A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Month: August 2012

Genetic exceptionalism and unforgivingness

What fuels the tendency to view genetic information as exceptionally private and sensitive? Is information about an individual’s genetic disposition for eye color more sensitive than the fact that he has blue eyes?

In Rethinking Informed Consent in Bioethics, Neil C. Manson and Onora O’Neill make heroic efforts against an avalanche of arguments for genetic exceptionalism. For each argument meant to reveal how uniquely private, how exceptionally sensitive, and how extraordinarily risky genetic information is, Manson and O’Neill find elucidating examples, analogies and comparisons that cool down tendencies to exaggerate genetic information as incomparably dangerous.

What fuels the exceptionalism that Manson and O’Neill fight? They suggest that it has to do with metaphors that tempt us to reify information; temptations that, for various reasons, are intensified when we think about DNA. Once again, their analysis is clarifying.

Another form of genetic exceptionalism strikes me, however; one that has less to do with information. I’m thinking of GMO exceptionalism. For thousands of years, humans improved plants and animals through breeding them. This traditional way of modifying organisms is not without environmental risks. When analogous risks appear with GMO, however, they tend to change meaning and become seen as extraordinary risks, revealing the ineradicable riskiness of genetic manipulation.

Why are we prepared to embrace traditionally modified organisms, TMO, when basically the same risks with GMO make us want to exterminate every genetically manipulated bastard?

Unforgivingness. I believe that this all-too familiar emotional response drives genetic exceptionalism, and many other forms of exceptionalism.

Consider the response of becoming unforgiving. Yesterday we laughed with our friend. Today we learn that he spread rumors about us. His familar smile immediately acquires a different meaning. Yesterday it was shared joy. Today it is an ugly mask hiding an intrinsically untrustworthy individual who must be put in quarantine forever. Every trait of character turns into a defect of character. The whole person becomes an objection; an exception among humans.

Manson and O´Neill are right when they analyze a tendency to reify information in genetic exceptionalism. But I want to suggest that what fuels this tendency, what makes us more than willing to yield to the temptation, is an emotional state of mind that also produces many other forms of exceptionalism.

We need to acknowledge the emotional dimension of philosophical and ethical thinking. We don’t think well when we are unforgiving towards our subject matter. We think dogmatically and unjustly.

In their efforts to think well about genetic information, Manson and O’Neill can be understood as doing forgiveness work.

They calm us down and patiently show us that our friend, although he sometimes does wrong, is not that intrinsically bad character we want to see him as, when we are in our unfortunate unforgiving state of mind.

We are helped towards a state of mind where we can think more freely and justly about the risks and benefits of genetics.

Pär Segerdahl

We want to be just - the Ethics Blog

Ethics before the event

It is easy to be wise after the event. This easily accessible form of wisdom is also a painful accusation: you should have been wise before the event.

If you are extremely sensitive to the pain of these attacks, you might want to become someone who always is “wise before the event.” If you let your life be governed by such an ideal, you’ll become an ethical perfectionist.

Ethical perfectionism may seem like the most demanding form of ethical attitude. If it derives from oversensitivity to the pain of being wise after the event, however, which is ridiculously easy, I’m more doubtful about the value of this attitude.

The ethical perfectionist runs the risk of avoiding life altogether, until even the slightest chance of moral complexity has been eliminated. “Postpone life; I’ve discovered another possible ethical problem!”

My reason for bringing up this subject is that research ethics seems to be in continual danger of succumbing to problematic forms of ethical perfectionism. The dependence on research scandals in the past and the demand to avoid them in the future makes it especially vulnerable to this strange ideal.

Don’t for a moment believe that I recommend living without reflection. But ethical problems must be confronted while we live and develop our activities: “as we go along.” We cannot postpone life until all ethical complexity has been eliminated.

The risk is that we fancy ethical problems without reality and postpone urgent research initiatives on the basis of derailed demands, while we fail to face the real ethical challenges.

Pär Segerdahl

We think about bioethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se

What is philosophy?

Someone asked me what philosophy is. I answered by trying to pinpoint the most frequently used word when one philosophizes.

What does a philosopher most often say? I believe he or she most often says, “But…”:

  • “But is that really true?”
  • “But shouldn’t then…?”
  • “But can’t one imagine that…?”
  • “But how can anyone know such a thing?”
  • Etc.

Always some unexpected obstacle! Just at the moment when your reasoning seems entirely spotless, an annoying “but…?” knocks you to the ground and you have to start all over again.

Confronted with our spontaneous reasoning, a philosopher’s head soon fills with objections. Perplexing questions lead into unknown territory. Maps must be drawn the need of which we never anticipated. A persistently repeated “but…?” reveals challenges for which we lack preparedness.

But the goal is not that of interminably objecting. Objecting and being perplexed are not intrinsic values.

Rather the contrary. The accumulation of objections is a precondition to there being a goal with philosophizing: that of putting an END to the annoying objections.

Philosophy is a fight with one’s own objections; the goal is to silence them.

But if that is so, what point can philosophy have? An activity that first raises annoying objections, and then tries to silence them: what’s that good for!?

Try to reason about what “consent to future research” means. Then you’ll probably notice that you soon start repeating “but…?” with regard to your own attempts to reason well. Your objections will annoy you and spur you to think even more clearly. You will draw maps the need of which you had not anticipated.

Even if we prefer that we never went astray, we do go astray. It pertains to being human. THEN we see the point with persistently asking “but…?”; THEN we see the purpose with crisscrossing confusing aspects of life until we survey them, haunted by objections from an unyielding form of sincerity.

When we finally manage to silence our irritating objections, philosophy has made itself as superfluous as a map would be when we cross our own street…

…until we go astray again.

Pär Segerdahl

We challenge habits of thought : the Ethics Blog

Interesting conferences

The Ethics Blog recommends three important conferences this autumn:

1.      Genomics for Healthcare and Socio-Economic Progress

This conference is organized by the Wales Gene Park. It discusses the economic potential of genomics in, for example, healthcare, agriculture and bio-energy.

  • When? 13-14 September 2012
  • Where? Radisson Blu Hotel, Cardiff
  • Website? Here

2.      HandsOn: Biobanks

This interactive conference is organized by BBMRI.se. It dicusses biobanking and the value of biobank research.

  • When? 20-21 September 2012
  • Where? Uppsala, Sweden
  • Website? Here

3.      Children’s Participation and Decision-Making in Medical Matters

This conference is organized by the Nordic Committee on Bioethics. It discusses the ethics of children’s participation in medical research.

  • When? 11-12 October 2012
  • Where? Lund, Sweden
  • Website? Here

Visit the websites to find out more about these interesting events!

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend conferences - the ethics blog