Epigenetics and Ethics: Rights and consequences

MeBlog

by Dr. Shea K. Robison

(Originally posted on the Oneness Hypothesis blog, as part of my work as a postdoctoral research fellow with the Center for East Asian and Comparative Philosophy at the City University of Hong Kong)

Epigenetics: Science, ethics and politics

In part I, I introduced two aspects of epigenetics revealed by recent research: the enhanced gene-level responsiveness of the epigenome, and the non-genetic inheritance of many of these epigenetic modifications. These two aspects of epigenetics highlight different but related implications for conventional Western philosophy and science. Through these implications, epigenetics provides a unique opening for the concept of Oneness to be taken seriously within both Western science and philosophy.

In part I, I also discussed the recent emergence of epigenetics in the context of the guiding model of my project:

EpiPolModel

This model depicts the necessary relationships between the understanding of biology prevalent in a society, the prevailing ethics, and the prevailing politics, all of which revolve around the prevailing concept of self. The intuition behind this model is straightforward: That in the long run an understanding of biology will cohere with a certain ethos and a politics which reflects that ethos, and vice versa, and that any conflicts which arise between a biology, an ethics and a politics will be resolved to some kind of dynamic equilibrium.

Epigenetics and the environment

In the context of this model, an important question is whether epigenetics introduces anything new on a scientific level. If epigenetics does introduce scientific novelties to the conventional understanding of biology, then according to the model it also has equally significant ethical and political implications.

One common critique of the recent surge of interest in epigenetics, though, is that the responsiveness of the epigenome to the environment revealed by this research is nothing new, and is not disruptive of the underlying science of genetics and its basic assumptions. In a sense this critique is technically true—if anything, epigenetics merely helps to fill in the conventional picture of gene-environment interactions. However, this does not mean that this aspect of epigenetics does not still present substantial challenges to conventional Western ethical and philosophical frameworks which may be better addressed from a Oneness perspective. (Not to mention that, per my model, the significance of these ethical and political challenges also strongly suggests that this responsiveness to the environment revealed by epigenetics poses more significant scientific challenges than it is often given credit for.)

Epigenetics and inheritance

On the other hand, the inheritance of epigenetic effects, demonstrated in some cases through four and five generations, does present fundamental challenges for both modern liberal science and philosophy. For example, a primary foundational assumption of both modern genetics and modern liberalism is that all people are born free and equal, independent of any undue influence from the environments or experiences of their parents (called ‘reprogramming’ during embryogenesis in genetics, and a self-evident truth in the Declaration of Independence, with intellectual roots which go back much further than that).

However, the evidence emerging from epigenetics suggests this is not the case. Instead of individuals of each generation being born with a pristine copy of their biological essence, they are inheriting a genetic endowment riddled with markers of the experiences of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, and so on. And these inherited epigenetic markers, as more and more research is showing, are having direct effects on the physical and mental health of individuals from causes not actually experienced by these individuals.

In this context in particular, per my guiding model, epigenetics does present equally fundamental scientific and philosophical challenges. In both cases, though, my contention is that these challenges are answered most effectively through a Oneness perspective which is relatively novel–though not unheard of–in Western thought. One good way to demonstrate the depth of the philosophical challenges of epigenetics is through discussion of its implications for two of the most predominant approaches to ethics in modern liberalism: rights theories and consequentialism.

Rights

A simple definition of rights is as moral claims for the protection of certain inherent properties or latent possibilities for individuals within a particular category (i.e., humans, animals, children, corporations, etc.), differentiated by mutual limitations (e.g., ‘The right to swing my arm ends where the other man’s nose begins’[1]).

Per the guiding model of my project, as discussed in more detail in part I and here, there is no fundamental conflict between the science of genetics and rights-based ethics and politics because they are all premised upon the same basic assumptions, having evolved out of the same intellectual and cultural history. However, as epigenetics complicates the science of genetics by challenging or dissolving its presumptive physical boundaries, epigenetics likewise complicates the metaphysical distinctions and exclusions which constitute the individual self as the receptacle and bearer of rights.

For example, research in epigenetics shows that the choices and experiences of individuals in one generation are conditioning the basic nature of individuals of subsequent generations, which indelibly affects how those new individuals will exercise their own rights. What, then, is the appropriate boundary between where one individual begins and another ends? At what point do the choices of one individual become, in effect, the choices of another? And who is to be held responsible for protecting or ensuring whose rights? Further, by so conditioning the basic nature of other individuals, individuals in effect constitute the environments of each other. If individuals do indeed come to function as the environments of others, at what point do individuals have and then lose their rights as individuals? And what are the rights of these individuals-as-environments, if such a thing is even conceivable? Again, under the paradigm of conventional genetics, these kinds of issues were simply not possible in a physical sense, which is why it dovetails so well with the concept of individual rights, which depends upon the same kinds of exclusions.

In the context of rights, though, how is the line to be drawn between the rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of individuals in one generation versus the rights of individuals of subsequent generations to be created equal so as to exercise their own rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? At what point can the rights of currently existing individuals be justly curtailed to protect the rights of individuals who do not as yet even exist (for example, if you are a 12 year old girl who may or may not become a mother, at what point is the state justified in taking away your right to choose to eat certain foods that are not harmful to you but which have been shown to be harmful to the normal development of your grandchildren)? What takes precedence (and why): a right being exercised in the present, or a right which might be potentially exercised in the future? And so on.

