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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 497-499 ( 1 November )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/graham.html

Original Article

The Ethical “Debate” about Genetics


Gordon Graham*

A favourite pair of alternatives among those who write about genetics is “dream or nightmare?”. It is a phrase that has appeared in the titles of at least three recent books, and refers, of course, to the prospects that people see in genetic engineering. Are these prospects to be welcomed or feared? It is usually at this point that politicians and others, if they do not call for a moratorium, call for a debate, because of the “ethical” issues that are raised by the new technologies of genetic screening, genetic modification, cloning and so on. But what is such a debate to be about, exactly, and what conclusions should it come to? There is a familiar chain of reasoning that runs along the following lines.

The science of genetics has placed in our hands new powers so great that they now (or will shortly) make it possible to refashion human nature itself. This is a huge change in human capability and invites vastly expanded medical and other ambitions. It is thus a matter of very great importance, one that must involve everyone and cannot just be left to the scientists. There are profound ethical issues at stake here, and hence there must be an ethical debate. The aim of this debate must be to put in place a moral context within which laws regulating the new technology can be framed. And the speed at which this technology is advancing makes this debate ever more urgent.

Now at one level this line of argument seems quite uncontentious. Yet once we begin to scrutinize it, it gets harder and harder to see exactly what form the debate it calls for is supposed to take, and what its conclusion could possibly be. This is in large part because the contemporary world is strongly inclined to contrast science and ethics in a way that makes the former objective but the latter subjective. Accordingly, whereas scientific debate is expected to arrive at provable answers to empirical questions, ethical debate is not. There are no moral facts and no moral experts. Indeed, ethical “debate” on this model, can hardly be more than the airing of opinions. But as Plato saw quite clearly over two thousand years ago, if moral opinion is truly subjective in this way, then the only prospect of any ‘solution’ to moral debate is a political one – a vote in which the opinion of the majority prevails just because it is that of the majority. Plato’s objection to this conclusion was twofold. If one person can get a moral issue wrong, so can the majority, and if in moral debate there is no role for rational proof or demonstration but only rhetoric and persuasion, then opinion on the topics in question becomes susceptible to manipulation by demagogues and the like -- in our day media specialists and lobbyists .

Plato, of course, believed that there was an alternative to this subjective conception with its appeal to majority opinion, and that was the discipline of philosophy. Philosophers should be left to decide moral (and political) questions because they had the necessary expertise. In his day not everyone believed this. Nowadays no one does. This raises two questions. If there is no subject or discipline whose special province is ethics, what is to control and inform the ethical “debate” about genetic engineering that everyone seems to think we need? And what is the role of moral philosophy, which despite the radical moral subjectivism that contemporary culture subscribes to, goes on being taught and studied?

I think these are very important questions, not so much with respect to the ethics of genetic engineering directly, but with respect to our understanding of what public debate in a responsible society is. First, if there is to be such a thing, we have to recover a strong sense that not everyone’s opinion on these matters should be given credence, or even a hearing. This is not to say that some views should be suppressed. Rather, we need to instil in our educational systems, and in the media, a recognition that, even if ethical issues are ultimately matters of opinion, there are better and less well informed opinions, and that opinion, prejudice and partiality are not all to be bracketed together. Since it just is true that on ethical issues the general level of ignorance can be very striking and prejudices play a large part in many people’s approach to them, we had better get into the way of asking people for their credentials as participants in the debate, just as we would ask for the credentials of financial advisors, say, where the issues are also ultimately matters of opinion. We need a culture of public debate in which opinions that are ill–informed, prejudiced and foolish are not given the respect that they tend to be under the slogan ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion’. ‘Everyone is entitled to their opinion’ if this means that they ought not to be silenced on pain of punishment; but they are not entitled to equal respect. That depends upon what their opinion is. I do not want to see the racist silenced, but this does not mean that I accord her opinion the slightest respect.

Were we to have such a culture, it is easier to answer the second question – the question about the role of the professional philosopher. What philosophers typically do is uncover conceptual connections – in this case for example, connections between genetic explanation and the ambitions of the genetic engineers for designer babies and the like that are not always easy for others to see. Secondly, philosophers are trained in the construction of clear, analytical forms of argument, and at exposing logical fallacies, and many moral arguments are riddled with these. Most importantly, perhaps, they are educated in a very long history of moral reflection where many of the same issues appear again and again in only moderately different guises. To recognise this is to be in a position to avail ourselves of the reflections of some of the most brilliant intellects in our history and apply them to issues – like genetic engineering – which earlier periods new nothing about.

These special aptitudes do not turn moral philosophers into moral experts, or put them in a position to give definitive answers and advice to governments or the population at large. But they do enable them to contribute significantly to the informing of those opinions that are better informed, and to the dispelling of partiality from those opinions that lean powerfully in the direction of prejudice. In short, they contribute significantly to making public debate something much more substantial than a mere rehearsal of views already held or worse a shouting match between parties with axes to grind. And in so doing, it may be, that philosophy contributes as much as can be contributed. Perhaps both Plato and his opponents were right, at least to this extent. There is both the possibility of thinking well, and thinking badly, even when there is no possibility of proof and disproof. It is in the light of this belief, certainly, that I have written my own philosophical inquiry about genes.

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© Gordon Graham.

* Dr. Graham is Regius Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen and Director of the Aberdeen Centre for Philosophy, Technology and Science. He is also the author of Philosophy of the Arts (Routledge 1997) and The Shape of the Past (Oxford University Press 1997)


Graham, G. (2002). The Ethical "Debate" about Genetics. Human Nature Review. 2: 497-499.

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