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!