Monday 26 November 2012

The luck of ancestry

A letter by Maurice Winter in Cambridge Alumni Magazine, issue 67, Michaelmas 2012, commenting on an article in issue 66, includes the following: "Luck is of fundamental importance to all sportspeople. Take Usain Bolt. It is pure luck that his parents provided him with the genes that built him in the way they did".

One reading of that, which may very well be the reading that the author intended, makes it straightforwardly true. We have different genetic endowments, and the result is that many of us would never be able to keep up with the best in sports, however hard we trained. But there is another reading, and it is one that draws our attention to the question of what kind of luck may be said to be associated with ancestry.

The reading is that the future Usain Bolt was there, before conception, waiting to be assigned genes, and perhaps waiting to be assigned parents. On this reading, it was pure luck that the genes that made great sporting achievement possible fell to him, rather than to someone else, or to nobody.

It is certainly pure luck that this particular combination of genes came together in a human being at all. When two people have a child, with a particular genetic make-up, there are many other genetic make-ups that could have been embodied in a child of the same parents, but that were not so embodied.

But this does not mean that we should accept the picture of a future Usain Bolt, waiting to be given a genetic endowment. While the term "Usain Bolt" now has a referent, it does not have any referent in temporal slices of the world that come before his conception. There is a connection with Kripke's thoughts on a person's being essentially the person made from that particular sperm and egg. They could not be that person until the relevant sperm and egg had come together. It is the coming together that makes the operation of a Kripke-type criterion of identity possible. Quine's slogan, "No entity without identity", has a use at this point.

If we are not to accept the picture of a pre-conception Usain Bolt, it was not luck that Usain Bolt had his genetic endowment. It was luck that this genetic endowment was embodied, but not luck that he got it. And we should not be distracted by the (probable) fact that only his parents could have given precisely that endowment to a child. Again, it was not luck that he was conceived in that family, rather than in any other. He did not exist, in any sense, until conceived.

So much may look obvious, once it has been said. But it is worth thinking it through, in order to understand the nature of the luck that is involved in inheritance.

I would not draw any conclusions about what to do. These thoughts might make it illegitimate to say things like, "It is most unfortunate that X got saddled with those genes", in a sense that would imply that X could have had different genes. Someone with different genes would not have been X. But these thoughts would not make it illegitimate to say things like, "Someone with X's genes finds life tougher than the rest of us, so we should make special provision for X, offer changes to X's genes (when that becomes possible), and so on". That is, there is no ground here for a fatalistic conclusion that people should simply live with their genetic inheritances. Nor is there any ground for an anti-welfare-state conclusion that we should not care for people with genetically based difficulties because those difficulties are so bound up with what makes them who they are.

Now let us consider an area in which we are free to vary a basic mechanism that determines a significant consequence of parentage, in a way that we are not free to alter the mechanism of genetic inheritance. There are still some hereditary monarchies left around the world. The next monarch is whoever happens to have been born to the right couple, and in the right place in the order of their children. No-one from any other family has a chance. Let us assume for the sake of argument that it is appropriate to have a lifetime head of state, and let us confine ourselves to constitutional monarchies on the modern European model, to avoid having to discuss the evils of absolutism and of arbitrary rule. Is a hereditary system unfair? Would it be fairer to have an elected lifetime head of state, a modern-day Doge of Venice?

There is a sense in which it is not unfair to have a hereditary monarchy. No-one can say, "I was excluded from that position by the luck of my parentage", because no person could have had different parents from those that they actually had. Anyone with different parents would have been a different person.

On the other hand, it is not possible to say, "The hereditary principle is as good as any other, because we need to pick someone, and a lottery would be fair, and picking whoever has the right parents is equivalent to a lottery". One cannot say that, because it is not as if we were all there, pre-conception, waiting to be allocated our parents at random. That is, we were not participants in a lottery, so the analogy with a lottery would break down. Anyone who wanted to maintain that the hereditary principle was as good as any other, would have to find some other grounds for that claim.

Finally, the lack of a certain sense of unfairness about the hereditary principle would not prevent one from putting forward other arguments against its use.

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