Friday, March 16, 2007

Blogging...And a Follow up to Yesterday

First, some thoughts about blogging. And then I will get to the point of how those thoughts relate to the issues raised in yesterday's post.

Blogging can have many benefits (and no doubt some drawbacks as well). One benefit of running a blog that relates to one’s academic work is that often one posts some thoughts, or links to a recent article, and then, days, months, or even a year, later the light comes on and you see things from a new perspective, develop some new ideas or link these various things together in a way that didn’t occur beforehand. And you can almost follow the development of one's thought processes through one's blog entries. By having your blog entries handy one can foster greater continuity and connectedness with one's self. And for me this has been the greatest thing about running this blog.

This is not to say that posting one's thoughts online is necessary to achieve these benefits. But for me, storing my thoughts, links to articles etc. on my blog gives me much greater organization than I could ever hope to achieve in the ever-growing mess and chaos that is my office. Keeping things tidy in the "virtual" space of a blog is much easier than in the real physical space of the books, post-it notes, papers, etc that litter my office. I did not consciously setup this blog with the intention of creating a more efficient and reflective system for developing my ideas. Rather, it was a pleasant, unexpected benefit. One I have only recently come to realise and appreciate.

No doubt those who run blogs with the comments feature open enjoy a whole other range of benefits by making diverse people "conversationally present" in their virtual space. If I had another 5 hours in the day, and better IT skills, I would probably entertain that prospect. But even without the comments feature on one can reap many benefits from engaging in the procedural process of making one's thoughts and reflections on different topics "public" on their blog. Such a public venue is less rigid and formal than academic publishing, which can help one be more adventurous than they might otherwise be. But at the same time, because you alone are the "author, editor and publisher", of your blog you need to exercise a good deal of restraint and oversight to ensure certain standards of quality are maintained. And this can help you learn a lot about yourself.

So blogging is therapeutic in many ways. Not in the sense that it is a venue for one to spew their various discontents and give them a public hearing (though many use it in this way). Rather it can help foster self-understanding, humility, etc. You realise that there are certain topics you feel comfortable talking about with some authority and taking a decisive stance on, and many others (no doubt the majority) you feel unqualified to address, or come to appreciate how complex an issue really is, etc. Hearing yourself, through the voice of your blog posts, can be very useful and is an effective way of fostering intrapersonal continuity and introspection. The blog is a link between your past, present and future selves. And letting all three of these selves interact on one's blog can be very fruitful.

I started thinking about the above comments after I reflected further on yesterday's post. So let me now turn to that....I had one of those little “eureka” moments today as I thought some more about the significance of our evolutionary history and our susceptibility to disease. The significance of our biological history has many important consequences for distributive justice, in particular for the issue of genetic justice.

A central theme in my book-in-progress on genetics and justice is to address the issue of how stringent the duty to directly mitigate genetic disadvantage is (e.g. via gene therapy). And I am interested in exploring how different normative theories (e.g. egalitarianism, sufficiency, priority, etc.) might address this topic.

For example, if one is a “luck egalitarian” then might be inclined to take the view that there is a stringent duty to directly mitigate genetic disadvantage because the natural lottery of life is the paradigm example of an “unchosen” inequality. Those attracted to sufficiency might take the view that justice requires that we implement a genetic decent minimum so that all fall within “normal species functioning”.

Of course one could say a lot more about the central ideas behind these different theories and the principles they will prescribe, but cutting to the chase...I think both frameworks are ill-equipped to help us address the real challenges we face now, and in the decades to come. One of the points we can take away from the insights of Greave’s piece on our intrinsic vulnerability to cancer and disease is that this vulnerability simply *IS* part of normal species functioning. Recall this passage from Greave:

The blind process through which we and other species have emerged carries with it inevitable limitations, compromises and trade-offs. The reality is that for accidental or biologically sound, adaptive reasons, we have historically programmed fallibility. Covert tumours arise constantly, reflecting our intrinsic vulnerability, and each and every one of us harbours mutant clones with malignant potential.

Taking our evolutionary legacies seriously poses, I believe, insurmountable problems for egalitarians and sufficitarians. When in comes to determining how stringent the duty to mitigate genetic disadvantage is we should not be primarily concerned with the choice/chance distinction, or if we fall below “normal species functioning”. The real important questions are: what is the likelihood that we could actually mitigate this disadvantage via genetic intervention? And what would such an intervention cost? And how does the duty to mitigate genetic justice fit into the “big picture” perspective with respect to mitigating disadvantage more generally (e.g. socio-economic disadvantage)?

Only by addressing these tough questions we will be able to ensure that our response to genetic disadvantage is proportionate and fair. This big picture perspective and the concern for proportionality just doesn't seem to fit well within an egalitarian or sufficitarian framework. That is not to suggest that the priority view alone can do all the work. Recall I favour a hybrid or pluralist view that is a second-order, rather than first-order, social theory. But when it comes to genetic justice I think priority (rather than equality or sufficiency) is the value that ought to be doing a good deal of the work in helping us figure out what the demands of genetic justice are in the "here and now", and in the foreseeable future.

So taking our evolutionary legacies seriously reinforces, I believe, the attraction of invoking a prioritarian (rather than egalitarian or sufficitarian) framework to work through these issues. And reading through Greave's article made me realise that one of the skills a political theorist must exercise is not only understanding the history our culture, political institutions, economy, etc., but also our biological history. A theory of genetic justice that is informed by this history is one that is better placed to yield sage prescriptions.