Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Genetics and Ethics Textbook (Post #2)

In this new textbook I am writing on genetics and ethics I employ a virtue ethics analysis of the issues. One of the early chapters details the limitations of invoking principles for tackling the social consequences of the genetic revolution (or any practical predicament).

Over the course of the next few posts I will detail 4 principles adopted by moral and political philosophers to reveal the potential problems they face in terms of enhancing our exercise of practical reason, especially if one is tempted (as I certainly was when I started thinking and writing about these issues) to apply these principles to guide our thoughts on the prospect of genetic intervention.

(1) Peter Singer, The Principle of Preventing Bad Occurrences
(2) John Rawls, Two Principles of Justice
(3) Robert Nozick, Principle of self-ownership and the slogan: "Liberty Upsets Patterns"
(4) Precautionary Principle

In this particular post I will limit myself to a brief discussion of Singer's principle.

Singer invoked this principle to raise awareness about the problem of global poverty. But one could see how the principle might be employed to mitigate the vulnerabilities of the genetic revolution. Let us re-hash Singer's principle and the famous child drowning case.

The principle of preventing bad occurrences maintains: If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.

Singer asked us to contemplate a now famous thought experiment to demonstrate the normative force of this duty to aid. The example concerns a child who is drowning in a shallow pond. You are walking past the pond and notice the distressed child in need of assistance. The child is not your child, nor is the child a compatriot. They are a citizen from a distant and far away country. Nevertheless, the child is a human being in need of assistance. If the only burden to be incurred by saving the child is getting one’s shoes and trousers wet then there is, argues Singer, a stringent duty to save the child.

Singer then drew an analogy between the example of the drowning child and global poverty. The rich living in the developed world have a stringent moral obligation, he argued, to donate a significant amount of their income to help those living in poverty in distant lands. Singer’s argument spurred much debate on the demands of global justice, a topic largely ignored by philosophers before Singer’s article. Questions like “Do national boundaries have any ethical significance?” are still debated over forty years after Singer’s original article appeared in print.

But invoking the principle of preventing bad occurrences (or a duty to aid) is not, by itself, very helpful in terms of the practical guidance it provides us with. This is not to suggest that appealing to principles has no legitimate role to play in our moral deliberations. Invoking general rules or principles can help us adopt a “bird’s eye perspective” of the moral landscape. However, I believe there are also significant limitations in relying too heavily on moral principles or rules. Most of the bad things in the world, including global poverty, are infinitely more complex and complicated that the example of helping a drowning child in a shallow pond. How do we ensure the actions we undertake to redress poverty actually help others, rather than just wasting our time and energy or, even worse, making the situation even more dire (as can conceivably happen in the case of providing foreign aid)?

The problem of global poverty is not simply, or even primarily, a problem of the rich not donating money to the poor. But it is hard not to form that impression form Singer’s original article. The central moves in Singer’s moral argument are (1) to invoke the principle of bad occurrences, then (2) to link that principle with the badness of poverty, and then (3) to conclude that the solution to this bad is for the rich to donate more money to foreign aid.

Suppose we ran a similar moral analysis to buttress the case for mitigating the genetic lottery of life. Imagine the child in need of assistance was not drowning in a shallow pond. Instead, the source of the threat of the child drowning was internal to her. The child was born with cystic fibrosis (CF), a genetic disorder which impedes the normal functioning of lungs. Left untreated, a child will in effect “drown from within” as the condition fills the lungs with fluid.

In the 1970s a child with CF had a very low life expectancy at birth. Typically a child did not live more than just a few years. However by the 1990s things had improved. The median age of survival for a child born with CF in Canada was nearly 32 years. And that increased to nearly 50 years by 2012. However, a life expectancy of 50 years is still 30 year less than the average in Canada. Inheriting the genes for CF has a profound impact on the life prospects of a person. Dying from CF, like dying from poverty, is a bad thing we should seek to prevent if possible. So why not make the Singerian moves (1) and a modified version of (2) which focuses on the harms of genetic disease, and then conclude that people should be donating all their resources to creating a gene therapy for CF, until the sacrifice risks something of comparable importance to developing CF?

One of the central limitations of invoking the principle of preventing bad occurrences and applying it to one specific form of badness (be it poverty or CF) is that the world has many bad things about it that need to be addressed. So invoking the principle itself doesn’t help us determine how to prioritize among the plurality of problems (i.e. bad occurrences) we need to address, nor does it bring adequate attention to the realities that different kinds of intervention will be more risky, or costly, or effective than other forms of intervention. I believe a shift to the virtue of benevolence and acting from phronesis (practical wisdom) will help remedy these shortcomings. In the next post I will detail some of the problems facing the adoption of the principles in 2-4 to the topic of genetics.

Cheers,
Colin

Friday, September 30, 2016

International Day of Older Persons (2016)



Saturday is the International Day of Older Persons.

The concern for the health and happiness of older persons is something close to both my professional and personal life, so I offer some thoughts on the significance of the this day, invoking the parlance of political philosophy!

