When I first decided to start writing Genetic Ethics: An Introduction (nearly five years ago), I wanted the book to accomplish two, inter-connected, goals- the first goal was practical, and the second goal was more theoretical.
The practical goal was to help the reader confront the myriad of ethical and societal concerns that arise from the rapid advances in genetic knowledge and technologies like genome editing, sex selection and a potential anti-aging intervention. And I wanted this engagement with the ethical quandaries posed by the genetic revolution to be empirically informed not only about the science behind these innovations, but to also be informed about our evolved biology (e.g. why we age?) and the relevant realities of the world today (e.g. the global disease burden, patriarchy, climate change, etc.).
Is the prospect of “genetically engineering” humans- to make us live longer, healthier and happier lives- something to be hailed or feared? Would going down this path necessarily take us in the direction of re-visiting the unjust eugenic policies of the past? Is it desirable to extend human life longer when doing so could threaten to exacerbate problems like climate change and population density? And should parents have the liberty to select the sex of their offspring? These are pressing questions we must answer this century as the science is rapidly progressing, making these technologies a reality.
Genetic Ethics: An Introduction encourages the reader to adopt an informed, balanced and provisional attitude about the potential pros and cons of different types of scientific advances that will permit us to play a more proactive role in shaping human biology.
The second goal I set myself in writing this book was to detail a nuanced and compelling account of virtue ethics that could be address the practical concerns raised by the genetic revolution. The virtue ethics tradition, which dates back to the Ancient Greek philosophers (especially Aristotle), is typically criticized as an indeterminate normative theory that lacks concrete practical guidance. The normative standard virtue ethics invokes, concerning how we ought to act or what we ought to believe, is one which prescribes we mimic what a virtuous person or society (or “polity”, the term I prefer to use) would do and believe if placed in the same circumstances we find ourselves in.
The account of virtue ethics I deploy in Genetic Ethics: An Introductionemphasizes the importance of both moral and intellectual (or “epistemic”) virtue. The following two moral virtues are central throughout all the chapters of the book:
(1) Benevolence: the virtue of benefitting others, especially preventing avoidable harms (e.g. disease or risk of disease) to both persons and populations.
(2) Justice: the virtue of treating others fairly and impartially. This includes taking seriously the protection of basic rights and liberties, and fairly distributing the benefits and burdens of social cooperation (e.g. income, healthcare resources, etc.).
The list of “intellectual” or “epistemic” virtues I utilize is a partial list of the virtues championed by Linda Zagzebski in Virtues of the Mind. They are:
(1) the ability to recognise the salient facts and have a sensitivity to details.
(2) intellectual humility.
(3) adaptability of intellect.
(4) the detective’s virtues: thinking of coherent explanations of the facts.
By emphasizing a specific list of moral and epistemic virtues, I hope Genetic Ethics: An Introduction demonstrates the depth and sophistication virtue ethics offers us in terms of tackling some of the most significant practical dilemmas of the 21st century.
In the book I conclude that, when this account of virtue ethics is applied to the issues of genetics and genetic intervention, the following provisional moral theses would be endorsed by a virtuous polity:
(1) A virtuous polity would determine if any genetic intervention, whether it be gene therapy, genome editing or a drug that activates the expression of specific genes, is morally permissible, indeed perhaps even morally required, by its potential to prevent harm in a reasonably safe and cost-effective manner (e.g. by preventing, delaying or treating morbidity).
(2) Virtuous agents would eschew both genetic determinism and environmental determinism.
(3) A virtuous polity would not necessarily eschew eugenics, where eugenics is understood, as Bertrand Russell defines it, as “the attempt to improve the biological character of a breed by deliberate methods adopted to that end”. (Russell 1929, p. 254). In other words, to describe an intervention as “eugenic” does not mean it is unjust. Eugenic aspirations can be morally defensible, even morally obligatory, when they pursue empirically sound and morally justified aims (e.g. promotion of health) through reasonable and morally justified means that treat all persons as free and equal persons.
(4) A virtuous polity would take a purposeful approach to determining the scope and limitations of reproductive and parental freedom. Such an approach will give due consideration to the values of autonomy, wellbeing and equality (without ascribing a primacy to any one of these values).
(5) A virtuous polity would aspire to promote the healthy aging of its population through all possible means (including interventions that extend the lifespan if doing so increased the healthspan). Such measures should be pursued in a responsible manner so that considerations of equity, population size, intergenerational justice and environmental impact are also taken seriously.
If I am successful in achieving the two main goals I set for myself with writing this book- (1) shedding light on how we can best meet the new challenges of advances in the biomedical sciences; and (2) showing the depth, sophistication and wisdom of the virtue ethics tradition- then Genetic Ethics: An Introduction should hopefully appeal to a wide readership of students and scholars in disciplines ranging from the life sciences and medicine, to philosophy, bioethics, and public policy.
Colin Farrelly is Professor of Political Studies at Queen’s University, Canada.