Who belongs to us?

October 2, 2019

Pär SegerdahlBioethics has a problem with human beings, the philosopher Roland Kipke writes. It must ask who belongs to our moral community. Who has rights? Who has human dignity? Who has the moral status usually attributed to healthy adult humans? Who has the right to life?

The question is: Who belongs to us? Are human embryos included in the community? Newborns? Those with advanced dementia? Intelligent animals?

A common response to the question is to propose a philosophical criterion. Two positions dominate in bioethics. One includes all biological human beings, thereby embryos, newborns and those with advanced dementia. Everyone who belongs to the species Homo sapiens belongs to the moral community.

The second position holds that species membership is irrelevant. Instead, the focus is on mental capacities that one holds characterize a “person.” For example, rationality and self-awareness. This excludes embryos, newborns and those with advanced dementia from the community. However, a rational chimpanzee may enter. All persons belong to the moral community, regardless of species affiliation.

Kipke shows how both criteria compel us to answer the question “Who belongs to us?” in ways that contradict most people’s moral intuitions. We might accept this if the positions could be justified by strong arguments, he says. However, such arguments are missing.

What should a poor philosophical gatekeeper do then? Who should be admitted into the community? Who should be kept out?

The solution to the gatekeeper’s dilemma, Kipke suggests, is our ordinary concept of the human. When we talk about “humans,” we usually do not use the scientific concept of a biological species. Our everyday concept of a human already has moral dimensions, he points out. We cannot see a human being without seeing a living person belonging to our community. According to this third position, all humans belong to the moral community.

The only problem is that the gatekeeper needs a criterion to distinguish the human members of the community. It is true that we have everyday uses of the word “human.” It is also true that we normally have no difficulties in distinguishing a human being. However, do these uses really contain a criterion suitable for more philosophical gatekeeper tasks? They do, according to Kipke. He holds that there is a characteristic “living human gestalt or the form of the body,” especially the face, which easily allows recognition of a human being, even when she is seriously injured and deformed.

The “living human form” would thus be the criterion. This form makes us equals in the moral community.

Kipke’s article is philosophically exciting and his criticism of the two dominant positions is revealing. Personally, I nevertheless find the still dominant preoccupation with the question “Who belongs to us?” somewhat terrifying, and perhaps even inhuman. Bioethics treats human concerns about, for example, genetics and stem cell research. Admittedly, people often express their concerns in the form of boundary issues. People who worry about the destruction of embryos in stem cell research, for example, can talk about the embryo as a human individual or as a potential person. However, addressing their worries by suggesting that our common language contains a criterion that has the authority to separate the members of the moral community will probably not still the minds of such worried and perhaps even angry humans. They need a lot more attention. Perhaps it turns out that the intellectual boundary issue concealed the living source of their concerns and made it impossible to treat the problem at its source.

I believe we need a bioethics that responds to moral concerns more humanly and communicatively than only as philosophical boundary issues. Could we not use our ordinary language to think together about the issues that worry us? To refer to an ordinary concept of the human as an arbiter that supposedly dictates the answers to bioethical boundary issues seems characteristic of a smaller community: one that is professionally preoccupied with philosophical boundary issues.

Is that not placing bioethics before life? Is it not putting the cart before the horse?

Pär Segerdahl

Kipke R. Being human: Why and in what sense it is morally relevant. Bioethics. 2019;00:1–11. https://doi.org/10.1111/bioe.12656

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Bioethics without doctrines

September 24, 2019

Pär SegerdahlEver since this blog started, I have regularly described how bioethical discussions often are driven by our own psychology. On the surface, the debates appear to be purely rational investigations of the truthfulness of certain claims. The claims may be about the risks of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the private nature of genetic information, the moral status of the human embryo, or the exploitation of egg donors for stem cell research. The topics are, as you probably hear, sensitive. Behind the rational surface of the debates, one can sense deeply human emotions and reactions: fear, anger, anxiety.

Have you ever been afraid? Then you know how easily fear turns into anger towards what you think causes your fear. What happens to the anger? Anger, in turn, tends to express itself in the form of clever arguments against what you think is causing your fear. You want to prove how wrong what frightens you is. It must be condemned, it must cease, it must be prohibited. This is how debates often begin.

The debates hide the emotions that drive them. Fear hides behind anger, which hides behind clever arguments. This hiding in several steps creates the shiny rational surface. It sounds like we were discussing the truth of purely intellectual doctrines about reality. Doctrines that must be defended or criticized rationally.

As academics, we have a responsibility to contribute to debates, to contribute with our expertise and our ability to reason correctly. This is good. Debates need objectivity and clear logic. The only risk is that sometimes, when the debates are rooted in fear, we contribute to hiding the human emotions even more deeply below the rational surface. I think I can see this happening in at least some bioethical debates.

