What are absolute borders made of?

December 17, 2013

I return to the question in my previous post. I was wondering why biotechnological developments repeatedly invite moral responses in terms of borders that shouldn’t be transgressed by humans. (Think of stem cell research using human embryos.)

What is fundamental in these responses? Is it the absolute border? Do people already have stable notions of borders that shouldn’t be transgressed by humans, as part of semi-metaphysical views of life? Do they respond, “Controversial!”, because they deem some new practice to be transgressing a border that already is in place within their view of life?

Or is the notion of the border itself part of the reaction? Is “the absolute border” reactive rather than the source of the reaction?

I’m inclined to say that the “absolute border” arises with and through the reaction. Let’s call it the intellectual part of the reaction. It is how the reaction presents itself as legitimate; it is how the reaction transforms itself into a reason against the new developments.

The notion of an “absolute border” is how the reaction translates itself into the “space of reasons.”

If so, the recurrent reaction is almost bound to misunderstand itself in accordance with my first suggestion: the border will be perceived as basic, and the reaction will present itself as rational verdict: “The absolute border is being transgressed here; therefore, a moral response is in order!”

We must not forget that entire views of life can be reactive. Even when they are beautiful and admirable human achievements, their function can be that of digesting reactions and providing them with meaning.

My conclusion is that if we want to understand these recurrent reactions, we must not be fooled by how they spontaneously translate themselves into “the space of reasons.” We need a practice of back-translation.

We seem bound to repeatedly misunderstand ourselves. Our much praised faculty of understanding easily becomes a faculty of misunderstanding.

Pär Segerdahl

We challenge habits of thought : the Ethics Blog


Uniquely controversial: why is new biotechnology often so extraordinarily upsetting?

December 11, 2013

Artificial insemination, genetically modified organisms, and attempts in synthetic biology to create artificial life have this in common: they tend to provoke moral responses in terms of borders that should not be transgressed.

A recent article by Thomas Douglas, Russell Powell, and Julian Savulescu discusses synthetic biology from this point of view:

They analyze arguments that claim that producing artificial organisms from non-living components is morally significant in the sense that it constitutes “the” ultimate transgression of the border that should not be transgressed.

They quite successfully show that the arguments fail. Certainly, producing artificial life can in some cases instantiate attitudes of hubris; it can produce environmental risks; it can encourage problematic reductionism; and it does produce organisms that, since they lack evolutionary history, have unclear moral status within biocentric accounts of moral status.

But: hubris and environmental risks can characterize other endeavors as well, and there is no reason to assume that creating organisms from non-living components is more likely to sustain hubris or pose environmental threats than modifying existing organisms. Moreover, reductionism is rejected by most biologists, and there is no reason to assume that synthetic biology is uniquely capable of encouraging reductionism. Finally, the fact that artificial organisms have unclear moral status in biocentric accounts is irrelevant, since what really matters for moral status “is not origin, but mental capacity.”

What the article less successfully addresses, though, is the question why people repeatedly want to say: this is an extraordinary activity, it transgresses a border that should not be transgressed. For it has been said before, about other forms of biotechnology. Synthetic biology is not unique in this respect.

The sense of extraordinary transgression is translated in the article into an intellectual claim that synthetic biology is the extraordinary transgression. By turning the recurrent sense of extraordinary transgression into such a specific claim about synthetic biology, the article in my view makes it too easy for itself. It fails to address the original sense of extraordinary transgression.

The question in my headline still awaits its answer.

Pär Segerdahl

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


Direct-to-consumer genetic testing: empowering people to hurt themselves?

December 4, 2013

There are two tempting pictures of the human. One is that we (ideally) are autonomous individuals who make rational choices on the basis of information. The other picture is that our individuality is coded in our DNA.

These pictures work in tandem in the marketing of direct-to-consumer genetic testing. The website of the personal genomics company, 23andMe, features their DNA “spit kit.” On the half-open lid you can read: Welcome to you.

That’s the DNA picture: Your DNA contains the information about you. For 99 dollars and a saliva sample you’ll get to know who you are.

If you click Order now, you encounter the other picture: Knowledge is power. By buying this product, you’ll be empowered to better manage your health and wellness. You’ll get information about diseases you risk developing and diseases you are less likely developing, and can plan your life accordingly.

That’s the autonomy picture: You are the driver of your life. For 99 dollars and a saliva sample, you are empowered as rational decision-maker about your health.

The combination of the two pictures is a powerful marketing campaign that can be followed on YouTube.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently sent a warning letter to 23andMe, urging them to immediately stop marketing the test. The device isn’t just any commercial product, but is to be seen as medical technology. This implies certain quality standards:

  • “…we still do not have any assurance that the firm has analytically or clinically validated the PGS for its intended uses…”

FDA also expresses concern about public health consequences if the test doesn’t work reliably. A false positive risk assessment for breast or ovarian cancer “could lead a patient to undergo prophylactic surgery, chemoprevention, intensive screening, or other morbidity-inducing actions, while a false negative could result in a failure to recognize an actual risk that may exist.”

Another concern is that patients who receive assessments of their personal drug responses may begin to self-manage their doses or abandon their therapies.

Genetic tests will no doubt play significant roles in the future. But genetic risk information is tremendously complex and its predictive value difficult to assess. The danger is that the deceptively simple marketing rhetoric of empowering individuals to take charge of their lives currently rather might empower people to hurt themselves.

The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences decided this autumn to support a joint European research program on genetic risk information. The program is led by Mats G. Hansson at CRB. Click the link below for a summary of the program:

FDA’s warning letter to 23andMe underlines the timeliness of the new program. More on this in the future!

Pär Segerdahl

Following the news - the ethics blog


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