Lately we’ve been discussing some of the ethics around genetics and embryo selection. One question that comes up in these debates is - are we claiming that some people are genetically inferior to other people? If we’re trying to select schizophrenia genes out of the population - even setting aside debates about whether this would work and whether we can do it non-coercively - isn’t this still in some sense claiming that schizophrenics are genetically inferior? And do we really want to do this?

I find it clarifying to set aside schizophrenia for a second and look at cystic fibrosis.

Cystic fibrosis is a simple single-gene disorder. A mutation in this gene makes lung mucus too thick. People born with the disorder spend their lives fighting off various awful lung infections before dying early, usually in their 20s to 40s. There’s a new $300,000/year medication that looks promising, but we’ve yet to see how much it can increase life expectancy. As far as I know, there’s nothing good about cystic fibrosis. It’s just an awful mutation that leads to a lifetime of choking on your own lung mucus.

So: are people with cystic fibrosis genetically inferior, or not?

The case for yes: they have the cystic fibrosis mutation. Having the cystic fibrosis mutation seems vastly worse than not having it. Surely if “genetically inferior” means anything at all, it means having genetics which it is vastly worse to have than not have.

The case for no: if you say ‘yes’, you sound like a Nazi. Or at least you sound like some sort of callous jerk who hates people with cystic fibrosis and thinks they’re less than human and maybe wants to kill them.

(Some people will object that nobody is “genetically inferior”, because “inferior” means “worse in every possible way”, and nobody is worse in all ways - maybe the person with cystic fibrosis has a gene for great memory or something. But first of all, if we come up with a contrived example where this isn’t true - eg identical twins who have exactly the same genes, except one has a somatic mutation causing cystic fibrosis - I’m still reluctant to say the mutated twin is “genetically inferior”. And second of all, this isn’t how we use the word “inferior” anywhere else - we might say that eg a Yugo is inferior to a Cadillac, even if the Yugo is better on some trivial dimension like having a slightly longer tire life.)

So I think there are two different questions here.

  • “Do you think cystic fibrosis is a genetic condition which it is bad to have?” is a question that bioethicists might ask in order to discuss a medical or epidemiological course of action.

  • “Do you think people with cystic fibrosis are genetically inferior?” is a question journalists might ask in order to trick people into saying a naughty word so they can cancel them.

There’s no shame in answering two totally different questions differently, so you should answer “yes” to the first and “no” to the second.

This is also how I feel about genes for schizophrenia and genes for low IQ. Or rather, it’s possible - as an empirical claim - that there might be something good about these genes, in the same way there’s something good about the sickle cell anemia gene. But if it turns out that the scientific question of whether they have advantages resolves to no, then I think the scientific-bioethical question of “are these genes bad?” resolves to yes, and the people-trying-to-trick-you-into-using-naughty-words question of “are the people who have these genes genetically inferior?” resolves to “Haha, you can’t trick me into using the word that lets you write an article calling me a Nazi.”


But I still think there’s a deeper question here, of why questions about inferiority seem so compelling. A local Twitter account has gotten popular by posting this text with a different picture every evening:

Source: @VividVoid_

This message clearly resonates with a lot people. But what does it mean? There are certainly people who are better than me in all the usual measurable ways. I have a friend who is smarter, richer, more attractive, more charismatic, and better at helping others than I am. Let’s call him Lance. Am I inferior to Lance?

One possible answer is the one I tried to close off above - probably I’m better at Lance at some trivial thing. I’ve probably memorized more 19th century poetry than he has. If we define “inferior” to mean “inferior in literally every way” then I guess I’m not inferior. But that’s a kind of dumb way to define it. Most people would interpret it to mean “inferior overall, if we add up all the good things and bad things according to some kind of importance-weighting”.

Another possible answer: I’m inferior to Lance in all normal quantifiable ways, but we both have equal value as human beings. I’m not sure this one is true either, at least not for any meaningful definition of “equal value”. Suppose we’re both trapped on a crashing airplane and there’s only one parachute? Who should get it? I think any reasonable person would give it to Lance, since we already agreed he’s better at everything (including improving the lives of others) than I am. I would give it to Lance in this situation. So if a judge should choose to save Lance over me, in what sense do we have “equal value”?

Another possible answer: we’re both equal before the law. We both have equal rights. This seems . . . really unsatisfying? It’s a claim about the US legal system. “The US legal system has decided not to disprivilege you in court cases.” Why am I supposed to feel cosmically reassured by this decision?

Another possible answer: fine, in every real world test we can dream up, Lance is superior to me, but there’s still some utterly unreachable and indefinable metaphysical sense in which we’re both equal before the throne of God or something. This feels to me suspiciously like the position I mocked in The Whole City Is Center.

The best that I can do is to appeal to the argument above about genetics. There are - you could say - two different questions here:

  • “Is Lance taller / smarter / faster / stronger than I am?” is a question that I might ask to (for example) assess my chances if I were competing against Lance for the same job.

  • “Is Lance superior to me?” is a question that my inner journalist might ask to trick me into canceling my own soul.

The problem with claiming that Lance is superior to me isn’t that he isn’t. It’s that it indicates I’m asking the wrong question, in order to make myself miserable. Just as the correct answer to “are schizophrenics genetically inferior?” is “haha, you can’t trick me into using the word that lets you write an article calling me a Nazi”, the correct answer to “am I inferior to Lance?” is “haha, you can’t trick me into using the word that lets you make me depressed.”

(as the old saying goes, everyone has someone who’s better than them and someone who’s worse than them, with two exceptions. And any system where only one person in the world is allowed to feel good about themselves at a time is a bad system.)

At least that’s as much sense as I’ve ever been able to wring out of this question. Good night and you are not inferior to anyone.