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  • BIOETHICS FORUM ESSAY

Against Hyphenated Ethics

Bioethics is only a little more than three decades old now (The Hastings Center is 36). But apparently “bioethics” is no longer sufficiently specialized. A few years ago, “gen-ethics” made its appearance. Still more recently we’ve had “neuro-ethics” and “nano-ethics.” These labels seem to promise new arenas of ethical investigation keyed to new arenas of scientific and technological development.

We have ourselves contributed to these putatively discrete arenas of bioethical inquiry. But, in the belief that self-criticism can improve practice, we would like to articulate three concerns about the trend toward what we might call “hyphenated ethics.” First, keying ethical inquiries to hot new arenas of scientific and technological development risks incoherence. Second, proceeding as if these were discrete arenas of ethical inquiry risks wasting time. Finally, such “keying” puts bioethicists at increased risk of succumbing to the irrational exuberance that so often surrounds new science and technology.

First, the incoherence concern. Once upon a time it may have been accurate enough to speak as if genetics-based, neuroscience-based, and nano-science-based technologies were fairly discrete arenas of innovation. But as Mihail Roco and others have shown, it is not accurate any longer. Those technologies and others are converging. To flag this convergence, Roco and colleagues have even coined yet another new term – the acronym “NBIC,” for Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology, and Cognitive Science.

Moreover, the lines of scientific research undergirding those converging technologies are themselves ever less discrete. In the new field of imaging genomics, to take but one example, “neuroscientists” and “geneticists” use neuroimaging technologies to understand how genotype affects neuronal activity.1 It’s not just that a technology that grows out of one scientific field (neuroscience) is used in another (genetics). Rather, the technology is a site of convergence between once-distinct lines of scientific inquiry.

But even if the technological and scientific arenas were discrete, we don’t think it would be reasonable to expect new ethical issues to emerge out of them. Questions about how best to provide informed consent, for example, arise over and over with advances in science and technology. To take but one more example, questions about the ethics of enhancing human traits do, too. Those questions surely deserve to be examined in every new scientific and technological context. But as far as we can tell, the ethical questions don’t change from one technological context to another.

Second, reinventing the ethical wheel wastes time and resources. For the last decade and a half, the National Human Genome Research Institute and the Department of Energy have spent over $100 million funding research on the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of the Human Genome Project (aka “gen-ethics”). NHGRI has funded work on fairness, privacy and confidentiality, human identity, human reproduction, clinical issues, conceptual and philosophical questions, and health and environmental issues. It has also funded work on public understanding, and there is a large bioethics literature on regulating genetic technologies.

Little if any of this “gen-ethics” research addresses questions or concerns peculiar to genetics: rather, it is a rich store of work that can be drawn upon as the same ethical questions arise in new scientific and technological arenas.

Surely some ethical, legal, or social concerns will be especially vivid in one or another putatively discrete arena. For example, Ronald Green observes that neuroscience might someday reasonably promise something closer to “mind reading” than genetics ever could.2 Because the brain is closer to consciousness than genes are, neuroscience is arguably more threatening to our conceptions of our selves than behavioral genetics is.3 And perhaps, to take one more example, the safety issues raised by nano-technology are of a much greater magnitude than those that have been discussed in the genetics context. But identifying an ethical, legal, or social issue in neuro- and nano-ethics that can’t be glimpsed in the gen-ethics litany is extremely difficult. If we considered more carefully where past bioethics research has – and has not – made progress, our future research might be more efficient and valuable.

Finally, acknowledging that ethical issues recur, persist, and evolve across different areas of scientific inquiry can help prevent us from becoming caught up in the irrationally exuberant modes of reductionism that can plague hot new arenas of scientific and technological development. For example, proximity to geneticists may have made some of us “gen-ethicists” too quick to accept claims about “genes for” complex human traits or about the imminence of engineering them. Neuroscience – in particular, research using neuro-images4 – may today be operating in an equally exuberant mode.5

Whether the unit of analysis is the gene, the neuron, the nano-particle, the hormone, or anything else, advances in scientific understanding – and the technological applications of those understandings – will raise ethical, legal, and social questions. Those questions will likely not be new, but instead part of a decades-old (if not centuries-old) conversation about science and society.

We are incredibly lucky to live in a society willing to fund broad, systematic reflection about these crucially important matters. With that largesse comes the responsibility to use it well. One requirement for using it well should be a deep appreciation of the extent to which what appear to be new ethical questions are not. If we can appreciate how similar the apparently new ethical questions are to ones that have already been asked, then the time we spend in the new context should be all the more fruitful.

– Erik Parens and Josephine Johnston


1. A.R. Hariri and D.R. Weinberger, “Imaging Genomics,” British Medical Bulletin 65 (2003).

2. R. Green, “From Genome to Brainome: Charting the Lessons Learned,” in Neuroethics: Defining the Issues in Theory, Practice, and Policy, ed.J. Illes (Oxford, 2006).

3. M. Farah and P.R. Wolpe, “Monitoring and Manipulating Brain Function: New Neuroscience Technologies and Their Ethical Implications,” Hastings Center Report 34, no. 3 (2004).

4. J. Illes and E. Racine, “Imaging or Imagining? A Neuroethics Challenge Informed by Genetics,” American Journal of Bioethics 5, no. 2 (2005). See also the commentaries by Schick and Wilfond et al.

5. R.L. Martensen, “Bioethics on the Brain,” Medical Humanities Review 18, nos. 1 and 2 (2004).

Published on: September 8, 2006
Published in: Bioethics, Science and Society

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