Monday, November 06, 2017

Play in Ancient Greece Interview

The latest issue of The American Journal of Play has an interesting interview with Simon Goldhill, Professor of Greek at the University of Cambridge. Here is a sample:

Did ancient authors regard play as a serious subject for reflection? Did they
celebrate play’s benefits or warn about its dangers?

Goldhill: The ancients discussed play extensively, talking about how to behave at a symposium, what theater meant, or what the role of nonwork—leisure—was in society. They discussed it philosophically, in comedy, and in casual remarks. A host of moralists considered the danger and necessity of humor, for example, and what constituted acceptable playfulness in social discourse. And their discussions were picked up by hundreds of later writers. Aristotle’s definition of wit as “civilized outrageous violence” has been hugely influential. The language in which play was debated, and especially the nature of humor, was set by Greek philosophy, just as the first extended discussion of the value and purpose of social life in the city was by Plato.


Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Virtue Handbook (pre-order available)

This monumental volume (nearly 1000 pages!) on Virtue edited by Nancy Snow is now available to pre-order. I think it will be a must read for those interested in the virtue ethics tradition. It contains 42 chapters, the last chapter in the book is my contribution on "Virtue Epistemology and the Democratic Life". Looking forward to seeing the completed volume when it comes out.

Here is the abstract of my contribution:

Integrating insights from the Ancient Greeks (e.g. concerning virtue, eudaimonia, and the original meaning of “democracy”), John Dewey, and recent work in virtue epistemology, this chapter develops a virtue-based defense of democracy, one that conceives of democracy as an inquiry-based mode of social existence. This account of democracy is developed by responding to three common concerns raised against democracy, which the author calls the Irrationality Problem, the Problem of Autonomy, and the Epistocracy Objection. Virtue epistemology can help elucidate the link between democracy and human flourishing by drawing attention to democracy’s potential for cultivating and refining the “intellectual virtues” (e.g. intellectual humility, fairness in evaluating the arguments of others, the social virtue of being communicative, etc.) constitutive of the good life.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Genetics and Ethics Book (... in the final stretch!)

I am working on the final chapter of my forthcoming textbook titled Genetics and Ethics for Polity Press. It is expected to be published in 2018 and I have cleared my summer schedule to ensure I have time to make the final revisions to make this book so it will be as up-to-date and relevant as possible. Here is the substantive blurb I sent the publishers which gives you an overview of the topics covered and conclusions reached in the book:

Advances in the biomedical sciences, especially our understanding of the role genes play in health, disease, happiness and human behaviour, might help societies advance important moral aspirations. These aspirations range from preventing and treating specific diseases, to realizing greater equality of opportunity, expanding the scope of reproductive freedom and the promotion of the healthy aging of a population. New technological advancements, like genetic screening and testing, gene therapy and genome editing raise a host of ethical questions. Is the idea of “genetically engineering” humans a morally objectionable form of “eugenics”? Would it be ethical to alter the rate of human aging if doing so would increase the number of years humans can expect to live on a warming planet with a global population already exceeding 7 billion people? Should parents undergoing IVF be permitted to screen for the sex of their offspring? What plays a more important role in human health and happiness, heredity or environment? And how does the answer to latter question influence what we consider morally sound science policy to be in the twenty-first century? These and other pressing societal concerns are addressed in Genetics and Ethics.

The book is designed to help students and scholars in the humanities and life sciences think rationally and cogently about the ethical and social challenges raised by the genetic revolution. Some philosophers have urged caution about expanding the domain of human control to include directly influencing the “genetic lottery of life”. Michael Sandel, for example, has argued that the quest to perfect our biology threatens to erode our appreciation for life as a gift. While Jürgen Habermas has defended the position that parents selecting the genetic constitutions of their offspring threaten the self-understanding of the affected person as an autonomous and responsible agent. Other authors make the idea of “normal species functioning” a central focus of their normative analysis of the demands of genetics and justice. In From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice, Allen Buchanan, Dan Brock, Norman Daniels and Daniel Wikler conclude that there is a principled presumption that genetic intervention to prevent or ameliorate serious limitations on opportunity due to disease is a requirement of justice. And finally the bioethicist Julian Savulescu has gone so far as to endorse what he calls the “principle of procreative beneficence” which maintains that couples should select the child who is expected to have the best life based on the relevant information, including genetic information.

