Frank Pasquale’s post on “college application packaging” at Prawfsblawg, which Frank describes as “an instance of a larger phenomenon: the rise of primarily position-enhancing information, not useful intrinsically, but only as a means of besting others in competition,” gets picked up by Orin Kerr. Comments on both posts reflect a healthy dose of distributive justice concerns. In my mind I connected them to last Sunday’s NYT piece on who turns out to be a world-class soccer player:

“I think the most general claim here,” [Anders] Ericsson says of his work, “is that a lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it.” This is not to say that all people have equal potential. Michael Jordan, even if he hadn’t spent countless hours in the gym, would still have been a better basketball player than most of us. But without those hours in the gym, he would never have become the player he was.

The link, in other words, is baselines. What is the “natural” position that any of us do or should find ourselves in — whether competing for places at Harvard, or home run records, or spouses or mates — and why should we suppose that the distributive consequences of that allegedly “natural” distribution of characteristics are any more fair than the distribution that results post-SAT prep, or post-steroid, or post-Lasik surgery, or even post-hoursandhoursofdisciplinedpractice? Was it ethical for Tiger Woods to have his eyes lasered? This is hardly a new question. Steven Johnson has written about it, though I coudn’t quickly find a link. Questions about Kaavya Viswanathan’s admission to Harvard raise, perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not, some far greater dilemmas.

2 thoughts on “Baselines

  1. Even before Steven Johnson there was Aldous Huxley. Not to mention the Brave-New-World derivative movie Gattaca, in which I think the implicit ethics was that the technically beta-grade Ethan Hawke character was entitled to cheat at least a little to hand out with the Grade-A Uma Thurman character. Or something like that. I guess Hollywood rules aren’t binding in other jurisdictions.

  2. Your point on “the baseline” makes a lot of sense to me–perhaps acknowledgment of such a baseline should precede any discussions (like mine) of unfair advantage. If person A is born with a low IQ, but rich parents, and person B has the opposite, is it really fair to deny A the chance to use his parent’s wealth to equalize his chances at admission with that of B?

    I’d say yes, for two reasons:

    1) Commodification of advantage (and resultant leveraging of advantage in one “sphere of justice” (ala Walzer) into other fields) helps solidify hierarchies and sets everyone on a rat race for more cash.

    2) The purpose of the university is to develop good minds into great and magnanimous ones, capable of understanding society’s (and their employers’) problems and motivated to solve them. Intelligence matters here; having a lot of money (at 18) is not usually connected to either capability.

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