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Searching for Discourse…

June 26, 2010

Recently, I have been reading a great deal about technical communication and ethics. Specifically I have been reading Dumbrowski’s Ethics in Technical Communication (2000) and have found it to be quite interesting – and timely.

In Chapter 2, Topic 5, Dumbrowski (2000) asks the reader to consider a current situation in which further discussion has been seemingly cut off, perhaps regarding technology or science. Immediately the question of governmental collection of DNA sprang to mind as a very vigorous debate was held in The Economist’s online forum via Facebook on June 23, 2010. Dumbrowski (2000) frames the question of what can be done versus what should be done and cites the problems of nuclear power plants of the 1960s and 1970s. However, those particular questions pose direct relevance in the temporal sense when considering the debate over government collection and storage of DNA.

Dumbrowski (2000) explores the writings of Habermas, stating he is “concerned that the rise of science and technology so dominates modern culture that when we think of knowledge, we assume that it must be technical or scientific” (p. 30). Relatedly, Habermas challenges the notion that all knowledge is merely scientific and that factual knowledge alone cannot assist in providing guidance for moral and ethical conduct. Specifically, Habermas correlates the rise of science and technology with the decline of public discourse and challenges the notion that other types of knowledge, such as “values, goals, and policy” (Dumbrowski, 2000, p. 31) should be excluded from public discourse on matters of science and technology. Citing the problem of lack of absolutes and independent criteria versus rational argumentation and discourse, Habermas observes that the social interaction involved in such argumentation and discourse must be allowed to continue ad infinitum as such complicated issues are never really decided.

Habermas, while not directly speaking to the problem of DNA collection within the contexts of his writing, does address the thorny issue of recognizing that beyond the benefits of scientific discovery of cures for various diseases as well as identifying criminals and the deceased by virtue of DNA samples, lies the importance of understanding how society accepts or does not accept such a practice. A short review of twentieth century history points to various misuses of medical practices and research, as well Habermas’ assertion that there is a need for some sort of global constitution that would assist nations in retaining some degree of sovereignty while participating in a world-wide framework that would allow for various forms of oversight (2008). It is not difficult to imagine that in a globalized system if one country collects and retains DNA samples of its population then others might follow similarly.

In The Economist’s debate many individuals stated they felt it was already a foregone conclusion that DNA samples would be collected by governments, presuming they are not already being collected, and that there was nothing the individual could do about it. Contrastingly, others felt it was clearly a matter of consent and staunchly defended their rights to decide for themselves. Habermas would likely posit that aside from the medical and societal benefits of collecting DNA (for a variety of purposes) that it is important to understand how individuals view the problem through “free, earnest discussions aimed at developing a consensus within a community” (Dumbrowski, 2000, p. 31). What was troubling about the discussion was that individuals on the “yes” side were largely unwilling to even consider the potential unintended negative consequences of such technology, relying mainly on their presumption that nothing bad could ever come out of an inherently stated positive initiative.

In the spirit of discourse the reluctance to “hear” the other side made the gathering of new information on the problem unlikely by those who support the collection of DNA by government entities. Their views seemed to follow the line of logic that governments will act as they wish regardless of public opinion and/or that governments are in place to fulfill their duties in line with a Kantian (or duty-driven) perspective. The individuals who were against DNA collection were not disputing the potential benefits of having such important information for medical research and forensic purposes, but rather their concerns arose from the need to protect their personal information and do whatever they could to make it known they anticipated issues of data misuse including privacy breaches and matters of profiling of various types. There was no consolation for the individuals who were concerned about privacy issues, etc. found in current legislation such as GINA (the Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act of 2008) and other types of legal protection as those individuals conveyed a feeling of already having too much governmental invasion of privacy at present.

In looking at a state-by-state breakdown of the collection of DNA of newborns one can see that the practice of collecting and retaining DNA, sometimes without the consent of the infant’s parents, is already occurring (Cohen, 2010). Therefore it would seem that the discussion of whether or not governments should collect and retain DNA samples of its citizenry is already moot. However, the need to continue to enter into the discussion and cultivate informed opinions remains. Merely because the scientific and medical communities have successfully shown there is a productive use (“productive” being a relative term) for DNA does not negate the need for individuals to understand their rights and work hard to attempt to hear all sides of the argument as the sophists might have endorsed. Utilitarian ethics have likely fed the development of DNA collection and other items such as electronic medical records, however, it is still incumbent upon all humans to view the problem from the second type of knowledge Habermas advocates to endeavor to come to a consensus on the matter rather than subjugate to any government’s will placing it above individual liberties.


Cohen, E. (2010). The government has your baby’s DNA. Retrieved June 23, 2010 from

Dumbrowski, P. (2000). Ethics in technical communication. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Habermas, J. (2008). The constitutionalization of international law and the legitimization problems of a constitution for world society. Constellations, 15(4), 444-462.

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