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Durham University

Department of Sociology

Completed Projects

Ordinary ethics: the moral evaluation of the new genetics by non-professionals

A research project of the Department of Sociology.


This project is funded by the Wellcome Trust and is being conducted in collaboration with the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Institute (PEALS) based in Newcastle (

A substantial literature by philosophers and policymakers on the ethical aspects of the 'new genetics' already exists. However, research into the moral approaches of non-professionals (lay people) is much less extensive. The work that exists is generally restricted to:
delineating the distribution of lay attitudes towards specific ethical issues (survey approach), or exploring the division between professional expertise and public 'ignorance'.


The project is funded by the following grant.

  • Ordinary Ethics: Moral Evaluation (£9833.00 from The Wellcome Trust)


This project has taken a slightly different focus. It has considered such issues as:

  • how do lay people reach ethical evaluations and come to bioethical
  • how do lay ethical discourse and the models used compare with that of professional academic bioethicists and clinicians?
  • what are the key arguments used by lay people to support their conclusions, and how do these compare with those used in the bioethical literature?

This approach involves paying closer attention to uncovering the moral values on which public attitudes are based and whether differences between groups in approach or values contribute to mutual misunderstanding.

We hope our findings will contribute to the wider debate on how people make up their minds about ethical issues in science, and the role of empirical research in bioethics and policy-making.


The topic chosen for moral evaluation was prenatal sex selection, which is also the subject of current regulatory debate and consultation. Focus groups were presented with scenarios based on prenatal sex selection, particularly using preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Participants were asked whether they thought prenatal sex selection was right or wrong, or whether they didn't know. In the course of the focus group participants explored their reasoning behind their opinions, sometimes supporting and sometimes challenging each other's conclusions. In follow-up interviews with particularly informative participants, their moral values and processes were examined in more detail.


Our results show that an overwhelming majority of participants were opposed to prenatal sex selection, except for purely medical reasons. Most had a very strong intuition about it at the start of the discussion, and very few changed their mind. What the group discussion enabled them to do was to clarify and articulate their moral reasoning behind their intuition. Importantly, we have been able to show that public responses to these issues are not based on unthinking, knee-jerk prejudice. Lay people use a variety of evaluative approaches and moral resources, including personal experience, analogies with similar situations, and hypothetical reasoning. Overall they focus on the consequences of prenatal sex selection to the family and child, but they also gave a high value to the principle of treating the child as "a gift, not a commodity". These results have implications for improving processes of public debate and consultation. Our participants valued the opportunity to give considered responses to an issue which they had never thought about before. None of those we asked had heard about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Agency's consultation on sex selection.
We are currently preparing a series of papers for publication with our results.


From the Department of Sociology

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