“Human Nature and Genetic Enhancement.”
Statement for the Application for a CTNS Charles H. Townes Graduate Student Fellowship 2008
Research Topic and Methodology
My primary area of interest is bioethics, particular issues dealing with genetics. This is a broad area of research, but that is one of the appeals of the field for me. While bioethics has been understood as a field of applied ethics focusing on medicine and research, my approach is to view bioethics as a branch of ethics that examines the ethics of living world, with particular attention paid to the sciences. There are large places of overlap between bioethics and other areas of ethics, including environmental ethics, sexual ethics, and even social ethics. Of particular interest is the role religion plays in the process. Theology, ethics, and science are intertwined with one another. Theology informs ethics, but our moral reasoning can also affect theology. Science provides valuable descriptive material for ethics. It helps determine the morally relevant features in situations, but science is also the object of ethics as well. Particular decisions, actions, and goals are deliberated and analyzed by ethics and judgments are often made. Ethics helps guide research, sometimes placing limits, but at other times also providing motivation or encouragement. People often cite religious justifications for holding particular stances on issues, so it is important to examine what those justifications are and to see whether contemporary science can offer new insights into the situation and the theological commitments. We are shaped by society, but also by biology. Anthropology is a critical intersection of science, theology, and ethics. The nature and nurture debate has raged for a long time, but it is an important issue for ethics. With a strong emphasis on the individual and autonomy, bioethics needs to realize that we are shaped by the people around us, culture, technology, and many other things and that even the concept of humans as autonomous individuals has historical roots. On the other hand, some of who we are is determined, not exclusively or entirely, by our genes. Genetic determinism is a myth, but certain characteristics can be influenced by our genes. Ethics needs to learn from contemporary sciences (biology, psychology, neuroscience, and many others). These disciplines can give us insights into the ways we deliberate, make decisions, envision possible goals, and how we cultivate virtue.
Looking at the technical details of methodology, theology and ethics (theological ethics especially) historically draw upon the same four sources: reason, experience, tradition, and scripture. My particular ethical methodology sees reason and experience in dual roles; they are sources that we draw upon, but they are also operative whenever we examine any of the four sources. We bring our experience to scripture, and use our reason to interpret it. As a source, science would primarily fall into the reason category, but always. Just as there are theological traditions, there are strains of thought that can be traced in the sciences as well. Of particular relevance to my work, genetics is part of two scientific traditions, evolutionary biology and developmental biology. Science is also a part of my experience; my background in genetics at the undergraduate level, including laboratory experience, provides me with valuable tools. The use of scripture in dealing with issues in bioethics is difficult, because scripture does not address issues like cloning and stem cell research. This is one place where creativity, moral imagination, and metaphor can be useful. Classifying my ethical approach into one of the classical schools is difficult. There are elements of each of these traditions that I find appealing. Niebuhr’s understanding of responsibility is richer than a classic notion of duty in deontology, balancing responsibilities and dealing with the moral traces when some responsibilities are not met. I find Kant’s method appealing but I do not think reason operates exactly as he said, so I utilize his categorical imperative towards the end of the process as a test of the analysis, an approach which I believe is in line with Kant and probably makes my primary approach deontological. Goals are necessary, however, to help shape our understanding of action. The situation being analyzed must be contextualized in order to make the best decision. Since I have been at the GTU, virtue ethics has been a prominent form of ethics taught and it has influenced my thinking as well. Aristotle’s use of friendship in the moral life has had a strong impact on my approach. The domination of autonomy in bioethics is meant to protect patients, but it sometimes lacks the nuance of understanding people as contextualized. In defining the virtues, Aristotle also gives a few rules to follow when determining the mean between excess and deficiency and these rules are important because they remind us that we are predisposed towards certain actions and goals for different reasons, and that this can affect our ethical analysis.
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