In this new textbook I am writing on genetics and ethics I employ a virtue ethics
analysis of the issues. One of the early chapters details the limitations of invoking principles for tackling the social consequences of the genetic revolution (or any practical predicament).
Over the course of the next few posts I will detail 4 principles adopted by moral and political philosophers to reveal the potential problems they face in terms of enhancing our exercise of practical reason, especially if one is tempted (as I certainly was when I started thinking and writing about these issues) to apply these principles to guide our thoughts on the prospect of genetic intervention.
(1) Peter Singer, The Principle of Preventing Bad Occurrences
(2) John Rawls, Two Principles of Justice
(3) Robert Nozick, Principle of self-ownership and the slogan: "Liberty Upsets Patterns"
(4) Precautionary Principle
In this particular post I will limit myself to a brief discussion of Singer's principle.
Singer invoked this principle to raise awareness about the problem of global poverty. But one could see how the principle might be employed to mitigate the vulnerabilities of the genetic revolution. Let us re-hash Singer's principle and the famous child drowning case.
The principle of preventing bad occurrences maintains: If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.
Singer asked us to contemplate a now famous thought experiment to demonstrate the normative force of this duty to aid. The example concerns a child who is drowning in a shallow pond. You are walking past the pond and notice the distressed child in need of assistance. The child is not your child, nor is the child a compatriot. They are a citizen from a distant and far away country. Nevertheless, the child is a human being in need of assistance. If the only burden to be incurred by saving the child is getting one’s shoes and trousers wet then there is, argues Singer, a stringent duty to save the child.
Singer then drew an analogy between the example of the drowning child and global poverty. The rich living in the developed world have a stringent moral obligation, he argued, to donate a significant amount of their income to help those living in poverty in distant lands. Singer’s argument spurred much debate on the demands of global justice, a topic largely ignored by philosophers before Singer’s article. Questions like “Do national boundaries have any ethical significance?” are still debated over forty years after Singer’s original article appeared in print.
But invoking the principle of preventing bad occurrences (or a duty to aid) is not, by itself, very helpful in terms of the practical guidance it provides us with. This is not to suggest that appealing to principles has no legitimate role to play in our moral deliberations. Invoking general rules or principles can help us adopt a “bird’s eye perspective” of the moral landscape. However, I believe there are also significant limitations in relying too heavily on moral principles or rules. Most of the bad things in the world, including global poverty, are infinitely more complex and complicated that the example of helping a drowning child in a shallow pond. How do we ensure the actions we undertake to redress poverty actually help
others, rather than just wasting our time and energy or, even worse, making the situation even more dire (as can conceivably happen in the case of providing foreign aid)?
The problem of global poverty is not simply, or even primarily, a problem of the rich not donating money to the poor. But it is hard not to form that impression form Singer’s original article. The central moves in Singer’s moral argument are (1) to invoke the principle of bad occurrences, then (2) to link that principle with the badness of poverty, and then (3) to conclude that the solution to this bad is for the rich to donate more money to foreign aid.
Suppose we ran a similar moral analysis to buttress the case for mitigating the genetic lottery of life. Imagine the child in need of assistance was not drowning in a shallow pond. Instead, the source of the threat of the child drowning was internal to her. The child was born with cystic fibrosis (CF), a genetic disorder which impedes the normal functioning of lungs. Left untreated, a child will in effect “drown from within” as the condition fills the lungs with fluid.
In the 1970s a child with CF had a very low life expectancy at birth. Typically a child did not live more than just a few years. However by the 1990s things had improved. The median age of survival for a child born with CF in Canada was nearly 32 years. And that increased to nearly 50 years by 2012. However, a life expectancy of 50 years is still 30 year less than the average in Canada. Inheriting the genes for CF has a profound impact on the life prospects of a person. Dying from CF, like dying from poverty, is a bad thing we should seek to prevent if possible. So why not make the Singerian moves (1) and a modified version of (2) which focuses on the harms of genetic disease, and then conclude that people should be donating all their resources to creating a gene therapy for CF, until the sacrifice risks something of comparable importance to developing CF?
One of the central limitations of invoking the principle of preventing bad occurrences and applying it to one specific form of badness (be it poverty or CF) is that the world has many bad things about it that need to be addressed. So invoking the principle itself doesn’t help us determine how to prioritize among the plurality of problems (i.e. bad occurrences) we need to address, nor does it bring adequate attention to the realities that different kinds of intervention will be more risky, or costly, or effective than other forms of intervention. I believe a shift to the virtue of benevolence and acting from phronesis (practical wisdom) will help remedy these shortcomings. In the next post I will detail some of the problems facing the adoption of the principles in 2-4 to the topic of genetics.