Equality without Freedom: When Genetic Determinism Meets Progressivism

In her recent book The Genetic Lottery, Kathryn Paige Harden makes flawed assumptions about the nature of moral agency and generalizes about how people value social status.

Few topics are as controversial as behavioral genetics, at least to the partisans of political correctness. We are learning more every day about the effects of genes on human traits and the makeup of human societies. Intelligence has a genetic component, and hierarchies in modern, meritocratic societies reflect some stratification by intelligence. In her recent book The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, Kathryn Paige Harden warns against what she fearfully describes as the potentially eugenicist implications of this new research. In her view, too many seem motivated to use this knowledge to justify patterns of inequality as natural and inevitable.

The outcomes of behavioral genetics can and should inform how we think about politics, but they can’t dictate precisely how we should organize ourselves politically. There is a range of different positions acceptable under its findings. But Harden, a psychologist at the University of Texas, takes up a rather anomalous position. Although she knows and accepts that genes do affect a person’s social outcomes, she agrees with the progressives who deny that science, out of concern for its possible racist and eugenicist implications. Harden argues that DNA drives social outcomes, not that she might justify racialized science, but to make the moral case that we must eliminate genetically-determined social differences as much as we can.

Being a scientist does not necessarily make one a good political philosopher. In her book, Harden makes flawed assumptions about the nature of moral agency and generalizes about how people value social status. Her account also lacks any incentivizing forces to sustain the altruism on which her political recommendations depend. For politics to be sustainable, it must accept basic facts about how human beings work. Harden’s determinism betrays her refusal to heed such basic facts.

Freedom and Moral Responsibility

Harden’s ideological position is especially on display late in the book when she describes a conversation she had with her children, after driving by homeless people living under a freeway underpass. Her children ask the questions any children might ask their parents in such circumstances: Why are they living there? Why don’t they have a house to live in? Why do we have a house to live in?

Harden rules out in advance the perfectly defensible answers some parents might give: Perhaps the men have made bad choices. Or they might be unwilling to do the work that is necessary to earn money and pay bills and keep a house. She reasons that genetic factors determine the personalities and capacities of these individuals, and therefore they cannot be held responsible for their actions. They are homeless wholly due to matters beyond their control, Harden suggests.

There are a few problems with this argument.

First, it reflects an unsophisticated view of moral responsibility. Total free will is hardly the only basis on which to erect a social system that produces different roles and outcomes for its members depending on what they do, or do not do, in their lives. In nearly every real-life situation, individuals have some degree of decision-making power, however restricted, even if factors outside the individual’s control significantly determined the path that led them to that moment.

Will I go to school today or will I not? Will I take something that is not mine when the opportunity presents itself, or will I refrain from doing that? Will I respond in anger to a given situation, or will I endeavor to control my temper? Full agency, the freedom to do whatever I might desire, is not necessary to act or to be reasonably judged responsible for action. It is enough that I can take one or another of the paths presented to me in contingent situations.

That such choices are possible is proven by the fact that people with nearly identical backgrounds and experiences daily face very similar situations but make different decisions. Those decisions naturally give people different experiences and social outcomes.


Complex Motives

The second problem is that Harden incorrectly presumes to know what all of those homeless people want.

We can shed more light on this situation by doing something she does not do in her anecdote. What if we asked them how they became homeless? I had an opportunity to do just that in my early twenties, when for a little more than a year I worked in a homeless shelter. I talked with many such men (it was a male-only shelter). Some of them clearly were brought to their situation by unfortunate experiences, despite having previously lived just like people who have never been homeless.

But some told me, perfectly lucidly and intelligently, that they did not want to live in the world that people like me lived in. They were ambivalent toward or outright rejected our daily responsibility to get up and go to work; pay the landlord, the grocer, and the credit card company on time, raise our kids, and be full members of our communities.

