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Responsible GeneticsReview - Responsible Genetics
The Moral Responsibility of Geneticists for the Consequences of Human Genetics Research
by Anders Nordgren
Kluwer Academic, 2001
Review by Mianna Lotz, Ph.D.
Sep 8th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 37)

The question of the nature and extent of moral responsibility of geneticists for the consequences of their research has not received sustained attention in discussions of the ethics of human genetics research. Certainly, few ethicists today would accept a view of scientists as engaged in a pure pursuit of knowledge, the social and ethical consequences of which are not theirs to contemplate, attempt to influence, or assume responsibility for. Science communities themselves increasingly share this perspective, and many accept that their obligations extend beyond the doing of technically good science to the doing of morally good science. Nevertheless there is a deficiency of theoretical discussion on the topic, and in view of this Nordgren's book adopts a worthy objective and pursues it in a way that is worthy of consideration.

There is, in fact, more than one project being pursued within this book. Within the nominated project of delineating the nature and extent of geneticist's moral responsibility, we find a secondary project: the articulation and endorsement of a particular framework for ethical deliberation, one that the author claims is a new approach based on 'empirical findings of the relatively new scientific field called cognitive semantics' (p.xv). Cognitive semantics – a part of cognitive linguistics ­– emphasises the role of metaphor in our moral thinking. Much of this book's early conceptual discussion of responsibility therefore focuses on identifying the metaphorical extensions of the term, and on defending an imagination-based approach to moral reasoning.

Once the conceptual underpinnings are presented (in Chapters One and Two), the applied treatment of the nominated project is fairly straightforward and, I would say, fairly uncontroversial in the main. This more applied section of the book deals with different areas and aspects of genetic research: the Human Genome Project, gene hunting, gene testing, genetic modification of humans and laboratory animals, private ownership and commercialisation of genetic information and resources, and the long terms goals of reprogenetic medicine (which includes a useful discussion of eugenics). In this part of the book Nordgren sets himself the modest task of identifying the "ethical considerations that geneticist should take into account" in regards to each area or aspect. He conducts what is primarily a survey of ethical issues and arguments, with the aim of "contributing to a dialogue" rather than advancing and defending fully articulated positions.

In its capacity as a survey the book is suitable primarily for newcomers to debates surrounding the ethics of human genetic research. Anyone familiar with the issues would gain more from looking elsewhere for a deep discussion and adjudication of the competing arguments, for example to Philip Kitcher's The Lives To Come (1996). Nordgren does offer some adjudicative comment on the arguments, but these are generally rather brief and sometimes underdeveloped. Substantively I was sympathetic to many of the conclusions endorsed, although there are certainly objections to be made in places. One recurring concern I had was with Nordgren's view, expressed in a number of places, that those who are prepared to privately pay for some form of genetic intervention  (either directly or through supplementary health insurance) "can hardly be denied to do this" [sic]. Thus he says "In private health care…no medical interventions within the restrictions can be denied, if the prospective parents are willing to pay for them". For Nordgren, resource scarcity means that within the public health systems we should priorities genetic interventions addressing severe disease, and only offer interventions to address less severe diseases where financially feasible. Such criteria for genetic intervention are evidently inapplicable and irrelevant in a private system, and in a fuller critique I would certainly challenge that position and present counterarguments to it.

Ultimately, however, the conclusion that emerges from this part of the book is that geneticists have a duty to "respond to" the needs and fears of the general public, on the following grounds: that their research has a social impact; that it has been carried out using society's resources; that they often are in a position to anticipate the possible applications of their research; and that where applications are anticipated they should take responsibility for trying to influence the nature of those uses and applications. Nordgren makes a convincing case for geneticists to develop their own professional policies, both to directly govern their research practice and to influence decisions in the public sphere, including in politics. It is on this ground that the book makes it most important contribution.

