Behavioral Genetics and Eugenics Contemporary Ethical Concerns

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In 2002 in Great Britain the Nuffield Council on Bioethics addressed these issues and reached essentially the same conclusions. That is, the council sees no reason why research in behavioral genetics necessarily yields a fatalistic picture of human life in general or an undermining of the human capacity for moral judgment and moral responsibility. The genetic endowment of individuals establishes a range of behavioral options and predispositions related to personality, but the precise way in which those predispositions manifest themselves in a particular individual is a complex product of environmental chance and the deliberative capacities of that individual.

Those deliberative capacities can be influenced for better or worse by the formal and informal social learning opportunities offered in particular social contexts. For example, an individual may have a genetic endowment that predisposes him or her to react depressively to a range of disappointments and frustrations. However, an individual who is reflectively aware of those behavioral predispositions as a result of diligent parenting, sensitive friends, or personal reading may adopt a range of psychological and behavioral strategies that minimize the potentially damaging results of those depressive feelings. Alternatively, that reflective awareness might suggest taking medications aimed at altering the brain chemistry that sustains those feelings of depression. In either case what is illustrated is a responsible reaction to what might be described as innate features of one's personality. Kay Jamison's struggle with depression, as recounted in An Unquiet Mind (1995), is illustrative of these points.

If the picture sketched here is roughly correct and if the work of behavioral geneticists does not undermine people's capacity to be responsible moral agents, are any other moral issues raised by this research? The work of the Nuffield Council (2002) is helpful in responding to this question. The council points to two large concerns that potentially raise moral issues: medicalization and eugenics.

The term medicalization typically is used to express a specific criticism: that what once was regarded as a normal behavior or bodily state now is regarded as abnormal because there are medical interventions that give people control over that behavior or state. Some people are just shy. This is a fact about some individuals that is accepted routinely. However, if antidepressants such as Paxil can alleviate such behavioral dispositions and allow individuals to be more sociable (per social expectations), such individuals may no longer be accepted as shy persons. Instead, they may be diagnosed as shy and advised (expected) to seek appropriate medical help.

There is no simple response to this issue. One legitimate fear is that the range of social tolerance for personality types and traits will be narrowed excessively to the detriment of such individuals. That is, those individuals may be subjected to excessive social scrutiny and social pressure to conform to a narrow range of socially acceptable behavior. This seems contrary to the core values of a liberal society. However, in other cases medicalization of behavior that once was regarded as normal may be beneficial to both individual and social welfare. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) illustrates this point. Children who are identified as having ADHD benefit greatly from drugs such as Ritalin. The practical moral problem is that the behavioral and diagnostic boundaries of this disorder are fuzzy and controversial, and this can lead to morally troubling problems of overdiagnosis and underdiagnosis.

The other concern raised by the Nuffield Council is the eugenics issue. Dean Hamer and coworkers announced in 1993 the discovery of "the gay gene." Hamer later retracted that claim, recognizing that the basis for the sexual orientation of individuals is much more complex than the workings of a single gene. However, his original claim helped establish in the public mind that there soon may be a genetic test for "being gay" that would allow potential parents in the future to use preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to weed out gay embryos. Similar beliefs suggest that in the future it will be possible to pick out or create through germline genetic engineering smarter or happier or nonviolent or nonalcoholic embryos. This refers back to the eugenics issues that were raised earlier in this entry.

Those issues may be addressed more thoughtfully by recalling a key scientific claim about behavioral genetics. These types of behavioral phenomena are only indirectly the product of very complex interactions among many genes as well as environmental factors, all of which are very poorly understood. Nobody knows which genes, in what way, to what degree, and at what point in development yield the neural capacities that establish a range of intellectual abilities. This is true whether one's concerns are with happiness, aggressiveness, schizophrenia, or addiction (Hamer; Beckwith and Alper). Furthermore, if society's legitimate social goals include shaping human behavior in various ways, there also are available as tools a very large range of social practices and medical interventions.

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