What if you could know when and how you were going to die? Would you choose to remain ignorant, or would you prefer to confront the facticity of your own mortality directly? This question has engaged philosophers for millennia. Until recently, the question was merely a matter for personal speculation, eliciting intuitions about mortality, self-determination, and free-will. This has all changed. At least, so it seems.
A new industry has emerged, as a result of the last decade’s exponential technological advances in the field of bioinformatics. Now, a glimpse of our most likely personal Reaper is less than 100 dollars away (just two years ago the glimpse was ten times the distance and ten times more blurry). Gene sequencing companies have sprung up everywhere, like mushrooms after a rain. For a modest price, each of us can have our DNA analyzed, and receive a report of our personal predisposition to acquire a variety of potentially debilitating or terminal diseases. Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, lung cancer, breast cancer, obesity, and multiple sclerosis are but a few of the many worrisome conditions targeted by such DNA analysis.
The question – would you want to know? – is no longer limited to philosophical speculation. Today, it commands a real presence in the life of each individual. Some conditions, such as obesity, are preventable and treatable, whereas others, such as Alzheimer’s disease, may be neither preventable nor treatable. In all cases, however, it is only probabilistic knowledge that is available. So, what is the value of such information? This is a question for personal reflection. However, one thing is sure: We are all free to give up smoking and to keep a healthy diet, irrespective of our genetic predisposition for lung cancer, obesity, or diabetes. We should take advantage of that freedom. It is the only way that we can keep our personal Reaper at bay… at least for a little while longer.
See Sharon Begley’s recent article in Newsweek, It’s in Our Genes. So What?
Recent Work on Free Will and Moral Responsibility
By Neil Levy and Michael McKenna, University of Melbourne Florida State University
(Vol. 3, December 2008)
Causation and Responsibility
By Carolina Sartorio , University of Wisconsin at Madison
(Vol. 2, August 2007)