Genetic exceptionalism and unforgivingness

August 30, 2012

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

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