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Ethics and Group Differences

James Damore’s memo at Google has raised issues about the ethics of  discussing differences between groups of people. People seem more certain than they should be about the issues raised.

“All men are created equal” is a social truth, agreed upon by a democratic society. “Some people are born with damaged brains or bodies” is another type of truth, subject to verification. Does “some people are born with damaged brains or bodies” have a bearing on the truth, “all men are created equal”?

Most people would say no. The reason is because “all men are created equal” is not a truth that is subject to verification. It is a normative statement, which means, “all men should be treated equally,” or “all men are equal in status and rights in the eyes of society (or God),” and reflects a cultural norm, rather than an empirical fact, subject to verification. “Some people are born with damaged brains or bodies” is an empirical fact, not a statement about a cultural norm.

An ethical issue can arise in genetic studies if a group of people has been labeled as genetically inferior by reason of their group belongingness, and exploring the truth of this assumption as an empirical question serves to further denigrate them. (On the other hand, if empirical studies show that the assumption and the label are incorrect, is this an equally egregious ethical violation?)

If it is a reality that there are genetic group differences, when is it ethical to study them? Suppose one group is more prone to a particular disease than another, or one group is particularly resistant to a disease compared to other groups. Is it ethical to study group genetic differences in these cases, especially if such an exploration might cure the disease? Suppose one group is taller or shorter or thinner or fatter than another. Is this fair game for genetic studies?  What if one group is faster, better at mathematical calculation, better able to carry a musical tune? Do we reach a limit at which the study of differences becomes unethical?

Is it right to say that to conduct a study, the results of which might reinforce social discrimination and thus jeopardize adherence to the normative statement, “all men are created equal” is wrong?  What if the likelihood is that the results will not confirm discriminatory prejudices and thus make it more likely that a group will be treated as equal?

Suppose that, given our current inability to conduct value-free research, i.e. research that is not influenced by social expectations and the results of which can be interpreted separately from social attitudes (e.g. that group differences will be interpreted as based on genetics, even with no evidence that this is the case or vice versa, that they will be treated a result of cultural prejudices, without evidence that that is the case), does this situation, which probably applies to much research on group behavioral variables, raise ethical concerns about doing the research at all? This might be similar to questions about doing research on nuclear fission when the likelihood is that the results will be used to make a bomb or research on genetic manipulation in embryos when the likelihood is that the results will be used to alter embryonic genes so that a child’s traits will be selected according to parental preferences.

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but they should demonstrate that the issue is not as straightforward as it may seem.

Reader Comments (2)

"All men are created equal" is referring to an equity of inherent human value or at least a uniform legal value of a person within a particular political system. It certainly isn't intended to convey the concept that all people are born with equal talents and/or equal deficiencies.

It is of course true that there are genetic differences in human groups. We can easily see the differences in skin tone, eye color, hair texture, eye and skull shape as well as height, weight and body proportion. These differences occur between the genders as well as in physical phenotypical traits associated with the triumvirate of human varieties.

It's certainly valid to study the differences within our varieties as long as we initially concede that the differences in question are minuscule when compared with the commonalities in total. Then, we are free to explore, for example, the effect of testosterone on the male fetal brain and question if this dynamic event decreases empathetic proclivity while simultaneously fostering a penchant and ability toward systematization. Even if this is found to be undeniable fact, and men in general are better equipped for STEM-related work, why would this be a problem? Scientific realities don't take a side in social or ethical issues; they simply exist and we are left to incorporate those truths into our society.

There are many vexing questions out there that have moderate scientific significance but a much greater impact on our desire to believe that the concept "all men are created equal" exists as some sort of universal declaration of equality between men and women or the varieties of humans. This is just a nonsensical childlike fantasy. Men and women adapted over millennia to perform different essential functions in the family and tribe. People of Africa adapted to survive in an African environment. People of Europe adapted to survive in a European environment. People of Asia adapted to survive in an Asian environment. Different skills and abilities were required to survive in each of these regions. It caused some slight genetic variation to accumulate over time. It's not wrong to state the truth about these differences. It is wrong, however, to place too much emphasis on these group dissimilarities when what we really need to be doing is understanding and evaluating each person on the merit of their individual abilities and the full scope of their moral character.

August 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

Good observations, Mark Wheeler. and of course equal is not equivalent to the same. It is always equal with regard to some status, in this case, having equivalent rights and privileges as equal members of the community of humans. This still allows human differences, whether related to individuals or groups.

August 12, 2017 | Registered CommenterCasey Dorman

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