Farrelly proposes we pause and hit the “reset” button on the ethical debates about genetics and genetic engineering. The ethical analysis developed in this textbook is not deferential to “normal species functioning” or the therapy/enhancement distinction. Nor does it address the ethics of procreative decisions in a fashion that ignores the different burdens that may be placed on women vs men. And finally, the ethical analysis advanced in the book does not treat genetic interventions as one monolithic type of intervention. Like different types of social engineering (e.g. patriarchy, capitalism, democracy, education, etc.), genetic engineering could be both good or bad. The devil is really in the details. So rather than develop an ethical analysis of genetics that prioritizes one particular value or moral ideal to guide our deliberations about the prospect of genetically engineering humans, Farrelly advances instead a provisional moral analysis. He contends that public discourse and debate should be informed by important empirical insights concerning the role heredity plays in different traits, as well as the risks, benefits and costs of genetic intervention to individuals and societies vs the risks, benefits and costs of the “biological status quo” yielded by the blind process of evolution by natural selection.

The chapters of the book address issues as varied as eugenics, infectious and chronic disease, evolutionary biology, epigenetics, happiness, reproductive freedom and longevity. The book emphasizes why the virtue ethics tradition is particularly helpful to address the complexity of ethical and social issues raised by advances in our understanding of human genetics. The virtuous polity, argues Farrelly, is one that aspires to ensure that both individuals and populations can flourish. By integrating an account of the moral virtues of benevolence and justice with the epistemic or intellectual virtues- the ability to recognise the salient facts and have a sensitivity to details, intellectual humility, adaptability of intellect and the detective’s virtues- Farrelly helps illuminate some of the ethical challenges raised by the genetic revolution. This distinctive methodology of the book, coupled with the timeliness of its applied focus, should appeal to both philosophers and those interested in advances in the biomedical sciences more generally.

An empirically-informed virtue ethics analysis of genetics and ethics, concludes Farrelly, yields five general, substantive moral convictions. Firstly, a virtuous polity would see genetic intervention, whether it be gene therapy, genome editing or a drug that modulates the expression of specific genes, as a possible extension of the duty to aid provided such interventions prove to be reasonably safe and cost-effective ways of preventing or treating morbidity. Secondly, virtuous agents would avoid the folly of both genetic determinism and environmental determinism. Thirdly, a virtuous polity would not necessarily eschew eugenics, where that term is taken to mean, as Bertrand Russell (1934) defines it, as “the attempt to improve the biological character of a breed by deliberate methods adopted to that end”. 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 moral agents. Fourthly, 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 three different moral values (without ascribing a primacy to any one of these values)- autonomy, wellbeing and equality. And finally, a virtuous polity would aspire to promote the healthy aging of its population, including pursuing interventions that retard the aging process if doing so increases the healthspan or “biological warranty period” of humans. Any such aging intervention should be pursued in a responsible manner so that considerations of equity, population size, intergenerational justice and environmental impact are also taken seriously.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Three-Parent Baby

NatureNews reports on the genetic details of the first child created from the DNA of three parents. The study is here.

The January issue of Bioethics has a special issue devoted to this topic.


Monday, March 13, 2017

"Natural" vs "Normal" with Gene Therapy/Enhancement

The National Academy of Sciences has published an extensive document on the ethics and governance of genome editing (see here). This is very timely for me as I am in the process of writing, and I hope completing in the next few months, a textbook on this general topic.

