Saturday, 26 August 2006

Genetics and morality

Sometimes you get fortunate on a plane. A recent flight I took from Toronto to Philadelphia was one of those times. I found myself sitting next to a sociology professor, a psychoanalyst and a Christian. And it was all one person.

We had a glorious free-ranging discussion that touched on everything from raising teenagers to Durkheim's problematic atheism to sociopaths and free will. And it's this last idea that I'd like to expand on a bit today.

Recent research has shown that there is a genetic component to sociopathy, the newer preferred term for psychopathy. Sociopaths are people who fully understand the difference between right and wrong, but who just don't care. They can nonetheless be exceedingly charming people, because they have understood that charm is a very important element in manipulation. And they are manipulators par excellence. They can be extremely cruel manipulators too, as they are utterly indifferent to the suffering of others and can even delight in it. Empathetic is not a word applied to sociopaths.

Some of the most horrific crimes are committed by sociopaths. I won't give any examples; I'm sure you've got a list in your head already, and probably from this week's news, whenever you are reading this. But not all sociopaths go on to be mass murderers or pedophiles, as my flight companion pointed out. They have learned to curtail their impulses, whether through fear of retribution or, perhaps, the simple intellectual recognition that they are wrong. Many of them will content themselves with merely being the coworker from hell.

We demand of sociopaths that they curtail themselves and punish them severely if they do not. Yet, if genetics is as all-determining as some would have us believe, they are only doing what comes naturally, indeed what they are programmed to do. But I don't believe there is anybody willing to stand up and argue the position that they should be allowed to do so without any adverse consequences.

But what about alcoholics? Or homosexuals? Or people with short tempers? All of these behaviours can have genetic components. And I use the word "component" very deliberately. Human behaviour is far too complex to be reduced to a single factor.

Case in point: Seventh Day Adventists. According to their very strict doctrines, which an astonishing number of them put into practice, alcohol and a good number of foods are verboten. The result? The lowest alcoholism rate of any identifiable group in the United States, as well as the longest life expectancy. Nobody has ever suggested that the genetic component for alcoholism is less prevalent among them, but a combination of nurture and free will succeed in trumping nature, to their great benefit.

My point is this: a genetic predisposition to a certain behaviour does not make it morally acceptable or even neutral. It certainly doesn't mean that the said behaviour is advisable, if you are of the morally nihilistic persuasion. I, for example, have a genetically predetermined tendency to overweight. That doesn't make it any less harmful for me to be overweight. It does mean I have to fight much harder to avoid it than people of lean and lanky parentage.

So when we determine if a certain behaviour is desirable, acceptable, or moral, we are going to have to use other criteria than genetic determinism. No matter how widespread, how "natural" or "normal" a behaviour may be, it doesn't necessarily follow that it is right.


Pat at Stubborn Facts has chosen this very day to expand on the idea of natural not necessarily being synonymous with good. At least he didn't discuss genetics...

1 comment:

PatHMV said...

What can I say... great minds think alike... ;-)


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