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Book Review: Rationality and the Genetic Challenge - Making People Better?

20 December 2010
Appeared in BioNews 589

Rationality and the Genetic Challenge: Making People Better?

By Professor Matti Häyry

Published by Cambridge University Press

ISBN-10: 0521757134, ISBN-13: 978-0521757133

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'Rationality and the Genetic Challenge: Making People Better?' by Professor Matti Häyry

'Rationality and the Genetic Challenge: Making People Better?' addresses the moral issues and ethical debates surrounding recent advances in genetic science.

Professor Matti Häyry begins the book by describing three main obstacles to human happiness and wellbeing. First, the nonhuman environment around us, second our psychology including our political and social systems, and finally our biology, specifically its limits and vulnerability. He defines the genetic challenge as the questions resulting from our potential solutions to these obstacles, questions that arise 'when we cannot readily agree on what our reactions should be and on what grounds'.

For people without a background in genetic ethics, the second chapter provides a useful grounding to the debates about genetic science. Professor Häyry outlines three of the most interesting schools of thought and introduces six leading bioethicists whose ideas are representative of these schools.

Consequentialism is described from the viewpoints of Jonathan Glover and John Harris, who place value on individual lives. Teleology is discussed using the works of Leon Kass and Michael Sandel, who emphasise the concepts of tradition and community. Deontology is examined through examples from Jürgen Habermas and Ronald Green, who see principles as most important. The views of these six individuals form the backbone of the book, which follows how each school of ethics would react to the genetic challenges described.

After presenting the prominent voices in the field, Professor Häyry argues none of these outlooks are definitive because all of them break down under certain circumstances. This is why it is possible for opposing views to exist, as each can find fault with the other in a given situation. This leads Professor Häyry to introduce his second fundamental idea - rationality and the rational approach.

Professor Häyry believes that rationality is the basis of all functional views, and he uses rationality as a method for assessing arguments. A more rational approach than any of the current multimodal and polarised ethical schools, Professor Häyry argues, would be that of the 'polite bystander'. This method accepts 'there are many divergent rationalities, all of which can be simultaneously valid'. The polite bystander listens to and evaluates each opinion before making a judgment. This method is used to discuss the ethical views presented in the book.

The book then takes seven scenarios and discusses the genetic challenge surrounding each - one challenge per chapter. These range from using genetic testing to select for certain traits in embryos, cloning for reproductive purposes, using people as a means to treat others, and methods for the considerable lengthening of life.

While each topic covers a huge range of ethical issues, Professor Häyry narrows the focus to the challenge best exemplified by that scenario. For example, in the stem cell therapy chapter, the discussion focuses on whether women could be exploited and used as a means for egg production. The dispute over the genetic selection of traits revolves around the role of parental responsibility.

The book gives the reader enough information to understand scientific techniques without going into too much technical detail, but its richest asset is its comparison of the work of influential ethicists. These are largely drawn from modern times and include Julian Savulescu and Søren Holm. Historical examples, however, are also given. These include Henry Sidgwick, author of 'The Methods of Ethics' in 1874 and the key founders of Western philosophy, Plato and Aristotle.

The book is highly structured; chapters begin with a heading explaining what the reader is going to learn and ideas are distilled to fit in subsections, which are extensively cross-referenced. The chapters conclude with a paragraph reminding the reader of the key points Professor Häyry has made.

I found the clear format useful. The technical language and content was not something I was familiar with so regular reiteration of the key points was helpful. The only downside of this format is Professor Häyry goes to great lengths to explain and clarify the structure. Much of the time you are being told how the rest of the book will progress rather than getting into the arguments.

By the end of the book, it is clear that the world of genetic ethics is split into opposing camps with little constructive communication between them. The genetic challenge surrounding the selection of embryos at risk of deafness, for example, is split into those with a medical view - who believe it is always wrong to select for deafness - and those with a social view who think deafness should not be seen as a disability. There is little concession on either side and no clear-cut theories deemed acceptable in all situations by all parties.

This book makes it apparent that the ethics surrounding genetic advances are something that the whole of society should be thinking about. It lays out rational and compelling views on all sides of the ethical debate, and leaves the reader feeling suitably equipped to come to their own conclusions.

The final chapter sums up this message: 'the practical point of the book, then, is to empower readers to make up their own minds on genetic and related technologies and not to lull themselves into thinking that they can find ready-made answers of universal validity in philosophical writings'.

Although the seven topics are not new and the conclusion is somewhat obvious, this book serves as a comprehensive source of reference. But more importantly it is a reminder that all arguments, even one's own, are fallible. For that reason, it deserves a place on any bookshelf.

Buy Rationality and the Genetic Challenge: Making People Better? from Amazon UK.

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