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by Anders Nordgren
Kluwer Academic, 2001
Review by Arantza Etxeberria, Ph.D. on Mar 20th 2003

Responsible Genetics

The main question of this book is whether scientists --in this case, geneticists- hold moral responsibility for the consequences of their research. And the answer is yes. In the front of the book stands a quote by Bertrand Russell: “It is impossible in the world for a man of science to say with any honesty, 'My business is to provide knowledge, and what use is made of the knowledge is not my responsibility' ”. Yet, unfortunately, scientists often take refuge in the belief that pure learning is value-free and independent of practical consequences, and prefer to leave those to be dealt by other instances, social or institutional.

This book, written after the Human Genome Project is virtually complete, elaborates at length this issue of research responsibility, which is denounced to have been "neglected" by the ELSI (officially in charge of discussing all ethical issues raised by the HGP). The author takes upon him the task of carefully making explicit what kind of responsibilities should geneticists assume, and it starts with two initial chapters aiming to ground ideas on how to think about what moral responsibility imports in general, and for those involved with science. 

The view defended is that, in order to know what is ethical, it is better to abandon the path of searching for foundations or principles, and assume empirical results showing how moral ideas arise from the metaphors that help us think in the given situations. Thus, moral issues can be posed and thought about in the frame of an "imaginative casuistry", so that what happened in similar situations serves to make decisions, given the apropriate adjustments: "moral reasoning is a matter of imagination". Although principles are not completely rejected, the idea is that, instead of deducing courses of action from them, one should be able to imagine possible consequences of the one's acts using prototype cases as examples. 

In what respects scientists, the author considers two different perspectives for moral responsibility, the internal one of those doing science, which concerns with those issues that have to do with scientific "good" practice (misconduct, treatment of human subjects), and the external one, related to all kinds of possible social consequences. Both are important, and all considerations developed in these two chapters can boil down into some concrete specifications about how to proceed: “What should responsible scientists do? My general proposals to these scientists -as individuals and as a community-- are as follows: 1) Use your moral imagination to envision different ethically relevant consequences of research, and to figure out different ways of taking responsibility for these consequences. 2) Learn from history, i.e. from earlier, prototypical cases. 3) Participate in dialogue with the general public, politicians and industrialists. 4) Integrate ethical reflection with scientific practice by choosing an appropriate form of responsibility, i.e. adequate means of implementing the content of responsibility at different social levels. ” (p. 84)

The rest of the book follows by considering the case at hand, the HGP (chapter 3), and by applying the general framework previously exposed to several possible consequences or applications derived from the sequencing of the human genome (chapters 4, 5, 6). One is "gene hunting", specially with the aim of producing genetically tailored drugs: the author analyses several possible scenarios in which the practice of searching for certain genes can encounter moral conflict, especially in what concerns of privacy or property. Another is possible genetic modifications, namely gene therapies, germline modification and the use of animals in research. And the last one is the possible consequences for human reproduction, in reprogenetic medicine.

Each argument of this book is exposed in a detailed and thorough mode. Its ideas are interesting and have been developed with knowledge and courage, yet the book is not an easy read. The reader who is familiar with the topic will find here more profound discussions than those usual in the literature, both in the detail in which they are exposed and in the scope of the matters considered; for starters or readers with a mild curiosity, the book might be too demanding.


© 2003 Arantza Etxeberria

Arantza Etxeberria, Ph.D., Dept. of Logic and Philosophy of Science, University of the Basque Country, San Sebastian, Spain.