Thursday, November 30, 2006

Manchester Talk

I am writing this blog on my (return) train journey from Manchester to Oxford. Yesterday afternoon I presented my “Genetic Justice” paper again, this time to MANCEPT in the Department of Politics at Manchester University. It was great to get the chance to visit my old department again. I was a Lecturer at Manchester in 2002/3 before leaving the UK to take up the position back in Canada.

For this particular presentation I was given a very generous amount of time to talk-- 60 minutes for the presentation itself and 60 minutes for questions. This proved very useful as I was able to address some of the methodological issues I address in the book and elaborate, in greater detail, on some of the empirical considerations and constraints that arise in the context of direct somatic interventions like gene therapy.

When I have presented this paper before the central issue raised in the question period has tended to focus on whether the sufficitarian position might be able to provide just as useful, if not a more useful, framework than the pluralistic prioritarian one I advance. And as I noted in a previous post I am now investing a good deal of thought and time into critically examining that issue.

But yesterday’s feedback raised a new host of issues for me to consider. A number of people noted that there seemed a tension in the way I framed what a theory of genetic justice is a theory about and the details of what I took a defensible theory of genetic justice to entail. The concern was that, on the one hand, I believe the distribution of our genetic endowments warrants special treatment or attention in its own right (hence the reason for claiming we need a theory of "genetic justice"). And yet, at the same time, I went to great efforts in the presentation to argue that a theory of genetic justice must be placed in the larger context of a theory of societal fairness (e.g. when it comes to decisions concerning the allocation of scarce public funds, etc.). So this raised some confusion in terms of what, exactly, was going on here.

These questions were very helpful as I myself am still sorting out the finer details of what the proposed aim of my project is. At one level, I think the genetic revolution raises a number of unique challenges for theories of social justice (especially resource-based accounts) and I think we simply cannot adopt a kind of “add, shake and stir” approach to the issue. That is, simply add our genetic constitutions to the list of things to be distributed and then churn out some prescriptions via those distributive principles we endorse for the regulation of socio-economic inequalities (e.g. Rawls’s difference principle, or fair equality of opportunity, sufficiency, etc.). But I do think it is worthwhile to see how the logic of particular theories, like luck egalitarianism or left and right variants of libertarianism, could push us towards particular prescriptions concerning the regulation of biomedical research (not because we should accept these conclusions, rather we should reject the underlying theories!).

I want to reject these “first-order” normative theories, in large part, because they will ill-equip us to address the real challenges that the genetic revolution has thrust upon us. First-order theories “seek to resolve moral disagreement by demonstrating that alternative theories and principles should be rejected” (Gutmann and Thompson, 2004: 13). What I am really after is what Gutmann and Thompson call a “second-order” normative theory. That is, “a theory about other theories in the sense that it provides ways of dealing with the claims of conflicting first-order theories” (Gutmann and Thompson, 2004: 13).

So the potential dilemma for me is this: my stance on prioritarianism poses a potential tension with my taking the line that I merely want to develop a second-order (rather than first-order) normative theory. Of course it is true that the second-order theory of deliberative democracy itself acknowledges important first-order procedural and substantive values (like freedom, equality and utility). But what is truly distinctive about a second-order theory is that it does not champion any one of these principles as “the” principles of justice. It does not serially order them or give any absolute priority over other political values. A second-order theory is more interested in how we could reasonably balance these competing values when such conflicts arise, and so it takes these values to be both morally and politically provisional. This notion of provisionality is really what I am after in my examination of genetics and justice. Genetics and justice is a great example of an applied topic that is rapidly advancing in a way that warrants our taking such a provisionalist and pluralistic stance.

I want to consider how the genetic revolution will compel us to re-consider the moral landscape- the chance/choice distinction, the limits and scopes of reproductive freedom, the basis of intellectual property rights, and the duty to prevent harm, who we define as the “least advantaged”, and our attitudes towards aging, etc. Of course these dilemmas are not all unique to genetics. But what I think is novel and interesting is how the issue of genetics, and genetic intervention in particular, brings these various concerns together in a vivid fashion. And I think it is imperative that normative theories keep pace with these scientific advances, that our normative theories evolve in the appropriate fashion as the moral landscape shifts in various ways.

So I suppose the apparent tension in my project is perhaps unavoidable. I want the second-order theory I defend to be the one philosophers (as well as others) champion over the rival first-order theories of genetic justice that I think are likely to emerge in these debates. Yet the conclusion of my argument is that philosophers need to exercise a greater degree of humility given the diverse range of empirical considerations that are involved in these issues. And there is a fine line between saying a political philosopher has an important enough role to play that he should write (and people should read) his book on genetics and justice and at the same time say his contribution is minimal and conclusions tentative and provisional. These are the same concerns I faced with my previous book on a virtue-account of distributive justice.

In many ways my approach to these issues runs against the standard convention in applied ethics and political philosophy. Typically one starts with a particular first-order theory (e.g. utilitarianism, Rawlsian justice, libertarianism, etc.) and then one looks at how it applies to a particular issue (e.g. global justice, multiculturalism, etc.). I am starting the other way around. I am looking at a range of practical predicaments which the genetic revolution has (and possibly will) raise and then I search for and construct a theoretical framework that can do justice to the complexity of the issues and stakes involved in them *and* provide us with some normative prescriptions for addressing these challenges. And I am doing this from a largely agnostic stance concerning which overarching first-order theory of distributive justice is the correct theory to endorse. But my fence sitting is not dishonest, I really do not have an overarching theory of distributive justice. It is true that in this book I assume that some resource-based theory of justice is the one we are functioning within, one that grants some room to the traditional concerns of liberal democracies (such as liberty, protection of the vulnerable, respect for democratic law making, etc.). But these weak assumptions are, I believe, consistent with the premises of a second-order theory.

So I am very grateful to the audience at Manchester. I really enjoyed and appreciated the detailed questions and the conservations that followed over a pint and dinner.