What we need to do in these cases, I think, is to recognize the emotions that drive the debates. We need to see them and handle them gently. Here, too, objectivity and clear logic are required. However, we do not direct our objectivity at pure doctrines. Rather, we direct it more thoughtfully at the emotions and their expressions. Much like we can talk compassionately with a worried child, without trying to disprove the child as if the child’s worries were deduced from false doctrines about reality.

If our objectivity does not acknowledge emotions, if it does not take them seriously, then the emotions will continue to drive endlessly polarizing debates. But if our objectivity is kindly directed to the emotions, to the psychological engine behind the polarization, then we can pause the sensitive mechanism and examine it in detail. At least we can make it react a little slower.

We habitually distinguish between reason and feeling. As soon as a conflict emerges, we hope that reason will pick out the right position for us. We do not consider the possibility that we can direct reason directly to the emotions and their expressions. It is as if we thought that feelings are so irrational that we must suppress them, should hide them. As parents, however, this is precisely how we reason wisely: We talk to the child’s feelings. Sometimes we need to handle our own feelings the same way. We need to acknowledge them and take good care of them.

In such a compassionate spirit, we can turn our objectivity and our wisdom towards ourselves. Not just in bioethics, but everywhere where human vulnerability turns into relentless argumentation.

By gently dissolving the doctrines that lock the positions and reinforce the hidden emotions, we can begin the process of undoing the mental deadlocks. Then we may talk more clearly and objectively about genetics and stem cell research.

Pär Segerdahl

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Learning from the difficulties

September 11, 2019

Pär SegerdahlIn popular scientific literature, research can sometimes appear deceptively simple: “In the past, people believed that … But when researchers looked more closely, they found that …” It may seem as if researchers need not do much more than visit archives or laboratories. There, they take a closer look at things and discover amazing results.

There is nothing wrong with this popular scientific prose. It is exciting to read about new research results. However, the prose often hides the difficulties of the research work, the orientation towards questions and problems. As I said, there is nothing wrong with this. Readers of popular science rarely need to know how physicists or sociologists struggle daily to formulate their questions and delve into the problems. Readers are more interested in new findings about our fascinating world.

However, there are academic fields where the questions affect us all more directly, and where the questions are at the center of the research process from beginning to end. Two examples are philosophy and ethics. Here, identifying the difficult questions can be the important thing. Today, for example, genetics is developing rapidly. That means it affects more people; it affects us all. Genetic tests can now be purchased on the internet and more and more patients may be genetically tested in healthcare to individualize their treatment.

Identifying ethical issues around this development, delving into the problems, becoming aware of the difficulties, can be the main element of ethics research. Such difficulty-oriented work can make us better prepared, so that we can act more wisely.

In addition, ethical problems often arise in the meeting between living human beings and new technological opportunities. Identifying these human issues may require that the language that philosophy and ethics use is less specialized, that it speaks to all of us, whether we are experts or not. Therefore, many of the posts on the Ethics Blog attempt to speak directly to the human being in all of us.

It may seem strange that research that delves into questions can help us act wisely. Do we not rather become paralyzed by all the questions and problems? Do we not need clear ethical guidelines in order to act wisely?

Well, sometimes we need guidelines. But they must not be exaggerated. Think about how much better you function when you do something for the second time (when you become a parent for the second time, for example). Why do we function better the second time? Is it because the second time we are following clear guidelines?

We grow through being challenged by difficulties. Philosophy and ethics delve into the difficulties for this very reason. To help us to grow, mature, become wiser. Individually and together, as a society. I do not know anyone who matured as a human being through reading guidelines.

Pär Segerdahl

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How about personally optimized treatment?

May 6, 2019

Pär SegerdahlIt is well known that patients who are asked to participate in cancer trials are tempted by the therapeutic misconception. They believe they are offered a newer and better treatment, when in fact it is about research into an untested treatment. When researchers use genetic tests to develop personalized oncology, even more misconceptions can arise. I will soon explain. But first, what is personalized cancer treatment? Here is an example.

Patients whose tumor is to be operated may undergo preparatory radiation or chemotherapy. Since the preparatory therapy has severe side effects, one wants to avoid giving it to patients whose tumors do not respond to it. The challenge is to distinguish patients who respond to treatment from patients who do not. This is to be accomplished through, among other things, genetic tests on the tumor cells. If this works, you can develop personalized cancer treatment. Patients with the “right” tumor cell genetics receive the preparatory therapy, while patients who, according to the genetic tests, only get the side effects, with no effect on tumor growth, do not receive the therapy.

