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Arguing about justice

Axel Gosseries
Philippe Vanderborght

On genetic inequality

Hillel Steiner


Les théories de la justice distributive qui ont recours à une conception de type "égalité initiale" ("starting-gate") sont généralement critiquées pour leur incapacité à aller au-delà d'une égalisation éphémère: leur distribution initialement égale de la valeur des ressources naturelles se mue trop aisément avec le temps en des ensembles de dotations très inégaux, via l’exercice itératif par les personnes de leurs talents productifs, non choisis et fortement inégaux. Ce texte défend l’argument selon lequel une telle critique est réfutable dans la mesure où de telles théories peuvent étendre leur conception des ressources naturelles de manière a éliminer les inégalités non choisies de talents productifs

Texte intégral

  • 1 Other major sources of these inequalities are said to be bequests and inter vivos gifts. However, a (...)

1Critics of starting-gate accounts of egalitarian justice standardly object that the equality of holdings they sustain is, at best, a fleeting one: adult persons initially equipped with entitlements only to equal resources (including the liberty to deploy them as they choose) will soon find that their respective sets of entitlements have become unequal, and perhaps considerably so. This inequality is held to be due to several different kinds of factor, but undeniably the most salient among them is inequality of productive ability1 Persons respective levels of productive ability vary considerably, from the super-talented to the utterly disabled. If all persons are to be entitled to the fruits of their labour, the entitlements of the super-talented will, eventually, vastly exceed those of their disabled counterparts. And this differential is held to be unjust because – or, more precisely, to the extent that – neither those talents nor those disabilities are themselves results of choices made by their possessors. That is, they are not themselves the fruits of those persons labour.

2This objection is a valid one. Or rather, it is valid with respect to starting-gate theories that deploy an insufficiently inclusive conception of initially equal resources. A properly inclusive conception, I suggest, considerably diminishes the range of resultant holding-inequalities due to productive ability inequalities. And it does so by reducing those latter inequalities themselves. Why? How?

  • 2 At least, this is true of the injuries you caused that were reasonably foreseeable. Ive argued els (...)
  • 3 Most abilities and disabilities are, of course, joint products of two or all three of these types o (...)

3It seems reasonable to suppose that all the factors contributing to the production of persons’ ability levels fall into one or another of three categories: (1) the contributions made by those persons themselves; (2) the contributions of other persons; and (3) the contributions of Mother Nature. If I pursue a programme of vigorous physical exercise, the various abilities associated with the level of strength and endurance I thereby achieve are themselves the fruits of my labour. Conversely, so too are the levels of disability I incur through pursuit of a career as a couch-potato. If you supply me with piano lessons, the level of proficiency I thereby attain is a product of your labour: labour which you are entitled to bestow upon me as a gift or in exchange for payment. Conversely, if you injure me, the level of disability which I thereby incur is equally a product of your actions, and one for which you owe me remedial compensation2 And finally, if some of my abilities and disabilities are due to the ’actions’ of Mother Nature – are not due to factors supplied by myself or other persons – then …. what, if anything, follows about remedial compensation?3

Gametic Information as a natural resource

4A common view among starting-gate theories is that Mother Nature’s contributions to our productive activities should be shared equally by all. Not being products of anyone’s labour, not being results of anyone’s choices, it is entitlements to these natural factors that such theories distribute in equal amounts to all persons. In a fully appropriated world, that equal entitlement entails that persons who have appropriated or own a greater than equal share of those natural factors owe corresponding amounts of compensation to all those who have less than an equal share of them: if the total value of natural factors is 1000, and the total number of persons is n, each person is entitled to 1000/n of the value of those factors.

  • 4 This claim is neutral as between Darwinian evolutionism and Creationist accounts.

