Commentary on Salvi

- Frank J. Leavitt, Ph.D.

The Jakobovits Centre of Jewish Medical Ethics, Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben Gurion University of the Negev
Beer Sheva, ISRAEL (Home Tel/FAX: +972-2-9963048)
(Disconnected from Friday dark until Saturday dark, Israel times)

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 5 (1995), 153-4.
Salvi's paper (1) is bioethics as it should be: interdisciplinary, combining biology and philosophy, written by a physician. Since he relies on analytic philosophy perhaps a critical commentary should discuss his paper within the contest of analytic philosophy in the 20th century. I shall first give some background. Then I'll return to Salvi's paper.

A principle which is widely although not universally accepted among analytic philosophers is the distinction between fact and value. "The world", as Wittgenstein put it, "is the totality of facts in logical space." The world is simply the totality of what there is. And we can logically analyze what there is, all we like without ever being forced to draw a conclusion about what there ought to be: about good and evil. According to the "logical positivist" viewpoint which developed out of Wittgenstein's early philosophy, science is to deal with the empirical discovery of facts and with their logico-mathematical analysis. But values, which, according to some philosophers, are perhaps only expressions of emotions, have no place in a scientific description of the world.

Although the fact-value distinction was prominent in the analytic philosophy movement, it's sources are very old. Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed distinguished between "true and false", which are known through intellectual enquiry, and "good and bad" which are leaned form tradition, ultimately originating in prophesy. The distinction was taken up again by the 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, who was responsible for the slogan (which perhaps slightly distorted Hume's own text), that you cannot deduce "ought" (value) from "is" (fact).

The fact-value distinction was hotly debated during the decline of the analytic period in twentieth century philosophy. For one thing the distinction provides an easy excuse for scientists to avoid talking moral responsibility for their actions. "I am just a scientist", one can say. "I investigate facts. Whether people use these facts for moral or immoral ends is a matter of value and none of my concern." Our bioethics movement is indeed an antidote to the temptations of scientists to avoid facing questions of value. Also, the very standards of so-called "scientific method": controlled experimentation, quantification, safeguards against "bias", are themselves expressions of value, stipulating what science "ought" to be.

But what has all this go to do with Salvi's paper? The problem is that although the fact-value distinction is debatable, it is still a clear and important enough distinction that it would seem that when one deduces a value from a fact one might at least add something to justify the deduction. If you leap from fact to value then please either say why you think there is nothing wrong in general with deducing "ought" from "is", or please specify the added premises you are using to justify the deduction in this particular case. But the problem is that Salvi deduces value from fact without saying enough to justify the deduction.

In order to justify his rejection of germ line genetic therapy Salvi begins with some facts about DNA. Later on I'll call some of these facts into question. Meanwhile let us just list them. He says that our DNA is the result of the accumulation of data from billions of years. It is "the fundamental elemental element of life." it "necessarily entails" the longitudinal phenotypical development of an organism. This makes it "the fundamental principle of causality."

From these facts he deduces the value: "As such it must be safeguarded." But he doesn't really bring enough evidence to justify this leap from fact to value. Indeed, he almost admits that he is relying on an assumption that we may "consider the genotype as a dimension of value". But what can he really say to someone who refuses to value the genotype? Salvi's deduction of "ought" from "is" needs further justification.

In my personal opinion it is perfectly possible that developing germ line genetic therapy might be part of our destiny as partners in creation. I think we should be extremely cautious about germ line therapy for prudential reasons. But this is no reason to forbid it absolutely, not for philosophical reasons and not for religious reasons, such as Scriptural or Rabbinic reasons either.

Salvi's facts also need further examination. He assumes that the genotype necessarily determines the phenotype, ignoring environmental factors. A recent review article by Ulrich Wolf brings a vast amount of evidence to suggest that "the genotype-phenotype relationship may be irregular" (2). Also a number of papers at the 1993 Fukui seminar suggested with respect to a number of genetic diseases that "there is some limitation for the prediction of clinical features based on genotype analysis" (3).

The genotype is important but environment seems to be important too.

Also Salvi seems to assume that the genome of an organism is invariable throughout its lifetime. Indeed the idea that environment can affect our genetic heritage was once considered to be ridiculous "Lysenkoism". But nowadays the clastogenetic effects of radiation, (and perhaps also microwaves: see references in Goldsmith's recent article (4)) are pretty widely recognized. And who know if there are other environmental effects on the genome? We shall not know whether or not we keep an invariable genotype throughout life until a large number of people have their DNA mapped at birth and then again after say fifty years. We are at least fifty years away form the completion of such an experiment.

Salvi is right to suggest that so-called "junk" DNA may have functions as yet unknown to us. The opposite opinion simply says that what we don't know does not exist.


1. Salvi M. Ethics and biotechnology: analysis of the relationship between ethics and science. EJAIB 5 (1995), 151-3.
2. Wolf U. The genetic contribution to the phenotype. Human Genetics 95 (1995), 127-148.
3. Tsuji S. Gaucher disease: molecular genetics and clinical issues. In Fujiki N & Macer DRJ eds. Intractable Neurological Disorders, Human Genome Research and Society. Tsukuba & Christchurch 1994. pp. 61-64.
4. Goldsmith J. Where the trail leads... EJAIB 5 (1995), 92-94.

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