What are the misconceptions that can arise in patients who are asked to participate in research on personalized cancer treatment? Here are some examples.

Patients who are told that the researchers will do genetic tests can feel a genetic responsibility to participate, considering their children and grandchildren. They believe the test results may be relevant to close relatives, who may have the same disease genes. However, the tests are done on mutated tumor cells and therefore say nothing about inherited cancer risk. A sense of genetic responsibility can thus be triggered by the word “genetics” and create a genetic misconception of research in personalized oncology.

Other misconceptions have to do with the positive language used to describe personalized medicine. One talks about personally “optimized” treatments, about “tailored” treatments, about treatments that are adapted “to the individual.” This language use is not intended to mislead, but it is easy to see how words such as “optimization” can cause patients to believe that research participation means special treatment benefit.

The biggest challenge is perhaps to explain the research purpose behind the positive language. The aim is to be able in the future to distinguish between patients, to “stratify” them, as it less positively is called. Personally optimized care actually means that some patients do not receive certain treatments. This is, of course, reasonable if genetic tests can show that they have no benefit from the treatments but only get the side effects. However, what do cancer patients themselves say about stratified cancer treatment, where some patients are identified as non-responders and therefore are not offered the same treatment as other patients? Finally, do participants understand that “tailored treatment” is a future goal of the study and not something they are offered to try?

Communication with patients recruited for studies in personalized oncology faces many challenges, as patients are tempted by even more misconceptions than just the well-known therapeutic misconception.

Do you want to know more? Read the German study that inspired this blog post.

Pär Segerdahl

Perry, J., Wöhlke, S., Heßling, A.C., Schicktanz, S. 2017. Why take part in personalised cancer research? Patients’ genetic misconception, genetic responsibility and incomprehension of stratification—an empirical‐ethical examination. Eur J Cancer Care. https://doi.org/10.1111/ecc.12563

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Genetic risk information: lines and stage directions

April 23, 2019

Pär SegerdahlOutside of their practical contexts, simple messages quickly lose their meaning. Recall what it is like to find an old Post-it Note: “Don’t forget the disk!” – What disk? The risk is great that we invent a context. Incomprehensible messages awaken our imagination.

Similarly, messages about genetic risk need practical contexts that make the information meaningful and prevent nightmarish imaginations. The information needs to become part of a larger drama. Otherwise, we begin to fantasize: “Greatly increased risk of breast cancer.” – What do they mean, “greatly increased”? What do they mean, “breast cancer”? What do they mean, “risk”?

The difficulty of understanding and benefitting from genetic risk information is probably partly due to lack of context. The potential for generating risk information is growing rapidly. All this information is waiting for its dramas: contexts where people can ask concrete questions and get practical advice. Educational methods for explaining percentages cannot replace the loss of context. People who get genetic risk information need to know more about the disease they are at risk of developing. They may want to know if they should notify the employer of the risk. They may want to know if something can be done to reduce the risk. They may want to know what it is like to live with the disease, or with the risk of getting it. How is the family affected? Can you work having the disease? Should one worry or is it reasonable to hope that one will not get the disease? And so on.

In short, well-functioning genetic risk information has two dimensions. First, an individual dimension: “You have a greatly increased risk of…” Secondly, a general dimension: Practical instructions on a wide variety of issues that people need to know more about, and about which they otherwise begin to fantasize.

To speak the language of the theater: The individual dimension (the simple risk message) is the lines. The general dimension is the stage directions. Genetic risk information consists of both lines and stage directions.

When we discuss whether genetic risk information empowers people to influence their future health or just worries them, when we discuss the difficulty of understanding risk information, we should be clearly aware of these two dimensions of the information. Are we discussing the lines or the stage directions? Or are we discussing the lines together with the stage directions?

Which dimension of genetic risk information is most relevant to the individual? Perhaps the lines are merely a reason for moving on to the stage directions. The dramatic risk lines may speak mainly to the healthcare staff, while the individual above all needs the stage directions.

One could not work at a theater without distinguishing between lines and stage directions. Perhaps something similar applies to genetic risk information.

Pär Segerdahl

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Genetic risk entails genetic responsibility

March 5, 2019

Pär SegerdahlIntellectual optimists have seen genetic risk information as a human victory over nature. The information gives us power over our future health. What previously would have been our fate, genetics now transforms into matters of personal choice.

Reality, however, is not as rosy as in this dream of intellectual power over life. Where there is risk there is responsibility, Silke Schicktanz writes in an article on genetic risk and responsibility. This is probably how people experience genetic risk information when they face it. Genetic risk gives us new forms of responsibility, rather than liberates us from nature.

