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Journal news and reviews: December 2009

9 December 2009

I’m Stuart Nicholls, a PhD student at Lancaster University in the UK.

Every month I will be selecting a handful of recently published papers that broadly relate to the area of interest of the Postgraduate Forum on Genetics and Society (PFGS), and publishing their details here. In each of these blogs I will select one of these papers and provide a feature commentary.

As ever, feedback is great and if you have suggestions for papers then let me know at:
s.nicholls AT (replacing AT with @).

Right, on with the show.


Ethics or Morals: Understanding Students’ Values Related to Genetic Tests on Humans
Author(s): Lindahl MG
Journal: SCIENCE & EDUCATION    Volume: 18    Issue: 10    Pages: 1285-1311

In this paper Mats Lindahl sets out to explore “how students explain and understand their moral stance in dilemmas concerning genetics and its use for genetic tests and treatment of hereditary diseases in humans.” (p1286). Lindahl then proceeds with a quick overview of public knowledge and attitudes. Whilst this attempts, one suspects, to show the range of opinion and ambiguity in assessing a single `public’ knowledge, the topic is too great to be covered effectively in a short introductory paragraph, and this reader felt that the crux, attitudes to prental-testing, would have been a better focus for the review. Indeed, whilst talking of genetic tests more generally it soon became clear that the interest of the author lies in attitudes to prenatal testing and the eradication of genetic diseases. Consequently the introductory sections appear too cursory, with many areas under-explored or even potentially seen as missing.

Using a writing exercise and interview the reasonings developed by 13 students in Sweden are explored. In exploring these reasons Lindahl differentiates `moral’ decisions from `ethical’ ones, the latter being based on abstract principles with the former on personal relationships. In doing so medical or scientific knowledge; what the author refers to as disembedded knowledge, was often used to support ethical arguments whilst everyday knowledge; or what the author describes as embedded knowledge, was used to support moral reasoning. In conducting these analyses Lindahl reports 3 themes: Reducing Suffering as a Main Argument, How We Receive a Right to Live, and Decisions About Lives. In constructing these themes many of the well-rehearsed arguments are replayed including how one defines suffering, when the embryo or fetus achieves moral status and confilcts between individual and societal perspectives (if indeed society does have a perspective).

In reviewing these reasons Lindahl argues that the perspective to reduce suffering can be considered  a disembedded knowledge, and so an ethical reason, on the basis that:

“it is displaced in space and time and there is no way of knowing about the suffering on a person-to-person level […] The argument that we are supposed to reduce suffering of a hypothetical being is rational and impersonal. Thus, according to Bauman (1994) it is an ethical stance. “ (P1304)

This, however, not only suggests that one can standardise suffering, but one can standardise experiences of suffering to the same degree, something that the literature tells is not the case.

It is also suggested that the invokation of developmental stages in deciding about the when and how we receive life, is a further example of disembedded knowledge and consequently ethical judgement, yet the seeking of human features was seen as seeking to approach their moral pole.

In concluding Lindahl notes that students “moved between objective and subjective arguments giving an impression of ambivalence.” (p1308). This leaves the author to conclude that :

“From the present study it appears that the students’ major difficulty was to integrate objective knowledge with their subjective knowledge. They could not scrutinize their reasoning using both types of knowledge.” (p1309)

This reader felt particularly underwhelmed, with very little being added to what is already known. Indeed the early promise of the article in terms of linking science education and reasoning, goes under-developed. This would, I feel, have brought an extra dimension to the paper that, whilst efficient, was felt could be substantially improved with greater focus.

Well that’s my tuppence worth anyway.
See you next month


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