Q & A: Gruen Contends Ethics and Genetics Are Out of Sync

Q & A: Gruen Contends Ethics and Genetics Are Out of SyncCloning is a hot topic right now, and Lori Gruen is in the middle of the debate. But she’s not a scientist or a medical doctor; she’s a philosopher with a strong sense of social justice and a passion for a well-reasoned argument. For her it’s all about ethics. Just don’t call her a bioethicist.



Q: What sparked your interest in ethics?


LORI GRUEN: In one of the very first philosophy courses I took as an undergraduate, we read about ethical issues involved in our treatment of animals. That moved me. I also have always been interested in questions of justice and inequality, particularly as they affect the least well-off. Concerns about women’s inequality, homelessness, poverty, and our destruction of the environment were very prominent in my early philosophical investigations and led me to think more carefully about a variety of practical ethical problems.


Q: How do you approach the study of ethics?


G: I am in the tradition of philosophers who bring philosophy to bear on practical, political, and ethical topics of the time?utilitarian social reformers such as Bentham, Mill, Sidgwick, and, currently, Peter Singer, a public intellectual. By the way, not many women in the world align themselves with “consequentialist ethics.” I’m one of maybe just three or four.


Q: What is consequentialist ethics?


G: When we engage in ethical reflection and action, we are trying to promote well-being. We are thinking not so much in terms of what is permissible or impermissible in the abstract, or what some authority tells us we should do, but rather what we can do to try to make the world better. So we’re going to judge the rightness or wrongness of behavior, attitudes, perceptions, or actions based on the kinds of good consequences they bring about.


Q: How do you view problems in bioethics, for example, in this framework?


G: A lot of people call themselves bioethicists who don’t have a significant background in philosophy, or they have a specific take on certain issues derived from a particular religious tradition. But looking back to the Bible is not necessarily going to give us a way of critically reflecting on the issues of our time such as genetic enhancements and genetic therapies. Most bioethicists who adhere to religious doctrine are guided more by doctrinal issues than by the concern to promote the well-being of all. Nor is our political system helpful in considering these complicated questions; the tendency is to think, ban it or don’t ban it. But there’s too much at stake to accept such oversimplifications; we need to allow for a great deal of engagement with these hot issues. I believe an ideal method for guiding ethical deliberation in specific cases would be to bring together, in a nongovernmental setting, a sophisticated committee comprised of people who have training in ethics, medical professionals, medical managers?people who run hospitals? parents, and others with vested interests.


Q: The issue of cloning has been politicized; hasn’t this created confusion about what is and isn’t human cloning?


G: Exactly. But this is actually a great opportunity for science educators?a perfect opportunity to explain what is going on. It’s not possible to be engaged in a certain kind of ethical discussion without drawing lines, but the gray areas?those between the lines?are so much more interesting and rich than popular discourse has allowed us to understand. I think that cloning has raised important opportunities for education in both ethics and science. I do think there is a tendency in people not to think very deeply about these questions. We tend to get unhelpful knee-jerk reactions from politicians and the public. So the questions need to be reframed, and that’s one of the roles for ethics: We can reframe the questions to help people think more deeply about the benefits and the dangers of new biotechnologies.


Q: What are some of the dangers associated with the issues on the table?


G: There is danger in failing to reflect on the way the genetic revolution has altered our conceptions of ourselves and our relationships to each other. In the animal cloning cases, most notably with Cc:, the cloned kitty, the idea has cropped up that you no longer have to mourn the genetic loss of your pet?to which I say, “I didn’t mourn the genetic loss of my pet!” When did “genetic loss” become a category of mourning? It only became a possible category when the genetic revolution took hold of our imaginations. So advances in genetics don’t just change the possibility of minimizing pain and ending disease, but they also have the ability to reshape how we think of ourselves. I’m really interested in this topic, and it has not been adequately discussed. Genetic makeup is important, but genes are not personality makers; they’re not trait makers. The mythology of genes has taken off in ways that are inaccurate. There is this very skewed view that I can take the genetic material of one creature and create virtually the same creature based on that genetic material, but it’s not clear that such a thing would happen at all. It’s also not clear whether ethically one should pursue that course. Both genetics and environment create personality and other traits. I think the overall question needs to be reformulated.


Q: Aside from cloning, what are some of the more interesting ethical issues you see on the near horizon?


G: Environmental issues: whether or not we should drill in the Arctic, our use of various wilderness areas, endangered species protection?how much we are willing to think about global environmental issues and greenhouse gas emissions. These issues present important ethical and political questions that are going to stay with us. I don’t think that we are doing a very good job thinking ethically about our obligation to ourselves, to people from other societies, to other generations, and to the animals that live in these environments. It’s a very sad thought that in our own lifetime, elephants might go extinct. Orangutans may no longer live in the wild because of human encroachment. I think those are serious and urgent ethical concerns.


Q: We often hear less developed nations say that Western nations polluted and expanded heedlessly as they grew, so isn’t it hypocritical of the West to demand that other countries seeking a better standard of living adhere to higher environmental standards?


G: Given the path we’ve gone down, it’s easy to see development and environmental protection as being at odds. But there are ways of bringing these together, of pursuing sustainable development in a more appropriate and practical way that protects the environment and provides developing nations ways to improve the standards of living for their people. I’m also deeply concerned about the impact that certain kinds of health policies have on children across the world. It’s not a new topic, but it’s surprisingly persistent when you think about how hydration salts for children cost 15 cents and we don’t do anything about that, and kids could get vaccinated for easily prevented diseases and we don’t do that. Or think about the drugs available for HIV that can actually slow down if not halt the ravages of the HIV infection, but 80 percent of people who are suffering from HIV are in Africa and cannot get these medicines. Questions about distributive justice persist and are deeply disturbing.


Q: You sound like you are fighting a lot of uphill battles, yet you seem optimistic.


G: I can’t figure out why I am so optimistic. I deal with these issues every day, and yet I maintain this optimism (although lately I find that I shield myself from the news). Part of what sustains my optimism is my teaching. Students are really open to thinking in new ways to solve age-old problems and the cutting-edge new problems that technology has generated. Students are always interested in trying to think about these things differently, and that helps me sustain my optimism.


Q: What do you think motivates your students?


G: The students here are remarkably engaged and responsible about their education. They are interested in challenging and reflecting critically in formulating their own views about ethics. I’ve had a very easy time getting students to think reflectively about their ethical positions and arguing for those positions. I came here from Stanford in part because Wesleyan is committed to enhancing ethical and political reasoning. My position is a new one in this area. Although ethics has always been a part of philosophy departments, we are committed to keeping ethical reasoning one of Wesleyan’s strengths.


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