Friday, November 16, 2018

Why do I write about genetics?

Over the course of nearly two decades I have published on many different topics: free speech, judicial review, ideal theory, a citizens' basic income, patriarchy, toleration, etc. But one topic has dominated most of my thoughts and publications- advances in genetics and the ethical and social consequences of this so-called "genetic revolution".

Among my colleagues in the field of political theory I am, admittedly, an oddity. "Why genetics?", one might reasonably ask. Why genetics especially when there are so many pressing issues like global justice, the legacy of colonialism, race, patriarchy, democracy in the era of Trump, etc.? It is a valid question to pose. And the fact that the issue of genetics doesn't have obvious, intuitive "pull" on our moral sensibilities as a pressing societal issue in need of normative theorizing is a large part of the reason why I am attracted to the topic.

Here is a summary of the 3 main reasons I have invested so much into a research project that is much more risky to pursue (given the career rewards of inward specialization vs the costs and risks of interdisciplinarity):

1. My intellectual curiosity: I find the kind of interdisciplinary research I engage in on these topics simply fascinating. I have learned about evolutionary biology, medicine, demography, aging, psychology, etc. I am never bored! And I think that is absolutely crucial to keeping the passion for research burning over the long hall. There is always something new and interesting to learn and write about. Some academics flourish looking inward on problems, writing for specialists on highly technical issues within a sub-field. But my interest has always been with pitching things at a more general level, linking key insights from diverse perspectives and sources- tying to adopt a provisional and humble "bird's eye view" of the moral landscape to help us re-assess how successful we are with tackling the pressing societal issues of today and tomorrow.

2. The societal importance of the issues: I chose to write on the ethical and social implications of the genetic revolution because I think it is one of the most significant developments of this century. From helping us prevent and treat disease to enhancing our capabilities (e.g. longevity, happiness, intelligence, etc.), gaining new insights into our biology opens the door to many new possible innovations and developments. There is a wealth of topics to be addressed, but so few scholars seriously devoted to tackling them in detail. Which leads me to (3)....

3. It is currently neglected: Science policy is one of the most important areas of good governance, and yet it is almost completely ignored by political theorists. A voluminous amount of ink has been spilt by theorists debating the political economy- capitalism, socialism, the welfare state, a basic income, etc. But good governance involves so much more than determining how wealth and income should be distributed. Technology and innovation are equally, if not more, important (for they drive the creation of wealth in the first place!). And yet our undergraduates are not provided with the analytical tools to think critically and cogently about such issues. This is a real shame in my view. So I try to redress this by at least engaging my own students with some of these topics in my undergraduate and graduate level courses.