Military Genomic Testing: Proportionality, Expected Benefits, and the Connection between Genotypes and Phenotypes

Journal of Law and the Biosciences 2 (1):85-91 (2015)
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Mehlman and Li offer a framework for approaching the bioethical issues raised by the military use of genomics that is compellingly grounded in both the contemporary civilian and military ethics of medical research, arguing that military commanders must be bound by the two principles of paternal- ism and proportionality. I agree fully. But I argue here that this is a much higher bar than we may fully realize. Just as the principle of proportionality relies upon a thorough assessment of harms caused and military advantage gained, the use of genomic research, on Mehlman and Li’s view, will require an accurate understanding of the connection between genotypes and phenotypes – accurate enough to ameliorate the risk undertaken by our armed forces in being subject to such research. Recent conceptual work in evolutionary theory and the philosophy of biology, however, renders it doubtful that such knowledge is forthcoming. The complexity of the relationship between genotypic factors and realized traits (the so-called ‘G→P map’) makes the estimation of potential military advantage, as well as potential harm to our troops, incredibly challenging. Such fundamental conceptual challenges call into question our ability to ever satisfactorily satisfy the demands of a sufficiently rigorous ethical standard.



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Charles H. Pence
Université Catholique de Louvain

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