5Salient among the factors that contribute to the production of our ability-and disability-levels is the genetic information encoded in our genomes. Whether and to what degree we're predisposed to sing like Pavarotti, or set Olympic records, or cope with steep learning-curves, or react allergically to pollen, or contract cancer, or develop certain forms of schizophrenia, or undergo racist or sexist treatment at the hands of others, are at least partly determined by the genomic information controlling the construction of our bodies. This genomic information is itself the product of a production process – procreation – which, standardly, consists in combining the genetic information respectively born by two gametic cells (egg and sperm) contributed by those persons who engage in that process, i.e. procreators. And their gametic cell information was, in turn, a product of its counterparts in their procreators, and so on back, through each serially antecedent generation. In other words, gametic cell information is, standardly, not itself a product of human labour: it derives from non-human sources4

  • 5 Cf. Steiner (1994: 248-9, fn. 26).

6Not being a product of human labour, gametic cell information counts as a natural resource. And as a factor in the production of genomes, which contribute to the production of ability- and disability-levels such as those represented in the above list, it has a value. Presumably that value is some mathematical function of what persons would have to pay to acquire that ability-level, or to offset that disability-level, by non-genetic means. Procreators, in order to produce a genome, must appropriate this natural resource. The fact that it is a resource located within the precincts of sel-fowned bodies does not entail that it itself is owned – just as a geographic site’s being entirely surrounded by owned sites does not entail that it is an owned site5 And hence those procreators, as appropriators, must ceteris paribus compensate all other persons who are thereby denied the use of that information.

7Suppose that one couple, Alice and Bert, choose to combine respective bits of gametic information – A and B – and thereby produce an offspring, Able, who is possessed of a highly valuable genome: one which, if combined with a particular set of post-conception input factors (IF) – such as particular amounts of nutrition, education, medical care, exercise, etc. – would result in a young adult with a high level of ability. And suppose that another couple, Carol and Doug, combine respective bits of gametic information – C and D – and thereby produce an offspring, Infirm, who is possessed of a considerably less valuable genome: one which, if combined with an identical IF set, would result in a young adult with only a very low level of ability. In a two-family world, the requirement to share Mother Nature’s contributions equally entails that Able’s procreators will be compensators of Infirm’s procreators. Thus, if A and B are each worth 10, while C and D are each worth only 5, Alice and Bert owe 10 to Carol and Doug.

8One line of objection to this argument has been that, in procreating Able, Alice and Bert do not thereby exclude Carol and Doug from the use of that gametic information, since they do not thereby preclude the possibility of Able’s being cloned; hence they owe Carol and Doug no compensation (Curchin 2007: 490; Carling 1992: 94-96). But this objection is a non-sequitur. What’s true is that Alice’s and Bert’s procreation does not deny Carol and Doug the use of A and B, taken conjunctively: cloning Able to produce Able II is still possible. But what’s also true is that Carol and Doug are denied the possibility of using A and B, taken disjunctively: Alice’s and Bert’s act of procreation does preclude the possibility of the gametic conjunctions A + D and C + B. Accordingly, Alice and Bert would owe compensation to Carol and Doug. And, if that compensation is applied to the purchase of a superior set of post-conception input factors for Infirm, IF+, this would eliminate any ability-level differential between him and Able by the time they attain adulthood, when the further development and deployment of their abilities consequently become a matter of their own choices.

Implications of the Genetic Revolution

9That, at least, is how starting-gate accounts of egalitarian justice can reply to their critics today. But what about tomorrow? Tomorrow is when - due to what is often referred to as the Genetic Revolution – A and B may no longer be construable as natural resources. For over a vast swathe of the biosphere – including the human genome - the impact of this revolution is continuously to expand the domain of nurture and correspondingly to contract that of nature. And with the rapidly advancing techniques of genetic engineering, the prospect emerges of the genetic information loads of gametic cells being products of labour, objects of choice. Under those circumstances, the requirement that Mother Nature’s contributions be shared equally – and the consequent equalising compensation flows from the parents of the genetically advantaged to their disadvantaged counterparts – would no longer apply to procreation. Does this restore, to those critics, the ground they lost to the preceding argument?

10I think not. Recall that, today, the ability-level differential between Able and Infirm at the point of adulthood is eliminated through the application, to Infirm, of the IF+ purchased with the compensation paid to his parents. What is it that obliges those parents to purchase his IF+ with that compensation award, rather than using it, say, to purchase a round-the world cruise for themselves? Here, I think, we can simply invoke the sorts of norms that standardly pertain to custodial responsibility for the rearing of children: duties and powers that are designed to ensure that they undergo a developmental process such that minors reaching the age of majority are equipped to be moral agents, self-supporting, and so forth. Infirm’s parents using their compensation award to take a round-the-world cruise, instead of supplying him with IF+, would, pretty uncontroversially, be deemed to be culpably negligent and in violation of those custodial norms. In which case, they would owe him remedial compensation.

