The American Journal of Bioethics, 15(6): 1, 2015 Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: 1526-5161 print / 1536-0075 online DOI: 10.1080/15265161.2015.1049919


Ruffling a Few Feathers Richard R. Sharp, Mayo Clinic In this issue of the journal Robert Sparrow (2015) considers some of the most sacred of ideas in bioethics. Among other things, his article revisits critiques of negative eugenics, questions the inherent value of human biological diversity, and suggests that common intuitions about disability have lead us astray in thinking about ethical dimensions of prenatal genetic testing. In his Target Article, Sparrow employs an argumentative strategy that has been long favored by philosophers. He describes a series of “thought experiments” designed to highlight unspoken assumptions in our moral reasoning. Sparrow’s hypothetical scenarios ask us to imagine a world in which human genetic diversity is much less than we encounter today. In the hypothetical worlds described by Sparrow, children are not born with genetic diseases like Down syndrome or TaySachs. While human disabilities still exist in these worlds, the number of people with disabilities is much smaller than today. If this state of affairs were to exist, Sparrow asks, how would we feel about efforts to alter the status quo in order to introduce greater levels of human genetic diversity. Would we champion the deliberate introduction of genetic diseases or create other human limitations, for example, in order to benefit from the lessons that our self-imposed struggles might teach us? Sparrow’s thought experiments are clever applications of the reversal-test method developed by Bostrom and Ord. Sparrow’s scenarios, while far-fetched and sciencefiction like, highlight potential sources of bias in our thinking about the importance of human diversity. There may be many reasons to celebrate human genetic diversity, but using these thought experiments Sparrow rightly challenges us to consider how we should weigh the value of genetic diversity against other things we hold in high regard, such as reproductive autonomy and the promotion of individual well-being. He concludes that although something important would be lost in a GATTACA-esque world where only “genetically perfect” babies are born, the moral permissibility of altering human genetic

diversity has to be weighed against other societal goals and values. Sparrow’s thought experiments are remarkably effective in expanding our thinking about well-established ideas in bioethics. The particular strengths and limitations of his approach are nicely discussed in the peer commentaries that accompany his essay, which are similarly rich in their philosophical insights. These commentaries, no doubt, will be welcomed by the author, whose goal was to generate precisely this type of discussion. Stepping away from the particular topics of concern to Sparrow and his critics, his essay also reminds us that advances in moral reasoning are always hard earned. Progress in bioethical thinking comes from boldly creative ideas, thoughtfully articulated and refined through rigorous engagement with openminded peers with a shared passion for disciplined thought. We should stay mindful of this intellectual process, particularly as elements of bioethical scholarship are integrated into institutionalized policies and practices. For example, while the now familiar principles of bioethics have a place as practical decisionmaking guides, robust ethical scholarship demands that we continually examine the status quo and ask whether there are good reasons to continue along our current path. This is, of course, a traditional understanding of the role of philosophy—and bioethics is sorely in need of stronger connections with its intellectual traditions. The benefits of robust philosophical analysis are nicely illustrated in Sparrow’s essay and the corresponding peer commentaries. Like thousands of philosophers before him, Sparrow’s scholarship exemplifies the value of the intellectual gadfly—even when that work ruffles a few feathers among the bioethical elite. & REFERENCE Sparrow, R. 2015. Imposing genetic diversity. American Journal of Bioethics 15(6): 2–10.

Address correspondence to Richard R. Sharp, Professor of Medicine and Biomedical Ethics; Director, Biomedical Ethics Research Program, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN 55902, USA. Email: [email protected]

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