Silke Schicktanz describes how responsibility emerges in situations where genetic risk is investigated, communicated and managed. The analysis exceeds what I can reproduce in a short blog post. However, I can give the reader a sense of how genetic risk information entails a broad spectrum of responsibilities. Sometimes in the individual who receives the information. Sometimes in the professional who provides the information. Sometimes in the family affected by the information. The examples are versions of the cases discussed in the article:

Suppose you have become strangely forgetful. You do a genetic test to determine if you have a gene associated with Alzheimer’s disease. You have the gene! The test result immediately makes you responsible for yourself. What can you do to delay or alleviate the disease? What practical measures can be taken at home to help you live with the disease? You can also feel responsibility for your family. Have you transferred the gene to your children and grandchildren? Should you urge them to test themselves? What can they do to protect themselves? The professional who administered the test also becomes responsible. Should she tell you that the validity of the test is low? Maybe you should not have been burdened with such a worrying test result, when the validity so low?

Suppose you have rectum-colon cancer. The surgeon offers you to participate in a research study in which a genetic test of the tumor cells will allow individualized treatment. Here, the surgeon becomes responsible for explaining research in personalized medicine, which is not easy. There is also the responsibility of not presenting your participation in the study as an optimization of your treatment. You yourself may feel a responsibility to participate in research, as patients have done in the past. They contributed to the care you receive today. Now you can contribute to the use genetic information in future cancer care. Moreover, the surgeon may have a responsibility to counteract a possible misunderstanding of the genetic test. You can easily believe that the test says something about disease genes that you may have passed on, and that the information should be relevant to your children. However, the test concerns mutations in the cancer cells. The test provides information only about the tumor.

Suppose you have an unusual neurological disorder. A geneticist informs you that you have a gene sequence that may be the cause of the disease. Here we can easily imagine that you feel responsibility for your family and children. Your 14-year-old son has started to show symptoms, but your 16-year-old daughter is healthy. Should she do a genetic test? You discuss the matter with your ex-partner. You explain how you found the genetic information helpful: you worry less, you have started going on regular check-ups and you have taken preventive measures. Together, you decide to tell your daughter about your test results, so that she can decide for herself if she wants to test herself.

These three examples are sufficient to illustrate how genetic risk entails genetic responsibility. How wonderful it would have been if the information simply allowed us to triumph over nature, without this burdensome genetic responsibility! A pessimist could object that the responsibility becomes overpowering instead of empowering. We must surrender to the course of nature; we cannot control everything but must accept our fate.

Neither optimists nor pessimists tend to be realistic. The article by Silke Schicktanz can help us look more realistically at the responsibilities entailed by genetic risk information.

Pär Segerdahl

Schicktanz, S. 2018. Genetic risk and responsibility: reflections on a complex relationship. Journal of Risk Research 21(2): 236-258

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Why do we pay for genetic information that we do not use?

February 5, 2019

Pär SegerdahlAbout half a million people around the world have purchased direct-to-consumer genetic tests. A large majority say that they are willing to pay for the genetic information, even if the results do not reveal anything of clinical value. If so, why do they want to buy genetic information about themselves?

Many say they want health-relevant information. One can guess that they want information that helps them to live healthier: How should a person with my genes eat and exercise? However, the test results do not seem to motivate any changed behavior. Thus, people pay for genetic information, but they do not use it.

Alessandra Gorini and Gabriella Pravettoni reflect on the psychology behind consumers’ seemingly strange behavior. What makes so many buy genetic information that they will not use? In addition to the difficulty of understanding statistical information, they suggest that consumers may want to signal to themselves that everything is fine. People are generally optimists when it comes to risk. Most people think that they themselves are at less risk than others are to suffer from disease or other adverse events. Most also have a tendency to interpret information as confirming what they already believe.

What consumers of genetic tests pay for, then, is a positive signal to themselves. When they read the test results, optimistic and self-confirming cognitive processes are immediately activated: Look, I’m safe!

Gorini and Pravettoni argue that this self-signaling consumption of genetic information is problematic. The information is not used effectively. What can we do about it?

Rather than regulating the market of direct-to-consumer genetic tests, the authors propose that we should increase consumers’ knowledge and awareness, to help them use genetic information more effectively. However, if consumers are satisfied with the positive signal they sought and bought, are they motivated to acquire knowledge that can interfere with the signal?

Pär Segerdahl

Alessandra Gorini and Gabriella Pravettoni. 2016. Why do we pay for information that we won’t use? A cognitive-based explanation for genetic information seeking. European Journal of Human Genetics 24: 625. doi:10.1038/ejhg.2015.188

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