Friday, September 12, 2008

The perils of genetics

Laurence Boyce at Lib Dem Voice offers us a good argument that genetics is not irrelevant to the way we turn out, but that this raises fears, particularly on the left.
So why all the discomfort? Pinker sets out four “fears” that might make us hesitate in the face of what the science is increasingly telling us. These are the fear of inequality, imperfectibility, determinism, and nihilism. I can’t possibly do justice to all of these – you’ll have to read the book – but the fear of inequality is probably the one which most offends left-wing sensibilities.
There is a great deal of heat over the suggestion that genetic differences between groups would justify discrimination on the basis of group membership. It is clear to me that political equality is a moral principle, not a consequence of us being "born equal" in any sense. Clearly we are not born equal - genetic variation within groups is not disputed. Don't base a good princple on a false premise unless you are trying to oppose it.

But it is vital, one opponent of discrimination would argue, that we oppose the idea that groups may differ genetically one from another, because this would justify prejudice.

So far, so wrong. It is frankly stupid to judge any individual based on group memberships (sex, race, class, shoe size, which group do you choose?) whether there are group differences or not, because all group differences are swamped by individual variation within groups.

However, beneath this, there is some substance in the warning. If there is a genetic difference on average between two groups, this may explain different outcomes on average. This explanation may even be - or seem - sufficient to account for the whole difference of outcome, suggesting that there is no discrimination at work.

So what theories of genetic difference between groups threaten is not the moral principle that people should be treated equitably and on their own merits; rather it is the evidence that disadvantaged groups are indeed discriminated against.

How do we respond to this? Well I would argue that this evidence was never terribly good in the first place. It doesn't, for instance, deal with the likelihood that people with different group identities may make different choices on average. Buddhists may choose to become monks with no possessions and this does not mean that the economic system discriminates against Buddhists.

Much better evidence comes from blind controlled trials; from differences in hiring and marking rates where the name and picture of the candidate are not available. Unfortunately this is not always possible. Still, it is not as if it is any secret. I have heard an employer admit that he won't hire women because they might get pregnant. Others have said that they won't hire disabled people because they might get sued for some technical breach of a complex accessibility law. Is there really such a lack of evidence for discrimination that we must die in a ditch over the weakest of it? No.

Inequality of outcomes between groups is a red flag, it warns us that discrimination is likely to be afoot. We should then find that discrimination and try to stop it. In every case it is a crime against some individual - and if we begin to see it more like this and less as a crime against some group identity, so much the better. Ultimately, groups identities are artificial, and group outcomes don't matter, so long as all individuals are respected and not discriminated against.


Tristan said...

I disagree with your assertion that inequality between groups indicates there is likely to be (unjust*) discrimination at play. The indication could be that you have selected groupings which are different in such a way that the measure of equality shows this difference.
Its possible there's unjust discrimination, but is it likely? I hope not...

If there is a genetic difference on average between two groups, this may explain different outcomes on average. This explanation may even be - or seem - sufficient to account for the whole difference of outcome, suggesting that there is no discrimination at work.

This section however is 100% correct.
The problem is how to tell if that is the cause and if it isn't, what to do.

Personally I think the state should do nothing except ensure it is not supporting discrimination and that aggression is not occurring. Its up to those of us who are concerned about discrimination to argue against it and to fight it by discriminating against those who discriminate unjustly (withdraw our custom from them, picket them, try and persuade others not to work for them and others).

* unjustly is an important qualifier - we always discriminate, but usually its on grounds which make sense. Nick Clegg just discriminated against white people in appointing his advisers on ethnic minorities, but that's obviously just since they can offer better insight.
We discriminate against women in men's athletics, but again, female athletes cannot compete fairly with men in athletics, so we have separate competitions.
Unjust discrimination does occur though, although it is thankfully on the decrease and has been for a while. Its still a problem and I think what most people mean by discrimination...

Joe Otten said...

No I don't agree that prejudice (unjust discrimination) is unlikely. It would be hard, for example, to dispute a correlation between ability and social class or parental ability, but this does not mean that there is no prejudice around on the basis of social class, accent, "status"; there clearly is this prejudice compounding the effects of nature and nurture.

What can be done about it, and what the state should do, clearly is the $6 million question. I don't agree that prejudice in the private sphere is no business of the state. Prejudiced human resources bods are committing crimes against applicants and shareholders alike.

Of course you can't ban, or even often detect, a state of mind, and so the law is largely ineffective. You would face the same problem trying to combat questionable hiring decisions with consumer boycotts.

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