In the chapter dealing with genetic enhancement there is a brief discussion of the conflation of describing particular genetic mutations or constitutions as "natural" with the sentiment that they must therefore be "positive" and "beneficial". This conflation typically occurs when people object to genetic manipulation on the grounds that it is "playing god". The report helpfully explains the problem with this stance:

The word “natural” has similarly taken on a positive connotation reflecting a common view
that nature produces things that are healthier and generally better than anything artificial—this
despite evidence demonstrating that “natural” things can be either safe or intrinsically dangerous.
In the present context, genetic variants that exist in nature may either support health or cause
disease, and the human population contains multiple variants of most genes (see Chapter 4).
Thus, there is no single “normal” human genome sequence; rather, there are multiple variant
human genomic sequences (IGSR, 2016), all of which occur in the worldwide human gene pool
and, in that sense, are “natural,” and all of which can be either advantageous or disadvantageous.
(p. 106)

Given evolution by natural selection has given us genes, and genomes, for both health and disease, the question is whether humans ought to purposefully intervene in the genetic lottery of life to bring about a more desirable outcome than that conferred by the arbitrary process of evolution by natural selection. As the prospect of successful human intervention increases, so too, I believe, does the moral imperative to intervene to improve our biology beyond the confines of what evolution by natural selection has provided.


CFRC interview on the Genetic Revolution

Last week I gave a 40 minute interview for the Right of Reply Show on CFRC. The interview starts around 6 minutes into the link below and covers genetic intervention, aging and justice.

Interview here.


Sunday, February 26, 2017

Book Launch this week!

My department has kindly organized a book launch for Biologically Modified Justice, which takes place Tuesday at Queen's this week. Details are in the attached poster.

Trying to summarize 15 years of research and argument in 30 minutes is proving a challenge for me. Perhaps I can succinctly capture Part 1 of the book by breaking it down into the good news and the bad news.

The good news is humanity has escaped the "Young World", a world dominated by early-life mortality caused by extrinsic risk factors (e.g. infectious disease, poverty, war, etc.). The bad news is the "Aged World" is one of unprecedented levels of chronic disease and suffering, a problem that will continue to get worse unless we successfully increase the biological warranty period of humans.

One major goal of the book is to canvass how the transition from the Young to the Aged world requires a major re-think of what the demands of distributive justice are (especially the importance of well-ordered science).


Sunday, December 18, 2016

2016 Year in Review

Blogging has been light for me again in 2016, so I wanted to remedy that with a year in review post and a promise to return to more regular posts in 2017.

Professionally 2016 was a very important year for me as my book Biologically Modified Justice was finally published with Cambridge University Press in June. It will be interesting to see what reaction this book gets from (1) other political theorists (admittedly it is a topic very few theorists are working on, but hopefully that will change!); and (2) scientists working in the fields of genetics and aging.

The ink wasn't even dry on Biologically Modified Justice and I have starting working in earnest on a textbook on genetics and ethics for Polity Press. Unlike the contextual, pluralistic moral analysis developed in Biologically Modified Justice, this new textbook adopts a virtue ethics/epistemological lens. So I have made much more work for myself by adopting a completely different theoretical foundation for this new work. I am hoping to make the final push to complete this textbook over the next 6 months.

I also completed 2 forthcoming book chapters in 2016, one for a volume on Virtue Ethics (my chapter is on virtue epistemology and democracy) and the second for a book on Ethics and the End of Life (my chapters is on justice and life extension).

I also taught a brand new 3rd year undergraduate course at Queen's on "Law and Politics" to 60 undergraduates. The course was a re-designed version of a graduate-level course I originally taught at UCLA when I was a Visiting Professor there in the Dept of Public Policy 3 years ago. This was the first course I taught with chalk and a black board in well over a decade. I really enjoyed it, and am slated to teach it again this coming winter term.

I wish everyone all the best over the holidays, and may 2017 find you in continued good health and high spirits!