In the quest for a quick fix and a simple explanation some people may look to genetics. It is suggested that 'humans are suckers for easy solutions'(Rothblatt 1997 p. 165). The quest for an easy ethical solution to the agonising challenges presented by prenatal testing might lead us to believe that mastery of some ethical principles or theories would resolve our dilemmas. There is no doubt that an understanding of theories such as deontology, utilitarianism and rights approaches can facilitate deliberation and provided some justification for actions and omissions in relation to prenatal testing. They have, however, been criticised for being impersonal, abstract, overly rational and for ignoring emotions (Alder-son 1991). The ethical issues surrounding prenatal testing are, most certainly, personal, contextual and emotional. Decisions made by parents, particularly women, can enhance or detract from the rest of their lives; professionals may find themselves counselling women about the most fundamental issues in relation to individual flourishing; and policy-makers may flounder when confronted with societal genetic possibilities. There is much to prenatal testing that falls outside an abstract rational analysis and much which seems to be illuminated by virtue ethics. Beauchamp and Childress (1994 p. 462) state that 'morality would be a cold and uninspiring place without various traits of character, emotional responses, and ideals that reach beyond principles and rules.'
Aristotle, one of the earliest and most significant virtue theorists, is quoted (in his Politics) as stating: 'As to the exposure and rearing of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live'(Carey 1991) and to hold the view that 'the source of male virtue is thought to be the rational element of the soul which, while present in the female, is ineffective' (Johnstone 1994 p. 109). He may, then, be thought an inappropriate theorist to provide guidance on an issues relating (for the most part) to women and children. Despite these views, virtue ethics seems to offer a more complete picture of the ethical aspects of prenatal testing. Rather than focusing on acts or omissions, a virtue approach focuses on the character of the person involved.
Aristotle believed, as do his philosophical descendants (Geach 1977, Foot 1978, Hursthouse 1987) that living a good life or flourishing was what human beings aspire to and to do this, they must acquire and practice the virtues. According to Hursthouse, 'the fully virtuous person, with full wisdom, would be the person who knew what to do or think in exactly those circumstance that many of us find so deeply puzzling it becomes clear that she is an ideal. We go for guidance to, or try to model ourselves on, the people who approximate to that ideal'(1987 p.247). This suggests the importance of role models and highlights the circularity of the title question—the virtuous person becomes virtuous by practicing the virtues and will just know what the right thing to do is in the particular situation. Virtue ethics, unlike mainstream ethical theories previously mentioned, accepts the place of the emotions or passions in the moral life. Virtues could be said to be the right expression or moderation of the passions 'in the right place and at the right time'(Carr 1991 p.50) or as Aristotle states 'virtue aims to hit the mean...to have those feelings at the right times on the right grounds towards the right people for the right motive and in the right way is the mark of virtue'(Aristotle 1953 ed. p. 101).
Accounts of the significant virtues for human flourishing vary. There is general agreement that the 'cardinal virtues' are prudence, justice, temperance and courage. The theological virtues are understood to be faith, hope and charity. However, there are specific virtues which are thought to relate to specific roles and practices. In considering the role of virtue theory in relation to prenatal testing, the virtues of the professional and the patient (the woman who is pregnant) will be considered.
Was this article helpful?