If you wrestle with ethical and legal difficulties associated with genetic science, a recent virtual issue of the Hastings Center Report could be good to think with.

The issue collects earlier material on ethics and genetics. There are pieces about the perils of genetic-specific legislation; about the difficulties of understanding behavioral genetics; about the prospects of personalized medicine; about the meaning of transhumanism; and much else.

Reading the virtual collection, it strikes me that our ethical difficulties surprisingly seldom are of a purely evaluative kind, or about what is morally right or wrong, or about what we ethically should or should not do.

Our ethical challenges are more typically about thinking well; about understanding complex facts properly; about avoiding tempting oversimplifications in our descriptions of reality.

In short, our ethical challenges are very much about facing reality well.

The philosopher Bernard Williams spoke of thick ethical concepts: notions like “courage” that seem to have both evaluative and descriptive content.

I am inclined to say that ethics is “thick” in this sense. Ethics is more often than not about describing reality justly. Ethical challenges are surprisingly often about coming to terms with oversimplified descriptions that prompt premature normative conclusions.

Just consider these two tempting oversimplifications of genetics, which produce an abundance of normative and political conclusions:

  1. The mistaken assumption that if the main source of variation is not genetic, it will be fairly easy to make environmental interventions.
  2. The mistaken assumption that if the primary source of variation is genetic, environmental interventions will be useless.

These assumptions are discussed in Erik Parens’ paper about why talking about behavioral genetics is important and difficult (on page 13).

Even though it is not its purpose, the virtual collection of papers on genetics makes it conspicuous how often our ethical challenges are of a descriptive kind.

Pär Segerdahl

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