The central ethical dilemma of the 1997 Andrew Niccol film Gattaca concerns the manner in which an individual ought to be judged. Should it be by the composition of his genome, present at birth, or by the attributes of personality and ambition that are chosen by that individual? In the futuristic society depicted in the film, genetic engineering allows for the elimination of almost all physical defects in newborns, whose bodily characteristics later render them far more favorable candidates for employment than those whose genes had not been enhanced in this manner. Eventually, interviews are conducted not to assess an applicant’s character and determination, but his genetic code. The even more fundamental question that arises from this is, “What determines the essential identity of a human being? Is it his genetic code, or is it something else?”
Vincent is a child born in the obsolete manner, and thus his genome is riddled with “errors,” from which high “probabilities” of him obtaining certain ailments later in life are inferred. Nevertheless, these are probabilities only, and Vincent is healthy, athletic, and yearns to one day explore outer space. Unfortunately, he is denied admission to Gattaca, the facility of the space program, on the basis of his genome alone. Despite his splendid knowledge of astronomy and navigation, the best test scores in the world will not admit him.
Yet Vincent is not content with the position of janitor, and “borrows” the identity of Jerome Morrow, a paralyzed individual with a superb genome. A series of complex procedures is designed to allow Vincent to pass all the substance tests and gain admission to Gattaca under the name of Jerome Morrow. Jerome may have the genetic endowment to enter Gattaca, but he lacks the will, and thus harbors no objection to Vincent taking his place. Another employee at Gattaca, Irene, had also been born in the obsolete manner, but her genome is adequate enough for her to be permitted to work on minor tasks. She suspects that Vincent may be connected with the recent murder of the mission director, who was about to uncover Vincent’s actual identity. In the process, however, she enters a relationship with Vincent, and faces the dilemma of whether or not to disclose his identity to the police.
Vincent’s brother, Anton, is the inspector heading the murder investigation. Throughout his childhood, he sought to demonstrate his superiority to Vincent by virtue of his enhanced genetic endowment. Nevertheless, Vincent had once saved Anton’s life in a game of “chicken,” where Anton’s body had failed him, while Vincent’s was able to endure. Anton wishes to maintain the image of his superiority and is immensely jealous of Vincent’s successful aspiring to the heights of outer space.
Vincent attempts to deceive the security systems at Gattaca by pretending to be Jerome Morrow and presenting samples of bodily substances prepared by Jerome for various examinations. In the meantime, he studies and works diligently, and his level of performance at Gattaca is precisely what is anticipated of a man with a privileged genetic endowment. Thus, only a few people ever come to suspect that Vincent is a “borrowed ladder,” a fabricator of his genetic identity. Vincent is set to depart on a mission into space, after which his individual merits will overrule his genome conclusively, and he will no longer be subject to genetic security tests. However, the murder of the mission director subjects Gattaca to a series of extremely intrusive investigations by police that threaten to uncover Vincent’s true identity and even arrest him for murder, even though Vincent is innocent of the crime.
Vincent’s tenacity and resolve to enter space ultimately allow him to successfully endure turbulent times. Despite a multitude of close calls, he is saved from universal detection, though he is recognized by Irene, whose personal admiration for Vincent overrides the fact that Vincent had broken the law. Anton also recognizes his brother and threatens to arrest him, still acting on his childhood jealousy. However, a final game of “chicken,” in which Vincent saves Anton once again, proves that Vincent’s defiance of the inferior expectations imposed upon him by his society has enabled him to exceed in his abilities individuals like Anton, whom societal expectations had favored. The doctor at Gattaca recognized Vincent’s individual merits and decided to fabricate a “valid” test for him on the day of the launch. To people like the doctor, Vincent has proved his worth and his genetic composition has become irrelevant.
Vincent’s course of action, though in violation of the law, was not in violation of moral principles. Vincent had harmed no one by his attempt to pursue his ambitions at Gattaca and in outer space; thus, his action exhibited the principle of nonmaleficence. His exploratory endeavors are of immense benefit to both himself and the level of knowledge available to the general society; thus, his action fulfills the principle of beneficence. His action was an exercise of his individual autonomy and right to self-determination in the face of a hierarchical culture that repressed these rights. Finally, his action attempted to allow Vincent to experience the just treatment that he deserved on the basis of his merits, and which, absent the action, would have been denied to him on the basis of his genome. Thus, the action fulfills the principle of justice.
A rational society would have resolved the ethical dilemma of the proper criterion of judging an individual by eschewing determinism altogether. Vincent should not have initially been seen solely as the product of his genes, for a man is born tabula rasa where the mind is concerned. The human genome determines only the structural mechanisms that exist in the individual organism. How the individual employs those mechanisms is a matter of pure willpower and determination. Few genes can conclusively determine an individual’s fate; a high probability of heart disease can be reduced by strenuous exercise, of the sort Vincent engaged in. A low “intelligence quotient” is no obstacle to an individual reading, comprehending, and applying immense volumes of material, so long as the interest to do so is clearly seen.
Vincent should have been admitted to Gattaca on the basis of a one-on-one interview process that tested his knowledge, physical skill, and enthusiasm for space exploration, for, without these, the finest genetic endowment can still produce a Jerome Morrow, a man who is paralyzed not only in body (by an accident) but in mind (by lack of ambition). The theory that fits this solution is principlism. Vincent is not harming anyone by pursuing his own favorite field of exploration; thus, the action is nonmaleficent. He is amply benefiting himself and others through his skilled endeavors in the realm of space exploration; thus, the action is beneficent. He is allowed to exercise his individual autonomy and pursue his goals, regardless of societal prejudices. And, finally, he is entitled to the same freedom of action and opportunity that other members of his society (the genetically engineered individuals) possess, which passes the test for comparative justice.