My Quick Take on this topic: Justice requires we treat all persons as free and equal citizens, and this duty applies to persons at all stages of the lifespan, including the post-reproductive stage of life.

My Expanded Take: The world has made great (but admittedly uneven) progress in reducing early life mortality. A baby born into the world today has a life expectancy of 71.4 years. This is humanity’s most amazing success story- we have escaped what we can call the “Young World”, a world where most humans died before reaching middle age. Such was the fate of our species for 99.9% of our species’ evolutionary history. Now we have reduced the extrinsic risks of death and disease to a level such that it makes sense to describe the human world as an “Aged Word”. There will be an estimated 2 billion people over the age of 60 by the middle of this century, and life expectancy is projected to rise to age 80 by the end of the century. Our populations are etching closer and closer to the upper limits of the (average) lifespan of approximately 85 years.

This development, while a wonderful success story, also presents enormous challenges for families, health care institutions, basic research on health and the economy. How do we combat the social isolation that many older persons face? How do we fairly manage the caring duties required by aging populations? How should our laws and policies surrounding the end of life be modified? And what can we do to promote healthy aging, so that people can enjoy more health, vitality and independence in late life? I believe these are among the most pressing societal questions facing humanity this century.

So Saturday I am hoping everyone will (1) you reach out to connect with, and express gratitude to, some older persons in their life; and (2) ask yourself what you (and all of us) can do to help make our families, societies and the world a better place for older persons.

Cheers,
Colin

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Genetics and Ethics Textbook (Post #1)

Now with Biologically Modified Justice completely finished, I am turning my attention to writing a new textbook on Genetics and Ethics for Polity Press.

I'm writing this textbook for an interdisciplinary audience, students in both the life sciences and humanities/social sciences (like philosophy). As such I have had to invest a great deal of thought into finding the right balance between how much time to invest on normative/philosophical issues (e.g. what constitutes a morally right action or policy?) vs empirical concerns related to the science (e.g. what role do genes play in the development of disease, health and behavior?).

In order to strike the most optimal (from a pedagogical perspective) balance I have opted for a virtue ethics framework. More specifically, one that seeks to augment (rather than replace) principled accounts of morality (e.g. emphasis on beneficence and autonomy/freedom) by bringing to the fore the "epistemic virtues". So the broad question: "What are we to make of the advances in human genetics?" is to be answered by considering the question: "What would a virtuous agent, who possesses both moral and intellectual virtue (i.e. phronesis), think or do in our circumstances with this knowledge?" Any answer will be highly provisional, as our knowledge is tentative and incomplete. But I do believe the VE lens can yield some very important practical prescriptions (listed below).

In particular I emphasize the virtues of intellectual humility (we are only starting to scratch the surface, and don't know exactly what may be possible in terms of new ways of modulating our biology); adaptability of intellect (evolutionary biology offers new insights into issues like health, longevity and behavior, and new interventions might arise from these insights); and the teaching virtues- understanding how others are likely to respond to these issues (e.g. "don't play god!", "extending the lifespan would be a disaster!", "sex selection will exacerbate patriarchy!", etc.) and being able to fairly, and persuasively, respond to such concerns.

I have 12 months to finish this project, which I feel is a realistic time-frame for a 75 000 word manuscript on a topic I know very well. I will have to undertake new research on genome editing and behavioral genetics to cover the topics I would like to address. That will slow the writing process down a bit on certain parts of the book. But the chapters on past eugenic practices, gene therapy, extending lifespan and sex selection are all topics I know very well and have published on. So I just need to reformulate my thoughts on those topics through the lens of VE and the intellectual virtues.

Here is a list of the (very!) tentative prescriptions I believe a virtuous polity, parent, or person would endorse at this stage of things, given what we currently know about the role genes play in the development of health, disease and behavior:

(1) A virtuous polity ought to supplement the lens of the proximate causal explanation of disease, health and behavior with the lens of the ultimate (or evolutionary) cause of disease, health and behavior. This more expansive understanding of the development of phenotypes will dislodge any intransigent commitment to maintaining the “biological status quo” that arises from evolution through natural selection.
(2) A virtuous polity would see genetic intervention as a possible extension of the duty to aid (beneficence) provided such an intervention proved to be a safe and cost-effective way of preventing or treating morbidity.
(3) Virtuous agents would eschew both genetic determinism and environmental determinism. This has implications for health agencies like the NIH in terms of the scientific research it ought to fund and prioritize, and for parents considering utilizing PGD to influence the traits of their offspring.
(4) A virtuous polity would not necessarily eschew or dismiss eugenics. Instead, it would pursue empirically sound and morally justified aims (e.g. promotion of health) through reasonable and morally justified means that treat all persons as free and equal moral agents.
(5) A virtuous polity would aspire to promote the healthy aging of its population through all possible means (including interventions that extend the lifespan if doing so increased the healthspan). But such measures should be pursued in a responsible manner so that considerations of equity, population size, intergenerational justice and environmental impact are also taken seriously.


