Long time readers no doubt already know that I'm not much in favor of social justice as it is practiced and advocated these days. Just like Marxist communism or other forms of idealized socialism, the concepts sound great when presented in the philosophical abstract, detached from the process of actually running an implementation through the messy reality of human nature and human society. Unfortunately, in practice you wind up with things like the millions of deaths in the old Soviet Union, the sad state of Venezuela today, and in the wealthier and more successful parts of world, a substantial fraction of society who would read Harrison Bergeron as something other than satire. Charity is a wonderful thing. Forcing other people into your choice of charity with the threat of imprisonment and violence, less so. Similarly for dragging down the best and the brightest and the most entrepreneurial, those who are working to build the better tomorrow. If you press them into doing nothing more than supporting mediocrity and paying for the consequences of failure, then the future will be one of far more mediocrity and failure, not progress.
So that said, today I thought I'd point out Biologically Modified Justice, a book written by an academic who is very much in favor of both social justice and bringing an end to aging and age-related disease. I linked to his blog here and there back when he was writing regularly on the topic of longevity science; it was interesting to observe someone within a community traditionally hostile towards life extension - and to technological progress in general, for that matter - reconciling the urge to personal health and longevity with a doctrine that proclaims any such urge for self-improvement as somewhere between selfish and evil. A widespread view among many of the social justice community, insofar as we can put a single label on a very broad collection of diverse viewpoints, is that progress must start by raising up the weakest and poorest. Attempts to build new technologies always benefit the wealthy and the influential first of all, and are thus either viewed with suspicion or vetoed outright, even given the history of countless initially expensive technologies that rapidly became available for the masses at a low cost. Those who throw stones at the altar of inequality wish for a society more level, and often at any cost to progress.
Fortunately there are more sensible voices, such as the author of the book linked below, though I fear they often have little influence over what passes for the mainstream of thinking regarding social justice, and sensible or not, even their more polite views are still footsteps on the same road that led to the Soviet Union and Venezuela. Human nature and enforced equality are just not compatible housemates. Still, I think most of you would find Biologically Modified Justice an interesting read, regardless of your leanings on the optimal organization of human society. As the biotechnologies of human rejuvenation move closer to widespread availability in the clinic, we are going to see many new voices in favor of rejuvenation arise in communities that are at this time generally hostile towards progress and enhanced longevity. There will be numerous attempts to synthesize the urge to live longer, and the advent of the means to do so, with philosophies that presently reject that goal. These are interesting times.
Theories of distributive justice tend to focus on the issue of what constitutes a fair division of 'external' goods and opportunities; things like wealth and income, opportunities for education and basic liberties and rights. However, rapid advances in the biomedical sciences have ushered in a new era, one where the 'genetic lottery of life' can be directly influenced by humans in ways that would have been considered science fiction only a few decades ago. How should theories of justice be modified to take seriously the prospect of new biotechnologies, especially given the health challenges posed by global aging? Biologically Modified Justice addresses a host of topics, ranging from gene therapy and preimplantation genetic diagnosis, to an 'anti-aging' intervention and the creation and evolution of patriarchy. This book aims to foster the interdisciplinary dialogue needed to ensure we think rationally and cogently about science and science policy in the twenty-first century.
The idea that we could directly alter the biology of a person via genetic intervention, or develop an 'anti-aging drug', or utilize genetic tests for screening genetic diseases would have been considered pure science fiction just a few decades ago. And yet all of these prospects either have become, or might soon be, a reality. And as science progresses we may be able to promote the health prospects of the current generation (and all future generations) by improving our biological capacity to fend off infectious and chronic diseases. I began working on this book in the year 2000. That was the same year two rival teams were racing to sequence the human genome. As I began to follow the field of human genetics, and to think about the importance of science more generally, I realized that there was very little written by political theorists on these topics. Over the years the neglect of science, especially the biomedical sicences, began to trouble me more and more. It troubled me both as a teacher and as a scholar.
As a teacher I found it disturbing that my students learned about topics such as justice, freedom, and equality but did not really learn about the important role science and innovation play in helping humanity create more fair and humane societies. Current debates about distributive justice often give students the impression that justice only involves the distribution of wealth and income, or giving priority to basic liberties like free speech. But government decisions to stifle or promote basic and applied scientific research can also have profound impacts on our life prospects. What constitutes 'well-ordered' science? Would we know unjust science policies when we see them? Neglecting these issues comes with great peril, as many of the most pressing challenges humanity faces this century will require new knowledge and innovation.
Rather than simply extending existing theories of justice to encompass the new developments of the genetic revolution, I came to the conclusion that the genetic revolution that was unfolding around us required political theorists to re-think the basic premises of what the demands of justice are, as well as what we wanted or expected from our theories of justice. Can insights from evolutionary biology and genetics help the political theorist develop emancipatory knowledge about the kind of society, institutions, and culture we should aspire to realize in the world today? I decided to write this book because I believe the answer to this question is an emphatic 'Yes!'