Bill Clinton gave a speech at the anniversary of the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Citing the sequencing of the human genome, Clinton said: “Every non age-related difference (between humans) … is contained in one half of 1 percent of our genetic makeup, but every one of us spends too much time on that half a percent…That makes us vulnerable to the fever, the sickness that the Nazis gave to the Germans. That sickness is very alive across the world today.”
Here Clinton connects our moral worth to our genes- the Nazis were wrong that different people possessed different moral worth, because our genes are closely similar. He conducts the discussion on the terms adopted by Nazis and other racists (genes are the source of worth), but argues that because of the similarity of our genes, we are going to be of equal, or close to equal, worth.
For Clinton, it apparently isn’t just the fact of having DNA that confers moral worth; he doesn’t just point out that we all have DNA, he points out how similar our genetic makeup is. He implicitly accepts the premise that some genes provide greater moral worth than others. Yet if this is the case, it might just as well as not be the case that the morally important genes are to be found among the .5% of genes that differentiate us- in terms of race, intelligence, fitness or what have you. Once Clinton has agreed to debate on the Nazis’ terms, he finds himself with no way, in principle, of avoiding their conclusions.
Clinton himself notes that the human genome sequencing came after the opening of the Holocaust Memorial Museum. But the museum was created on the assumption that we already knew that the Holocaust was wrong. No subsequent scientific discoveries can truly add to or take away from that knowledge.
What is unclear about Clinton’s ethical system is how DNA itself, as distinct from the attributes they create (or, better, the sort of being of whose existence they are a necessary condition) is a source of moral worth. DNA is just a set of chemicals with certain properties; how you can derive any moral conclusions from it is utterly beyond me.
Compare Clinton’s speech to Obama’s on the same subject, which avoided any kind of reductionism. Obama spoke of “education that can enlighten used to rationalize away basic moral impulses,” acknowledging prescientific knowledge of morality. He spoke of “the scapegoating that leads to hatred and blinds us to our common humanity,” without suggesting that this humanity is reducible to component parts. He spoke of irreducible concepts such as “courage and resilience and dignity.”
Once you take reductionism to a certain point, you break things down past the point at which they have moral content. Why stop at genes? Why not attribute moral meaning to atoms, or to subatomic particles or what not? Then everything that exists takes on equal moral significance, which is to say none at all- you lose Don Quixote’s distinction between what is and what ought to be, which is basic to morality by definition.