One of them I will remember for the rest of my life. He was a man in his fifties who had come to Ohio from California on a train, just as in the old days of hoboing. His name was Sheldon. He was startlingly bright and very clearly possessed at least as much innate intelligence as I. He had read broadly. He told me matter-of-factly, though with a kindly look on his face, that he thought people like me were dupes: we had been caught up in a game we could not win. He preferred his freedom—living on the street, coming now and again into a shelter to shower and sleep on a bed for a few nights, then venturing back into the urban wilds. He told me that he deserved and desired no pity from anyone. He would not even make a moral case for the necessity of shelters like the one in which I worked and which he occasionally used. He was happy it was there, to be sure, but he said he could live without it. Shelters existed because of the misplaced sense of moral responsibility of silly people like me, who were not content to let free men live free lives.

Sheldon was perhaps the most extreme example of this type of homeless person that I knew, but he was far from the only one. Harden gives no indication that she realizes that Sheldon and others like him exist, but they certainly do.

Evolutionary Science

Finally, Harden’s view contradicts some basic economic and evolutionary principles.

She balks at the parent who might invoke the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians to answer her child’s question: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” But she fails to answer the objection that society must adhere to some version of this maxim, however mitigated and conditional, if it is to last for the long run. We have good scientific evidence of how free-riding works, and we know that failing to inhibit it inevitably means it will increase. Once it reaches a certain level, it presents an unbearable stress on the economy and society.

Even more problematic is how Harden seems to reject one of the basic premises of the evolutionary theory behind genetics itself.

Harden answers her children’s question, about why they live differently from the homeless men, simply by saying, “We are lucky.” Others are not so lucky, Harden tells them, but their bad luck should not make them homeless. In fact, their homelessness is really our fault. They are homeless, ultimately, she writes, because “we adults don’t always share enough of our money so that everyone has a house.”

With more experience, Harden’s children might have answered their mother’s assertion with more questions: “How much are you sharing, then, Mother? How much of your paycheck goes to men like those in the underpass? Is it ‘enough’? By what measure of ‘enough’? Is the amount you share with people like him at all comparable to how much you spend on us, your children? If, as is a near certainty, it is not, how do you justify that, especially given your commitment to equity and your understanding of merit and luck that you just communicated to me?”

Harden scarcely considers such questions. She ends with a final parenthetical question from her daughter—“Why do people have selfish in their heart?”—and gives no answer. The question is left to stand there, presumably as a moral rebuke to all of us.

As a psychologist with knowledge of evolutionary theory, Harden must know what the answer is: We have “selfish” in our hearts because a creature that did not look, all other things being equal, to its own survival before the survival of other, biologically unrelated individuals around it, would long ago have disappeared as a genetic type. This is a long story in the details, but it can be briefly summarized: This alleged “selfishness”—which includes the desire to see to the well-being of our close kin before we dedicate significant resources to the well-being of strangers—is one of the primary aspects of our biological makeup. It takes extraordinary forces to move it, however imperfectly, toward cooperation, self-sacrifice, and love beyond our family circle.


Religion and Altruism

Religion is one of the most effective of these forces. Indeed, without religion, without some recognition of an obligation we might have to others that exceeds biological, evolutionary, material reality, it is not clear how a society could exercise real altruism. Harden wants a world that would need religion to exist and succeed.

But like many academics on the left, Harden in her book is silent about religion’s positive effects, doubtless because of her own stance toward it. According to a recent profile in the New Yorker, she was raised as a southern Evangelical but later “grew disillusioned” with her family’s faith and “rejected much of her upbringing.” And yet she makes clear in that profile that her political vision began with her childhood Christian education: “I thought we were following a social-justice ethos in which the meek shall inherit the earth.”

Like many other contemporary progressives, Harden seems not to see how the Christian vision of social justice that they admire is inseparable from the other tenets of Christianity. Those include the belief that we are responsible for our actions, and that we need to learn freely to exercise that responsibility well, more than we need socioeconomic well-being. Without that higher vision of human life, the political vision expressed in The Genetic Lottery hasn’t a prayer of being realized.

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