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Pragmatism and Human Genetic Engineering

by Glenn E. McGee

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Institution: Vanderbilt University
Advisor(s): John Lachs
Degree: Ph.D., Philosophy
Year: 1994
Volume: 264 pages
ISBN-10: 1581120206
ISBN-13: 9781581120202


William James and John Dewey insisted that pragmatic philosophy finds meaning in its struggle to deal with emergent social problems. Ironically, few have attempted to use pragmatism to articulate methods for ameliorating social difficulties. This dissertation attempts to do just that by putting James' and Dewey's philosophy to work on the moral and scientific problems associated with genetic engineering and the Human Genome Project. The intention is to demonstrate the usefulness of a pragmatic approach to applied ethics and philosophy of biology.

The work of proponents and critics of genetic engineering is examined, including LeRoy Hood, Hans Jonas, Leon Kass, Robert Nozick, Jeremy Rifkin, Robyn Rowland, and Paul Ramsey. It is concluded that excessive optimism and pessimism about genetic engineering rests primarily on two errors. The first, basic to the Genome Project, is that organisms are essentially determined by their genes, and that the expression of genes is identical across human populations. I draw both on Richard Lewontin and on Dewey's Logic: The Theory of Inquiry to argue that the formation of human natures is instead the result of a fluid and interpenetrative relationship between hereditary information and varying environmental conditions. Organisms express DNA in different ways under different circumstances, and DNA itself is modified by exposure to mutagens.

The second error prevalent in the literature is the belief that genetic engineering is uniquely problematic, requiring a new kind of ethics. To counter the received view, I detail numerous cases in the history of biology and philosophy in which humans have faced moral choices similar to those present in the new genetics. In addition, I resituate new reproductive decisions in the context of everyday problems faced by parents in society, arguing that the hopes and choices of parents provide a matrix within which genetic decisions can be made. I caution against the expansion of genetic diagnosis, and detail some of the greatest real dangers present in positive genetic engineering. Finally, I suggest pragmatic alternatives to positive genetic engineering, including education and health care reform.