11Now, it’s not hard to see that, in the post-revolutionary world of gametic cell engineering, their failure to conceive him with gametic information that, when combined with the standard set of IF, ensures the occurrence of that aforesaid developmental process, can equally be construed as culpable negligence on their part. Accordingly, their so doing would – equally uncontroversially – amount to a similar violation and would similarly entail their owing him remedial compensation. In short, it is true of both the pre-and post-revolutionary circumstances, that such violations can plausibly be viewed as having damaged Infirm in ways that persist beyond the point of his attaining adulthood, and that therefore warrant the payment of compensation sufficient to undo the adverse effects of that violation on his ability-level.

12Hence, in a world that is fully compliant with starting-gate theories’ division of nature and with the standard norms governing parental conduct, the primary source of inequality between persons’ entitlements is neutralised. So, contrary to the claims of their critics, the equality mandated by starting-gate theories need not be a fleeting one.



BUCHANAN, A., BROCK, D., DANIELS, N., & WIKLER, D. (2000), From Chance to Choice: Genetics & Justice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

BURLEY, J. (ed.) (1999), The Genetic Revolution and Human Rights: 1998 Oxford Amnesty Lectures, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

CARLING, A. (1992), ’Just Two Just Taxes’, in Ph. Van Parijs (ed.), Arguing for Basic Income, London & New York: Verso, 94-96.

CURCHIN, K. (2007), ’Evading the Paradox of Universal Self-Ownership’, Journal of Political Philosophy, 15: 484–94.

HARRIS, J. (2004), On Cloning, London: Routledge.

KITCHER, P. (1996), The Lives to Come: The Genetic Revolution and Human Possibilities, New York: Simon & Schuster.

STEINER, H. (1994), An Essay on Rights, Oxford: Blackwell.

STEINER, H. (2009), 'Responses', in M. Kramer, S. de Wijze & I. Carter (eds.), Hillel Steiner and the Anatomy of Justice: Themes and Challenges, London & New York: Routledge, 242-244.


1 Other major sources of these inequalities are said to be bequests and inter vivos gifts. However, at least some starting-gate theories – those deploying the Will Theory model of rights – are well placed to deny the possibility of a just right (strictly, power) of bequest, cf. Steiner (1994: 249-258). As to inter vivos gifts, the inequalities they create cannot, in principle, worsen the comparative position of any third party – anyone who is neither donor nor recipient – since, while they entail that she is worse off in relation to the recipient, they also entail that she is better off, and to the same degree, in relation to the donor; cf. my Responses, in Kramer & al. (2009: 242-244).

2 At least, this is true of the injuries you caused that were reasonably foreseeable. Ive argued elsewhere that those other-caused injuries that are not reasonably foreseeable are attributable to Mother Nature and should consequently be redressed by her owners; cf. my Responses, in Kramer & al. (2009: 249-250)

3 Most abilities and disabilities are, of course, joint products of two or all three of these types of contributing factor, and it is the function of countless researchers in numerous fields – especially the social- and bio-sciences – to discover the nature and relative proportion of the contributions made by each of them.

4 This claim is neutral as between Darwinian evolutionism and Creationist accounts.

5 Cf. Steiner (1994: 248-9, fn. 26).


Hillel Steiner is a Fellow of the British Academy, Emeritus Professor of Political Philosophy in the University of Manchester, Professor of Political Philosophy in the University of Salford, and Research Fellow in the Justitia Amplificata Centre for Advanced Studies (Frankfurt). He is the author of An Essay on Rights (Blackwell, 1994) and co-author of A Debate Over Rights: Philosophical Enquiries (Oxford U. P., 1998, with M. Kramer & N. Simmonds). His current research projects include ones on the concept of ’the just price’ and the application of libertarian principles to global, and to genetic, inequalities.

© Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2011

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