I intend the post some substantive entries over the coming year as I make progress on this new manuscript!

Cheers,
Colin

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Book Cover



Forthcoming next month!
Cheers,
Colin

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Done!

Tonight I sent the final edits on the proofs of Biologically Modified Justice (all 276 pages, which I re-read twice!) which means I can lay to rest a project I started over 16 years ago. According to the CUP website the book should be published in hard copy next month (May).

I worked so long on this project it is hard to summarize the different emotions I have now that it is finished. I'm elated, exhausted, a bit sad all at once. I don't think I will ever take on a project as ambitious as this again. Researching and writing this book really did take a toll on me. Incorporating approximately 250 different articles and books from disciplines as diverse as political theory, philosophy, feminism, evolutionary biology, medicine, biogerontology, demography and psychology was simply exhausting. Added to this was the stress and strain of sending various chapters of the book off to journal publications in different disciplines, having experts in the various fields subject my arguments to critical scrutiny. And then when it came to finding a book publisher the risk was that referees from a specific discipline like political theory or philosophy would not be happy with, or see the relevance of, the amount of science covered in the book. But alas it all proved to be worth it in the end.

I can't wait to hold a copy of the final, finished project. And now I turn my attention to writing a textbook on genetics and ethics for Polity Press this summer. But first, a glass of wine!

Cheers,
Colin

Friday, March 25, 2016

Democracy and Education (100 years)

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of John Dewey’s masterful book Democracy and Education.

There is so much that could be said in praise of Dewey’s insightful and original contributions to democracy theory and education. I just wanted to note the following passage, which is very relevant to contemporary debates about ideal theory. When articulating the worth of any mode of social life, Dewey aptly remarked:

“In seeking this measure, we have to avoid two extremes. We cannot set up, out of our heads, something we regard as an ideal society. We must base our conception upon societies which actually exist, in order to have any assurance that our ideal is a practical one. But, as we have just seen, the ideal cannot simply repeat the traits which are actually found. The problem is to extract the desirable traits of forms of community life which actually exist, and employ them to criticize undesirable features and suggest improvement.”

Cheers,
Colin

Saturday, January 02, 2016

What is Democracy? [in 3 words or less]



I’m teaching a new undergraduate seminar this term on law and politics and I’m framing the course around the problem of collective decision-making. To build up to the narrative surrounding the course content I want to start the first lecture with the basic question: what is democracy?

The standard way to answer this question is to invoke something like Robert Dahl’s excellent characterisation of democracy as a decision-making process that has (1) effective participation, (2) equality in voting, (3) gaining enlightened understanding, (4) exercising final control over the agenda and (5) inclusion of adults.

But I think this characterisation of democracy, which I agree is great for political science students, is too specific for the purpose I have in mind in the intro lecture. I’m after something even more basic and general as it will help make more vivid the stakes involved in the topics covered in the course. To get at that more general, basic understanding of democracy I want you to consider the following thought experiment.

Imagine intelligent aliens from a distant planet arrived on earth and, after observing our political life, they asked why we hold regular elections, have constitutions, legislatures, courts, freedom of the press, etc. They note that it all seemed extremely costly, and did not appear to be a very effective way of getting things done.

To sensibly digest what a democracy is the Aliens require a basic description that is no more than 3 words in length [they have TWITTER-LIKE BRAINS!]. Only a very succinct characterization of democracy will resolve their puzzlement. So citing Dahl's characterisation doesn't help. When the aliens try to make sense of why our culture has the institutions and practices of medicine it is easy for them to understand what they are and why we have them-- to prevent, treat and manage disease, illness and disability. When they try to make sense of why our culture has the institutions (e.g. political economy) and practices of economics it is easy for them to understand what they are and why we have them-- to try to facilitate economic growth and avoid fiscal disaster. But they remain puzzled as to what democracy is and what it's function or telos is. They are hoping that a most precise characterization of democracy will help them overcome their puzzlement.

I think the most helpful way of answering the query of the Aliens is to invoke the American pragmatist John Dewey’s understanding of democracy. Dewey characterised democracy as an experiment, a social experiment. And I think that is the best, general characterization of what democracy is.

Democracy is a way of life that humans have been (seriously) fine-tuning for over a century (though the Ancient Greeks first dabbled with democracy in the 5th century BC) the goal of which is to promote our opportunities to flourish as both individuals and collectively as societies. This social experiment is an attempt to make collective decisions that promote morally laudable aims, whether that be promoting peace and security, economic prosperity or justice, freedom and equality.

Democracy is still (obviously) a work-in-progress. Despite its many imperfections and shortcomings, the empirical evidence amassed so far in terms of how democracy performs compared to non-democratic ways of life is very impressive. For the 21st century there doesn't appear to be any serious contenders vying to compete with democracy as the way of life for humans This is the first century ever that this has been the case. Much work still remains of course in terms of fine-tuning and refining the social experiment that is democracy.