The recent uptick in genetic testing for a range of illnesses has prompted great debate in the medical community about how reliable and useful the testing is, as well as discussion among social scientists about the social and ethical consequences of the testing. One line of inquiry that has been around a bit longer is about biological thinking, specifically as it is related to stigma and inequality. In particular, there is a fascinating and timely discussion of the geneticization of mental illness by Jo Phelan (2005) that, even before the emergence of the current debate about technology, delved into the promise and perils of genetic thinking – though not specifically about genetic testing. For instance, Phelan addresses issues of stigma and labeling associated with seeing mental illness as a genetic problem. Phelan finds that stigma is, at the same time, both enhanced and alleviated by geneticization. In other words, if an illness is genetic, it removes the feelings of responsibility from the sufferer and makes it more difficult for others to blame him or her for said illness. The illness and the person who embodies said condition, then, are not seen as one and the same. However, the same genetic thinking opens the door to a range of new judgments that can be detrimental both in terms of self-concept and the way in which others make assumptions about those who experience, in this case, mental illness. There has been some, but not much work, overall, in the social sciences, about the social problems associated with genetic testing (for a lovely summary, see the article linked below). In the last few weeks, genetic testing has been thrust into the forefront once again after fervent debate that ended with Eric Holder, US Attorney General ruling that genes cannot be patented – thus, genes are in the public domain – even though companies like “Myriad,” a testing company, already possess the patent to two human genes (and it is unclear what will happen to these patents).
Drawing on the existent literature on genetic testing, Richard Tutton (whose recent article in Sociology Compass is linked below) reviews the literature on genetic testing and calls for sociologists to pay more attention to these issues. Though Tutton does not address issues of inequality directly, the recent debate on access to genetic testing led me to wonder, for instance, who can afford the testing? Who will it be offered to? Will insurance cover it? How might this testing “blame” ethnic/racial groups for illness? In reference to the Phelan article mentioned above, would knowing one is predestined to developed depression, for instance, change the way we see someone struggling with that condition? And on and on and on. Tutton does survey the literature on the use of genetic testing and forensics and there is clearly an open door to an over-reliance on an imperfect technology when someone’s freedom or life hangs in the balance. One of the great fears about genetic testing is that it will become a central determining factor in whether we see people as “criminal” or not — a frightening idea.
Recently, I’ve come across several mentions of the role of science in influencing morality. Most of these discussions allude to the following question: to what extent do scientific findings influence people’s concepts of right and wrong or even good and evil? The discussion is generally about the role the natural sciences play in these determinations, but I often wonder what sociologists’ role is in shaping concepts of morality. I do not have an answer to the above question and will likely pose more questions than I will provide answers in the following paragraphs, but I believe this is both an interesting and important question for social scientists to consider. For all the debates about the importance of objectivity in scientific work and all the measures put in place to insure that scientists’ opinions remain on the periphery (if not entirely absent from) their work, there seems to be less debate about the role of morality.
In a recent NPR broadcast on Science and Morality (see below), one of the participants summarized this issue quite succinctly: “Science plays an important and vital role in our lives…when it comes to morality, people say science is neutral…but that’s not quite true.” This is, in part, because we often confound objectivity and moral neutrality, which are really not one and the same. For instance, even if researchers take great care to be objective in their work, all science is political. Studies of evolution are increasingly under attack from the religious right who claim that this undermines the belief in creationism – they accuse scientists of destroying a religious moral fiber by investigating such topics. Thus, no matter how objective a study may be, its ability to influence public morality or to at least cause debates about where morality does and should come from (science or religion, in this case) is independent of objectivity.
Another participant in the NPR broadcast reminds us that, “a better understanding of human nature and the human brain can affect moral judgments.” In other words, simply by virtue of explaining the world and furthering knowledge, we may actually be inadvertently affecting people’s morals and the way they see the world. This can be important and is sometimes the goal – for instance, by explaining inequality (which is a kind of social evil), we hope that it might dissipate (thus creating a better society). We may change the way people see right and wrong in the process, but, we hope, for the betterment of society. Still, we advance a particular moral stance, despite whatever measures have been taken to ensure the objectivity of the project. Even the most self-reflexive of social scientists still has a moral position, an ethical orientation toward the world and our work almost always have the goal of explaining a phenomenon and perhaps fixing a social ill. Ultimately, it is important to note that moral positions influence our work and also change the morality of those who come into contact with it. I obviously cannot know to what extent social scientists change the morality of the general public, but it is certainly an interesting question for investigation.
Can Science Shape Human Values? And Should It? Audio from NPR
Morality, in The Blackwell Dictionary of Modern Social Thought