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Are All Rational Moralities Equivalent?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 March 2011


Matti Häyry’s new book Rationality and the Genetic Challenge discusses the ethics of human genetic modification and the bioethical rationalities that inform the different ethical conclusions authors have advanced. It is aimed at correcting the belief that “only one rationality exists or one morality exists; that those that disagree [with them] are unreasonable or evil.” Häyry argues that there are multiple rationalities, and that even though ethical issues may have solutions within individual rationalities, disagreements that have their root in separate rational approaches cannot be universally solved by intellectual arguments. In debates about the ethics of using new biotechnologies to genetically modify human beings, the normal state is one of fundamental disagreement over almost all of the anticipated uses to which the technology could be put. Häyry’s point is that such a state of affairs is not necessarily due to a lack of reason because there are many, equally valid, ways of being reasonable.

Special Section: Methodology in Philosophical Bioethics
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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1. Häyry, M. Rationality and the Genetic Challenge: Making People Better? Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; 2010:xi.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2. See note 1, Häyry 2010:xii.

3. Häyry discusses issues surrounding reproductive testing for the desired characteristics, the ethics of “saviour siblings,” reproductive cloning, embryonic stem cell research, gene therapies, and the possibility of considerable life extension. See note 1, Häyry 2010:1–23 and passim.

4. Harris, J.Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People, 1st ed. Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press; 2007Google Scholar; Glover, J.Choosing Children: Genes, Disability and Design. Oxford: Clarenden Press; 2000Google Scholar; Kass, LR, Wilson, JQ. The Ethics of Human Cloning. Washington, DC: The American Enterprise Institute; 1998Google Scholar; Kass, LR. Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics. San Francisco, CA: Encounter Books; 2002Google Scholar; Sandel, M.The Case against Perfection. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 2007Google Scholar; Habermas, J.The Future of Human Nature. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press; 2003Google Scholar; Green, RM.Babies by Design: The Ethics of Genetic Choice. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; 2007.Google Scholar

5. This is because of internal differences regarding whose agreement is necessary for moral principles to be considered valid. Habermas believes that for a norm to be legitimate it has to be agreed by all affected, whereas for Green, legitimacy requires norms to be agreed by all reasonable people.

6. See note 1, Häyry 2010:44.

7. Other dimensions across which the rationalities may differ are what counts as empirical reality to which the rationality must accord, how the impacts of the technology should be optimized, and what makes the decisions moral.

8. See note 1, Häyry 2010:48–9.

9. See note 1, Häyry 2010:48–9.

10. For an elaboration of the basic idea, see Rawls, J.A Theory of Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1972Google Scholar; Daniels, N.Wide reflective equilibrium and theory acceptance in ethics. Journal of Philosophy 1979;76:257–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

11. See note 1, Häyry 2010:49.

12. See note 1, Häyry 2010:49.

13. See note 1, Häyry 2010:48.

14. For one thing the procedural rules look very close to the tenets of liberal democracy, something that may not attract universal assent. For more on this, see Gunson, D.Global bioethics, collective identities and the limits of rationality. Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology 2010;4(1):article 3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

15. For example, see Habermas, J.The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 1, Reason and the Rationalisation of Society. Boston: Beacon Press; 1984Google Scholar; Habermas, J. Discourse ethics: Notes on a program of philosophical justification. In: Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 1990:43–116Google Scholar; Habermas, J.Communication and the Evolution of Society. Boston: Beacon Press; 1979.Google Scholar

16. See note 4, Habermas 2003.

17. See note 15, Habermas 1984; Habermas, J.The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 2, Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason. Boston: Beacon Press; 1987.Google Scholar

18. It is true that the procedural framework is not exactly neutral because, even though it does not advocate any specific rules or judgments, the framework and its operational rules do constitute a moral position of sorts. See note 14.

19. “The answer to the questions cannot, according to Kass, be found in modern philosophical analyses because these are hyper-rational and void of ethical significance. Clarity, consistency, and coherence are overrated.” See note 1, Häyry 2010:32, n. 37, citing Kass; see note 4, Kass 2002:57–65.

20. Indeed, as Häyry notes (p. 39), Green also disagrees with Habermas, restricting the need for consent to rational people.

21. Habermas’s position is meant to be applicable to the so-called public sphere, where discourse surrounds norms and their application that has an impact on the public. The “private sphere” (of “ethical life”) is one where there is no requirement for full rational scrutiny of our beliefs and actions. From this point of view we can ask the question of our positions: are they part of public political discourse or are they (properly) part of the private sphere? Arguably the following are situations where the private becomes public: advocating that others (who do not share your view) be forced to adopt them through law, regulation; claiming some right that requires public resources to support it; exercising private individual choice, which is ostensibly private, that has a negative public effect.

22. See note 19.

23. See note 17, Habermas 1987.

24. Even if we accept some of Kass’s views, say on cloning (for Häyry on Kass on cloning, see note 1, Hayry 2010:134–6), particularly that it is asexual and somehow goes against the natural relationship between sexuality, family, children, and so forth, we should note that no one is advocating that people must clone, only that it may be an option. It certainly will not undermine sex or having children “naturally.” If it is contended that letting anyone have such choices is enough to undermine valuable traditions, that it is not enough to say such a view is part of a private morality but should be forced upon those who do not agree, then we would have to point to the original justification for the procedural approach: those whom a norm affects should have a say. If there is no consensus, then the norm—protect communities and traditions—should only be part of the private morality of those who have consented to be bound by it.

25. See note 1, Häyry 2010:63–7.

26. Cf. note 1, Häyry 2010:36–7. Häyry suggests that Habermas is not claiming that screened or enhanced people will have less dignity or feel less human, but rather they will lose their “actual and perceived ‘oneness’; they will have been left without a sense of ‘self-madeness, identity, or freedom.”

27. “What is at stake is a dedifferentiation, through biotechnology, of deep-rooted categorical distinctions [which] … could [also] affect our moral consciousness … to conceive of ourselves as the authors of our own lives and of equal members of the moral community.” See note 1, Häyry 2010:42. Cf. “With the realisation of the non-contingency of her manufactured biological origins, the young person risks losing a mental predisposition necessary for her, as a legal person, necessary to enjoy equal civil rights.” See note 4, Habermas 2003:78.

28. See Mameli, M.Reproductive cloning, genetic engineering and the autonomy of the child: The moral agent and the open future. Journal of Medical Ethics 2007;33(2):87–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Even though the actual freedom of future children is not undermined by parental choice regarding some of their genes, it might be contended that the children will feel less free. This idea is also criticized by Mameli.