Medicine Studies

, Volume 3, Issue 3, pp 171–183 | Cite as

Epigenetic Responsibility

  • Maria Hedlund


The purpose of this article is to argue for a position holding that epigenetic responsibility primarily should be a political and not an individual responsibility. Epigenetic is a rapidly growing research field studying regulations of gene expression that do not change the DNA sequence. Knowledge about these mechanisms is still uncertain in many respects, but main presumptions are that they are triggered by environmental factors and life style and, to a certain extent, heritable to subsequent generations, thereby reminding of aspects of Lamarckism. Epigenetic research advances give rise to intriguing challenges for responsibility relations between the society and the individual. Responsibility is commonly understood in a backwards-looking manner, identifying causally responsible actors to blame for a bad outcome. If only a backwards-looking responsibility model is applied, epigenetics might give rise to arduous responsibility ascriptions to individuals for their health and the health of their future descendants. This would put heavy responsibility burdens on actors constrained by unequal social and economic structures. In contrast, a forward-looking responsibility notion takes account of structural conditions and pay attention to who is best placed to do something about conditions contributing to bad outcomes. A forward-looking responsibility notion would partly free disadvantaged individuals from responsibility, and identify actors with power and capacity to do something about structural factors constraining genuine choice.


Epigenetics Responsibility State Individual Health 



I would like to acknowledge the helpful comments received on earlier versions of this article from Ulf Mörkenstam, Magdalena Bexell, Göran Duus-Otterström, Annika Björkdahl, Dalia Mukhtar-Landgren, Johannes Lindvall, and the anonymous reviewers of this journal.


