism & Legislative Pragmatism.
Hastings Center
Report Volume 35, Number 4, July
-
August 2005, pp. 27
-
33


Beckley, Harlan
.
Capability as Opportunity: How Amartya Sen Revises Equal
Opp
ortunity
.
Journal of Religious Ethics

Volume 30, Issue 1, 17 December 2002,
pp.
107
-

135