Justice & Talent

Updated: Apr 10, 2018

Review of: ‘Silver Spoons and Golden Genes: Talent Differentials and Distributive Justice’ (1999) by H Steiner In ‘The Genetic Revolution and Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1998’, ed. Justine Burley. (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

‘Silver Spoons and Golden Genes: Talent Differentials and Distributive Justice’ is a 1999 article written by Manchester’s own Emeritus Professor Hillel Steiner. It constitutes a thought-provoking and explorative piece on an under-discussed, oft-avoided topic in distributive justice. Political theorists have flooded libraries for the better half of a century with discussion of which factors in life should influence our well-being and position in society, and which ought to be considered arbitrary. Rawls (1971), for instance, puts considerable effort into the case that fair equality of opportunity requires mitigating the influence of social contingencies. Yet, comparatively little ink has been spilt in the discussion of an arguably much more influential factor: natural talent.

Upon reading it, I found Steiner’s work to be fascinating in virtue of two main insights it uncovers. The first regards the role distributive justice may have in addressing differentials in natural talents, and what rights we may have in this area. The second is what it reveals about the connection between the advancements of modern science and the study of justice and responsibility.

Of course, people aren’t simply born immediately able to do calculus or dunk a basketball – effort is among a plethora of factors integral to the realisation of the propensities we are born with. Natural talents are just that – propensities, or dispositions towards certain capabilities, and ‘nature vs nurture’ is still an important empirical question. But, if we perceive any influential difference in the propensities people are born with, there appears to be a problem. How can we reconcile the view that our lives should be influenced only by what we can control with the fact some are better off than others simply in virtue of genetic endowment?

For Nozick (1973) and many others, the guiding principle here is self-ownership. When we have a right to ownership of our bodies and all that comes with it, it seems implausible to claim that what comes from our talents can be owed to another. Steiner however invokes the notion of personal identity to motivate the initial position that talent is not distributable. When our genetic information (and the abilities it brings) are an integral part of what makes you you (as they are the necessary product of the cells that create our identity), to say that you could have had a different information set is untenable, for that person wouldn’t truly be you. If person A is defined by their genetic makeup, then to alter that makeup is to actually produce a distinct, new individual – person B - rather than simply improving person A. But, Steiner asserts that this ‘pre-revolution’ judgment does not hold in light of modern scientific advancements.

His central move is to invoke the impact of the ‘genetic revolution’ on the responsibility judgements we make regarding inherited natural abilities. He writes that the ability to control and shape genetics that has developed over recent years tells us that the genetic characteristics and dispositions we receive are not so much a lottery as previously perceived. We now know mankind to have an element of control over the genetic information children inherit, and, therefore, over the natural abilities they possess. Also, we are now able to say that one may be the same person without holding one particular, defining set of genetic information – our specific genetic information is not a necessary piece of our identity. Whilst one must be conceived from a particular set of cells to be that person, the control we have on genetic information means that we can be the same person as we are now even if we were born with different genetic information.

So, what does this tell us about responsibility and justice? A guiding intuition in the study of moral responsibility tells us that where there’s control, there’s responsibility – so we are right to think someone may, in some sense, be responsible for the natural talents (or lack of) that we inherit. Steiner draws this out to its extreme (and somewhat dystopian) interpretation to elicit this phenomenon. If I inherit, say, a restrictive lack of intelligence, and my parents failed to alter my genetic information prior to birth to remedy this, is there a case to be made for their contributory negligence to my lack of talent? Could I even sue them for lost earnings? On our past understanding of genetics, when the natural abilities one inherited were seen wholly as a matter of luck, such behaviour would seem insane. Who exactly would I sue? There appears to be no perpetrator or negligent party when my being wronged in this way is simply a result of the genetic lottery. However, now that my inherited abilities appear to be controlled by another, at least in a weak sense, there appears to be potential for a tort against me when that other has damaged my life chances.

At this point, the reader will probably rightly observe that this line of thinking seems unrealistic regarding the extent of control an ordinary parent could ever have over a child’s genetics, and undesirable regarding how genetic alteration could ever reasonably enter a parent’s duty of care. The whole notion seems problematically eugenic and puts undue pressure on parents to manipulate their child’s biology. But, it tells us something vital about the evolution of our understanding of justice. As science develops, we constantly uncover elements of control we have over things in the world that we previously thought were simple consequences of nature. This expansion of control also expands the remit of justice; distributive justice, and how we go about achieving it, may only cover the goods in people’s lives that are controllable and therefore distributable. Distributive justice is concerned fundamentally with the fair distribution of life’s benefits and burdens – and how fair it is that a person gets so much of something. When we discover that we can start to control how much of something someone has (e.g. natural talent), it becomes distributable – and justice becomes concerned with these quantities. The more control we discover ourselves to have on the world, the more of the world is under the remit of distributive justice.

The position Steiner arrives at is one advocating the (distant) potential for a right against ‘genetic disablement’, and elsewhere (2009) undertakes a deeper discussion on the redistribution of talent. Very few have come close to a view that talent may be a redistributable asset, and this paper is one that takes that view from a particularly intriguing angle. Whatever one’s intuitions regarding whether we deserve to control the use of our talents, Steiner’s piece is certainly thought-provoking. It approaches the issue from a different angle to Rawls (1971) who takes talent to be a resource under common-ownership as a consequence of his egalitarianism, and to Dworkin (1981) who attempts to conceptualise a fair distribution while avoiding the ‘slavery of the talented’ via the ‘envy test’. Steiner (2009: pp.5-8) provides supplementation to this view that is certainly worth reading. This piece in particular however is especially ‘against-the-grain’ and gives us some brilliant insights into the nature of justice.

Dworkin, R. (1981). ‘What is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources’ in Philosophy and Public Affairs, 10(4), pp. 283-345. (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Nozick, R. (1974). ‘Anarchy, State & Utopia’, re-published 2013. (New York: Basic Books).

Rawls, J. (1971). ‘A Theory of Justice’ (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Steiner, H. (2009). ‘Left Libertarianism and the Ownership of Natural Resources’ in Public Reason 1(1), pp.1-8. (Bucharest: Centre for the Study of Rationality and Beliefs).