The most controversial aspect of the book, however, is the auxiliary conceptual project that occupies the first two chapters of the book, and provides more or less of a foundation for the rest. Two central themes emerge (supplemented by a number of sub-themes): a defense of a 'Modified Social Model' of moral responsibility; and a defense of an allegedly new ethical approach termed 'Imaginative Casuistry'. Contrasting the two main models of moral responsibility – agential models and social models – Nordgren describes agential models as based on an individualistic ontology that, he claims, overlooks the social situatedness of agents. According to Nordgren agential models conflate moral and causal responsibility, and as a result an individual cannot be found to be morally responsible for situations to which s/he has no direct or indirect causal connection. In contrast, social models of responsibility prioritize the social practices of praise and blame ­– in other words, the social attribution of responsibility – construing responsibility as determined by social role rather than causal relatedness. As Nordgren says, 'The content of one's responsibility is what one's social position or role demands.' (p.4) This means, amongst other things, that an agent can be found to be fully morally responsible in spite of being only indirectly causally responsible; and can be acquitted of full moral responsibility in spite of having been directly causally responsible. Nordgren concludes that both models have their valid points but face limitations that he hopes to overcome with his 'Modified Social Responsibility Model'. The characteristics of the preferred model are that causal responsibility is treated as relevant but not in itself determining of moral responsibility; that it recognizes the social ascription and assumption of moral responsibility by communities, social groups or individuals; and that it permits for individuals ascribing or assuming a moral responsibility that deviates from established social practices (a criterion that a social model may have difficulties in satisfying.)

This discussion is important to the nominated thesis of the book as a whole, since Nordgren wants to permit for a fairly robust moral responsibility on the part of geneticists for even unintended (though arguably not unforeseen) applications of their research. However, the agential and social models are over simplified in Nordgren's attempt to carve out space for his modified model. For example, it simply is not the case that agential models, with their recognition of the importance of causal relatedness, are necessarily incapable of acknowledging that causal and moral responsibility might come apart. They can readily accommodate for cases of coercion or compulsion, for example, by understanding these as conditions that mitigate moral responsibility without denying causal responsibility. Nor are agential models necessarily incompatible with recognition of the individual self as socially constituted.

As to Social Models, Nordgren's criticism is primarily that they do not recognize that the individual is partly biologically constituted, as sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists emphasize. Nordgren acknowledges that some fairly powerful objections may be leveled at both disciplines, yet wants to accord just enough significance to the role of biology and genes in agency to clear a conceptual space for his Modified Social Model. Ultimately, however, I do not believe that space to be available. The key tenets of his Modified Social Responsibility model are compatible with, and indeed are either explicitly or implicitly supplied by, any respectable agential model. Thus Nordgren fails to convince us of a need to adopt an alternative model.

 The book turns then to a discussion of the concept of responsibility and its various uses, a discussion that is then elaborated upon in the proceeding chapter in regards to scientific responsibility in particular. While this discussion is fairly straightforward, the theme of the metaphorical nature of responsibility emerges here as another of the sub-themes of the book. The view – articulated also in works such as Mark Johnson's Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics (1993) – is that morality and its concepts is metaphorical in nature. Nordgren competently illustrates his version of this view by subjecting the notion of responsibility to analysis in terms of the various metaphors of 'accounting' or 'owing', and 'responding' or 'answering'. Importantly, Nordgren is not simply pointing out that we tend to think in terms of and use metaphors when we apply notions like responsibility, as well as autonomy, integrity, and justice (illustrated and discussed elsewhere in the book). The claim is the stronger one that because of these patterns of usage, the concept in question is metaphorical. As noted, the starting point for cognitive semantics, in analyzing a concept, is empirical: that is, the content of a concept is specified by peoples' actual usage of the concept.

Since one might reasonably expect the bulk of Nordgren's audience to be primarily ethicists rather than philosophers of language, it seems fair to level the criticism that no fully compelling argument has been given in this book for what we might loosely call the 'use–determines–essence' claim. To repeatedly point out, as does Nordgren, that the claim that responsibility is a metaphorical concept is fully in line with the findings of cognitive semantics, does not provide the proof of the claim's validity that Nordgren clearly hopes for. And this reference to the evidence of cognitive semantics is problematic in a more general sense in the book. Granted, it is not the book's aim to defend cognitive semantics or the metaphorical analysis that commonly accompanies it. Yet in the absence of a defense, the approach cannot be appealed to as some sort of evidence for claims being advanced, as occurs in this book.

