Genetic modification

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L133-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved April 20, 2021, from

6. Welfare and social justice

Some of the arguments advanced in favour of genetic modification claim that it has the potential to reduce human suffering and improve quality of life. That is, genetic modification may improve welfare. This welfare increase would be for both existing and future humans, non-human animals and plants. Assessing this claim requires an account of welfare (see Welfare).

Quite what constitutes welfare, as well as determining when welfare is increased or diminished, is philosophically demanding. Very generally, welfare is concerned with well-being or what could be said to be good for someone (or some thing). Different theories of welfare involve different ways of establishing these goods, for example, by appeal to subjective preferences and desires, or to perceived objective goods, such as health, freedom from pain, functionality, flourishing, etc. that are often considered to be universal aspects of well-being (Sumner 1996). When it comes to genetic modification, welfare might be thought of (rightly or wrongly) as something determined by what is good for humans. This means that, for example, determining welfare for a plant involves asking whether it exhibits the properties humans wish it to have (such as high crop yields). However, this might be seen as collapsing questions of welfare into those of (human) value. Alternatively, an appeal could be made to some form of species typicality (those traits, functions, behaviours, etc. that are possessed or exhibited by a typical member of a species) and so not be viewed through the lens of what properties something might possess that are valued by humans. Such an appeal would be particularly useful if welfare judgements were based on objective goods, as welfare would be seen as biologically determined by reference to this species typicality rather than simply determined by human values.

Some appeals to welfare (which support the development and use of genetic modification techniques) are based on the potential for providing treatments or therapies for conditions perceived to be harmful to live with. Such conditions are often referred to simply as ‘harmed conditions’. The aim of treating or ameliorating a harmed condition is usually taken to be what justifies the distinction between a therapeutic use of genetic modification from other uses, such as enhancement (see §7). However, it is not always obvious what might constitute a genuine harmed condition because there are multiple different accounts of health, disease, illness, and disability to draw from. Such accounts include, among others, medical models, social constructions (e.g. Boorse 1977), and feminist accounts. If the development and use of genetic modification techniques are justified on the grounds that they are therapeutic, determining whether something is a genuine harmed condition becomes central to many appeals to welfare.

Genetic modification may also have implications for the welfare of particular future individuals. However, establishing that it is possible to harm or benefit as yet non-existent future people through genetic modification has generated one of the most interesting and puzzling philosophical issues of the late twentieth century – Parfit’s Non-Identity Problem (1984). The problem applies to several scenarios, including the impossibility of harming or benefiting future children through genetic selection, so long as they have a life worth living (see Future generations, obligations to; Reproduction and ethics). Parfit’s argument is based on how any choice affecting the originating gametes of an individual would have resulted in an entirely different person coming into existence. Hence, it is impossible to make comparative welfare claims between the individual who is born and an entirely different individual who would have been born if different genetic selection choices had been made. These arguments have been widely discussed (e.g. Velleman 2008) and met with counter-arguments, including that such choices can lead to harm or benefit (Wrigley 2012), or that other factors, such as the motivation of the person undertaking the modification, matter morally too.

Welfare considerations in genetic modification also arise in arguments that this technology will decrease welfare. Scholars who argue for the relevance of disability considerations in these debates claim that genetic interventions can over-emphasise both a narrow conception of health and the place that a particular disability has in a person’s identity (e.g. Asch and Wasserman 2015). The wide availability of genetic modification can also stigmatise those who live with a condition. If disability is considered a harmed condition that can be treated or even eliminated through genetic modification, then it takes on an even more undesirable status, leading to disabled people being seen as less desirable sorts of people through this association.

It has been recognised that the use of genetic modification to eliminate disability might lead to social injustices. One approach to considering this problem comes from feminist philosophy, where it has been argued that disabled people frequently experience epistemic exclusion (Scully 2019). This occurs because disabled people are regularly excluded from contributing to social knowledge, or their accounts can be seen to have less credibility (known as testimonial injustice). Such exclusion, in turn, further devalues their lives by distorting society’s knowledge base (known as hermeneutical injustice) and adding to the perceived undesirability of living with disability (Scully 2019, applying Fricker 2007).

If access to genetic modification becomes more widespread, these problems have the potential to cause detriment and wider injustices. A skewed social perception of disability could create a society where diversity is not valued, or where only a narrow range of human traits are considered to be acceptable. Disability ethics scholars also contend that disability considerations can assist in enriching moral understanding, through highlighting how experiences of impairment themselves shape approaches to ethical analysis. Rather than being seen as a problem to be solved, a focus on disability serves to highlight how bodies and experiences can be normalised or otherwise taken for granted (Scully 2008).

Social justice issues also arise in genetic modification, particularly in terms of the equity of distributing benefits that arise from the use of these technologies, or the problems that can occur when a modification technology disrupts or overtakes a previous (non-genetic) technology (see Development ethics). If access to the benefits of genetic modification are restricted through things like cost or nationality, then there is the potential for stronger divisions to form. Feminist scholars are among those who have highlighted how genetic modification may not impact all groups equally, and may further marginalise systematically disadvantaged groups, such as women or ethnic minorities, who may not be able to access them due to already existing disadvantages they experience, be it in terms of financial access or in terms of developing relevant modifications (e.g. Tong 2006). Justice considerations in genetic modification are relevant at both individual and group levels, and addressing them will not be simple (Chapman, 2003). Of particular relevance are considerations of global equity, including how genetic modification will impact those living in low- or middle-income countries.

Matters of commercialisation are also a significant justice concern, whereby economic and resource control of genetic modification technologies offer huge advantages to those possessing them over those who do not. This can be seen, for example, in farming and agriculture, potentially jeopardising the employment of many smaller farmers unable to compete with the genetically modified livestock or plants on offer in terms of yield, nutritional value, microbial or pest resistance, and so on (see Agricultural ethics).

Citing this article:
Newson, Ainsley J. and Anthony Wrigley. Welfare and social justice. Genetic modification, 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L133-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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