Ethical Perspectives

March 2012


  • Michele Loi

In the bioethical literature, liberal and libertarian arguments favouring the permissibility of the use of genetic technology for any purpose whatsoever are often based on Mill’s ‘harm principle’, according to which “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” (Mill 1859/1985, 68).

The idea is that everyone has the freedom to take advantage of new technological possibilities, even the most controversial ones involving genetic engineering on humans, as long as other people are not harmed. At the same time, Mill’s harm principle allows us to mount a critique against the use of genetic technologies if we take a broad conception of harm , including for instance that by enhancing themselves and their children, individuals may contribute to building a more unequal or unfair society that makes everyone, or at least the worst off, even more worse off.

The articles in this issue respond to both concerns, the liberal and the egalitarian, that are exemplified in these potential applications of Mill’s harm principle. They stem from the idea that a critique of the uses of genetic technologies should consider their role in a broad political, social and economical context. They deal with a type of ‘harm’ that often cannot be traced back to specific individuals, but occurs in the form of reduced solidarity, inequality of opportunity, inequality of outcome or discrimination. On the positive side, these essays develop the thought that enhancements and innovations in genetic diagnosis and prediction are legitimate when institutional strategies that limit their unintended bad social consequences are in place (Buchanan 2010).

Seen in this way, the bioethical challenge of coping with innovation in genetic technology is similar to the political challenge of dealing with other cultural and scientific developments in the production and distribution of goods and requires a similar vernacular. On the other hand, little space is devoted here to meeting antecedent doubts on the permissibility of certain applications of genetic technology, depending upon risk, reversibility, ethical doubts concerning the ‘unnaturalness’ of enhancements and the accusation that they are a way of ‘playing God’.

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To  Ethical Perspectives 1/2012