We come, then, to Nordgren's defense of the method of 'Imaginative Casuistry'. Again, the alleged value of this approach, compared to other forms of casuistry, is that it is compatible with "the empirical findings of cognitive semantics". Nordgren makes a distinction between 'engineering' and 'tinkering' in moral reasoning. The first refers to a principles-based form of reasoning in which principles are applied to specific ethical problems and answers are generated "deductively" from those principles. The second, nondeductivist approach, of which imaginative casuistry is a "radical version", treats moral concepts as 'fuzzy' and 'metaphorical' rather than well-defined and literal, and takes as its starting point earlier moral experiences of more or less typical cases. Moral imagination is used to move from proto-typical to nonprototypical cases, thereby facilitating moral understanding that is case-based and highly particularist. Nordgren says that while principles may serve as reminders of important considerations that should be included in our moral deliberation, they are to be thought of as mere "rules of thumb summarizing the collective wisdom regarding prototypical cases, not technical rules which tell us exactly what to do in specific situations" (p.34).

Nordgren thus locates his discussion within a particular current of meta-ethical thought and methodology, and adherents to the more classical principles-based approach would take issue with that commitment itself. My criticism here, however, will be restricted to the observation that the book does not represent a very clear example of an approach that differs radically from the normative approaches against which it is being compared (which include Kantianism, utilitarianism, 'principlism' and reflective equilibrium). For a start, the description of traditional and standard ethical reasoning as deductivist is uncharitable and largely inaccurate. That objection aside, Nordgren's application of imaginative casuistry leaves the reader wondering just where the radical difference in approach actually lies. At many points in the book, Nordgren invokes principles as justifying the claims or positions he is defending. We find repeated claims that this or that position is justified on the basis of the principle of justice, or demanded by the principle of respect for individual autonomy. Additionally, in Nordgren's hands use of the moral imagination amounts to no more than taking different arguments and perspectives into account, empathizing with persons involved, and envisioning different alternatives of action. To suggest that conducting moral reasoning in this manner is some kind of "radical" departure is misrepresentative.  Moreover, in the sub-sections of the book that are explicitly designated to the moral imagination approach, we find simply arguments for and against the view under consideration. In sum, we find a methodological approach that in most respects bears great resemblance to the very approaches that Nordgren claims to reject. This is puzzling and ultimately somewhat frustrating.

For a book that professes a commitment to casuistry, Responsible Genetics is also surprisingly light on concrete application and case studies. Certainly, there are examples and discussions of actual policies and historical cases. However, this is not nearly as extensive or regular a feature of the book as one would expect or indeed hope for. Finally, the quality of the writing and editing in the book is uneven. The reader is left with the distinct impression that English is not the first language of the author, and several times a slightly clumsy form of expression impedes the flow of the work, and intrudes upon the readers' focus on the substantive detail, while not rendering it incomprehensible at any point. Hence, while we should acknowledge the book's worthy aim of contributing to a dialogue that needs to take place, we do not, in Responsible Genetics, have a book that goes a substantial distance towards fulfilling that need.


© 2004 Mianna Lotz


Dr Mianna Lotz is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne, and an Associate Fellow of the Department of Philosophy, La Trobe University. She has taught in normative and meta-ethics, applied and professional ethics, and social philosophy at a number of universities in Australia and New Zealand. Her primary research interests are in the ethical and social issues raised by recent biotechnological developments, with a particular focus on reproductive biotechnologies and questions pertaining to parental obligations/liberties and children’s rights. She is a current Executive Committee member of the Australian Association for Professional and Applied Ethics (AAPAE). In January 2005 Mianna will take up a teaching position in ethics/applied ethics in the Department of Philosophy at Macquarie University, New South Wales.


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