As a demonstration of the inherent difficulties in drawing these kinds of distinctions even before consideration of the science of epigenetics, the notion of intergenerational justice is already a source of fundamental disagreements within the rights tradition, in particular whether the concept of welfare rights for future others can even be made sense of with the principles and arguments available to rights theorists[2]. Notably, most of these disputes within the rights tradition revolve around the complications which result from the prevailing hyper-individualistic concept of personhood at the core of both rights theory and modern liberal philosophy[3].

These challenges from epigenetics may well be resolvable from within rights theories, but what is clear is that the empirical knowledge emerging from epigenetics emphasizes foundational schisms within rights theories which as yet have not been resolved. As such, one way to address these philosophical conflicts from the new empirical challenges introduced by epigenetics would be through an ethical framework capable of justifying the same kinds of concerns as the concept of rights, but which is not ontologically committed to atomistic individuals as the repositories of mutually exclusive rights. As will be discussed in subsequent posts, concepts of Oneness—as have been developed by philosophers of both East Asia and the modern liberal West—have the potential to both reconcile many of these fundamental contradictions and to incorporate the new knowledge emerging from epigenetics.

Consequences

What about other approaches within the modern liberal tradition which do not rely upon the notion of individual rights, such as the ostensibly agent-neutral ethical theories of consequentialism or utilitarianism? According to these approaches, as indicated by the names, ethical obligations are most justly defined through the identification of consequences or the maximization of overall utility. The enduring appeal of these orientations, as paraphrased by Phillipa Foot, rests in the seemingly unobjectionable belief in “the most good for the most people”[4]. Without a focus on the individual as such, these orientations could provide a way around the ethical problems introduced by epigenetics just discussed. However, epigenetics has much different, though equally profound, implications for these kinds of ethical theories as well.

First, beyond the difficulties with truly neutralizing individuals-as-agents within consequentialist perspectives which have already been raised[5], the introduction of epigenetics raises the implications of these outcome-based ethics to the level of the grotesque through the identification of the causal pathways for both epigenetic responsiveness and transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, thereby expanding the scope of knowable consequences—and therefore of ethical obligation—beyond what is actionable or even conceivable.

For example, explanations for different versions of consequentialist ethics usually involve contrasting the consequences for the few and the many from the commission of morally dubious actions (e.g., is the brutal torture of one person justified if it will save five, or 500 or 5,000 people?). Epigenetics reveals the enhanced susceptibilities to cancers, or heart disease, or schizophrenia, or depression from different environmental exposures which–to the degree the science behind epigenetics is valid–would have direct causal implications for millions or hundreds of millions (billions?) of living people. Now add to this tally the as yet unrealized consequences of millions to billions of future people who will suffer similar effects from causes to which they were not actually exposed through no fault of their own. Given the numerical scale of these circumstances, and the incremental or probabilistic nature of their realization, what is the appropriate moral calculus or rule for weighing these kinds of individual and multi-generational consequences against each other? Particularly as these consequences are not being raised in hypothetical scenarios but are being revealed through rigorously scientific processes?

Likewise, in the circumstances revealed by epigenetics there are not necessarily any morally dubious choices producing the consequences described in the previous paragraph. Rather, for the most part these consequences—not only for the actual living people but for the unborn generations in the future—are being both realized and produced by people in the conduct of their everyday lives. However, in identifying the causal pathways for these consequences, epigenetics is also providing the knowledge to potentially avoid these consequences. In other words, the research in epigenetics is both describing morally consequential outcomes for practically everyone in some way as a result of mere existence and at the same time making us morally responsible for rectifying these consequences. Again, according to our conventional assessments, what could possibly be the appropriate moral calculus or rule which can justly balance this practically universal dispersion of consequences and responsibility?

Epigenetics, ethics, and Oneness

Thus, epigenetics poses fundamental complications for even the supposedly agent-neutral ethical theories of modern liberalism. As with rights theories, these challenges may well be answerable from within consequentialism or utilitarianism–but have notably not yet been resolved as such. Regardless, in both cases, what is clear is that the new empirical knowledge from epigenetics emphasizes longstanding fractures in both ethical approaches which have not yet been resolved.

This brief sketch of the fundamental challenges epigenetics poses to two of the most dominant ethical frameworks of modern liberalism is a good indication of the scope of the implications of epigenetics for modern liberalism in general, not only for the ethics, but also the politics and the jurisprudence of contemporary liberalism built on these same principles. As such, as will be discussed in subsequent posts, concepts of Oneness as have been developed by philosophers in both the East and West could provide the means to reconcile many of these fundamental contradictions, providing more appropriate ethical and political frameworks for the incorporation of the new knowledge emerging from epigenetics.

Senses and Values of Oneness

What do you think? I am curious to hear your thoughts. Leave your comments below and I will respond.

Also, if you find these thoughts I’ve shared interesting and worthwhile, Like this post, Reblog it, or Tweet about it using the buttons below.

[1] Chafee, Z. (1919) “Freedom of Speech in Wartime” Harvard Law Review 32(8): 932-973.

[2] “Intergenerational Justice”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[3] “The Nonidentity Problem”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[4] Foot, P. (1985). Utilitarianism and the Virtues. Mind, 196-209.

[5] Broome, John. (1991). Weighing Goods (Oxford: Blackwell); Griffin, J. (1992). The human good and the ambitions of consequentialism. Social philosophy and Policy, 9(02), 118-132; Hooker, B. (1994). Is rule-consequentialism a rubber duck? Analysis, 54(2), 92-97; Howard-Snyder, F. (1993). Rule Consequentialism is a Rubber Duck. American Philosophical Quarterly, 271-278.

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