  1. Adam, Barbara, and Chris Groves. 2011. Futures tended: Care and future-oriented responsibility. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 31(1): 17–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Beck, Stefan, and Jörg Niewöhner. 2006. Somatographic investigations across levels of complexity. BioSocieties 1: 219–227.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bracken, Adrian P., and Kristian Helin. 2009. Polycomb group proteins: Navigators of lineage pathways led astray in cancer. Nature Reviews Cancer 9(11): 773–785.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Boddington, Paula. 2010. Relative responsibilities: Is there an obligation to discuss genomic research participation with family members? Public Health Genomics 13(7–8): 504–513.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Buchanan, Allen. 2011. Beyond humanity? The ethics of biomedical enhancement. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Butcher, Lee M., and Stephan Beck. 2008. Future impact of integrated high-throughput methylome analyses on human health and disease. Journal of Genetics and Genomics 35(7): 391–401.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Carlisle, Juliet E., Jessica T. Feezell, Kristy E.H. Michaud, Eric R.A.N. Smith, and Leeanna Smith. 2010. The public’s trust in scientific claims regarding offshore oil drilling. Public Understanding of Science 19(5): 514–527.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. d’Agincourt-Canning, Lori. 2006. Genetic testing for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer: Responsibility and choice. Qualitative Health Research 16(1): 97–118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Dietrich, Frank. 2002. Causal responsibility and rationing in medicine. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 5(1): 113–131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Downie, R.S. 1969. Collective responsibility. In Collective responsibility: Five decades of debate in theoretical and applied ethics, eds. Larry May & Stacey Hoffman, 47–51. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.Google Scholar
  11. Duus-Otterström, Göran. 2007. Punishment and personal responsibility. Göteborg: Department of Political Science, Göteborg University.Google Scholar
  12. Etchegary, Holly, and Ken Fowler. 2008. ‘They had the right to know’: Genetic risk and perceptions of responsibility. Psychology and Health 23(6): 707–727.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Feinberg, Joel. 1970. Collective responsibility. In Collective responsibility: Five decades of debate in theoretical and applied ethics, ed. Larry May and Stacey Hoffman, 53–76. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.Google Scholar
  14. Fischer, John Martin. 1982. Responsibility and control. The Journal of Philosophy 79(1): 24–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Fischer, John Martin. 1999. Recent work on moral responsibility. Ethics 110(1): 93–139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Fischer, John Martin. 2006. My Way: Essays on moral responsibility. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Fischer, John Martin, and Mark Ravizza. 1998. Responsibility and control: A theory of moral responsibility. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  18. FitzPatrick, William J. 2008. Moral responsibility and normative ignorance: Answering a new skeptical challenge. Ethics 118(4): 589–614.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Fraga, Mario F., Esteban Ballestar, Maria F. Paz, Santiago Ropero, Fernando Setien, Maria L. Ballestar, Damia Heine-Suñer, Juan C. Cigudosa, Miguel Urioste, Javier Benitez, Manuel Boix-Chornet, Abel Sanchez-Aguilera, Charlotte Ling, Emma Carlsson, Pernille Poulsen, Allan Vaag, Zarko Stephan, Tim D. Spector, Wu Yue-Zhong, Christoph Plass, Manel Esteller, and Stanley M. Gartler. 2005. Epigenetic differences arise during the lifetime of monozygotic twins. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) 102(30): 10604–10609.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Gerstenberg, Tobias, and David A. Lagnado. 2010. Spreading the blame: The allocation of responsibility amongst multiple agents. Cognition 115(1): 166–171.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Gesche, Astrid H. 2009. Taking a first step: Epigenetic health and responsibility. In Epigenetics and human health: Linking hereditary, environmental and nutritional aspects, eds. Alexander G. Haslberger and Sabine Gressler, 281–285. Weinheim: Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co.Google Scholar
  22. Gilbert, Margaret. 1993. Agreements, coercion, and obligation. Ethics 103(4): 669–706.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Gilbert, Margaret. 2006. Who is to blame? Collective moral responsibility and its implications for group members. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 30(1): 94–114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Gluckman, Peter D., Mark A. Hansson, and Alan S. Beedle. 2007. Early life events and their consequences for later disease: A life history and evolutionary perspective. American Journal of Human Biology 19(1): 1–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Hammond, Jessica. 2010. Genetic engineering to avoid genetic neglect: From chance to responsibility. Bioethics 24(4): 160–169.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hansen, Randall, and Desmond King. 2001. Eugenic ideas, political interests, and policy variance: Immigration and sterilization policy in britain and the US. World Politics 53(2): 237–263.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hedlund, Maria. 2007. Demokratiska genvägar: Expertinflytande i den svenska lagstiftningsprocessen om medicinsk genteknik. Lund: Lund Political Studies.Google Scholar
  28. Hedlund, Maria. 2010. Democratic expert influence through bioethical advisory commissions? The case of PGD legislation in Sweden. In Quality issues in clinical genetic servces, eds. Ulf Kristoffersson, J. J. Cassiman and Jörg Schmidtke. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  29. Held, Virginia. 1970. Can a random collection of individuals Be morally responsible? In Collective responsibility: Five decades of debate in theoretical and applied ethics, ed. Larry May and Stacey Hoffman, 89–100. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.Google Scholar
  30. Hodges, John. 2010. Going beyond the limits: Genetic modification of livestock and dissolution of ancient boundaries. Livestock Science 130(1–3): 3–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Jablonka, Eva, and Gal Raz. 2009. Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance: Prevalence, mechanisms, and implications for the study of heredity and evolution. The Quarterly Review of Biology 84(2): 131–176.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Jirtle, Randy L., and Michael K. Skinner. 2007. Environmental epigenomics and disease susceptibility. Nature Reviews: Genetics 8(4): 253–262.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Kaati, Gunnar. 2009. Case studies on epigenetic inheritance. In Epigenetics and human health: Linking hereditary, environmental and nutritional aspects, ed. Alexander G. Haslberger, and Sabine Gressler, 63–86. Weinheim: Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co.Google Scholar
  34. Kane, Robert. 2002. Responsibility, reactive attitudes and free will: Reflections on Wallace’s theory. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 64(3): 693–698.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Kato, T., K. Iwamoto, C. Kakiuchi, G. Turatomi, and Y. Okasaki. 2005. Genetic or epigenetic difference casing discordance between monozygotic twins as a clue to molecular basis of mental disorders. Molecular Psychiatry 10: 622–630.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Knoppers, Bartha Maria, and Ruth Chadwick. 2005. Human genetic research: Emerging trends in ethics. Nature Reviews Genetics 6(1): 75–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Lanteri, Alessandro. 2009. Judgements of intentionality and moral worth: Experimental challenges to hindriks. The Philosophical Quarterly 59(237): 713–720.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Lewin, Leif. 2007. Democratic accountability: Why choice in politics is both possible and necessary. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Lewitt, Mairi, and Neil Manson. 2007. My genes made me do it? The implications of behavioural genetics for responsibility and blame. Health Care Analysis 15(1): 33–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Lumey, L.H., Aryeh D. Stein, Henry S. Kahn, Karin M. Van der Pal-de Bruin, G.J. Blauw, Patricia A. Zybert, and Ezra E. Susser. 2007. Cohort profile: The Dutch hunger winter families study. International Journal of Epidemiology 36(6): 1196–1204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Lundquist, Lennart. 1987. Implementation steering: An actor structure approach. Bromley: Chartwell-Bratt.Google Scholar
  42. May, Larry, and Stacey Hoffman (eds.). 1991. Collective responsibility: Five decades of debate in theoretical and applied ethics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.Google Scholar
  43. McGary, Howard. 1986. Morality and collective liability. In Collective Responsibility: Five Decades of Debate in Theoretical and Applied Ethics, eds. Larry May and Stacey Hoffman, 53–76. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.Google Scholar
  44. Mill, J. S. 1859 [2002]. On liberty. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.Google Scholar
  45. Miller, David. 2001. Distributing responsibilities. The Journal of Political Philosophy 9(4): 453–471.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Morgan, Daniel K., and Emma Whitelaw. 2008. The case for transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in humans. Mammalian Genome 19(6): 394–397.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Muyskens, James L. 1982. Collective responsibility of the nursing profession. In Collective responsibility: Five decades of debate in theoretical and applied ethics, eds. Larry May and Stacey Hoffman. 67–178. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.Google Scholar
  48. Mäkelä, Pekka. 2007. Collective agents and moral responsibility. Journal of Social Philosophy 38(3): 456–468.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Nathanson, Constance, and Kim Hopper. 2010. The marmot review—Social revolution by stealth. Social Science and Medicine 71(7): 1237–1239.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Nicholas, Barbara. 2001. Exploring a moral landscape: Genetic science and ethics. Hypatia 16(1): 45–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Nihlén Fahlquist, Jessica. 2009. Moral responsibility for environmental problems—Individual or institutional? Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 22(2): 109–124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Page, Edward A. 2008. Distributing the burdens of climate change. Environmental Politics 17(4): 556–575.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Pembrey, Marcus E, Lars Olov Bygren, Gunnar Kaati, Sören Edvinsson, Kate Northstone, Mikael Sjöström, Jean Golding, and The ALSPAC Study Team. 2006. Sex-specific, male-line transgenerational responses in humans. European Journal of Human Genetics 14(2): 159–166.Google Scholar
  54. Ptak, Carolyn, and Arturas Petronis. 2008. Epigenetics and complex disease: From etiology to new therapeutics. Annual Review of Pharmacology and Toxicology 48(1): 257–277.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Richards, Eric J. 2006. Inherited epigenetic variation—Revisiting soft inheritance. Nature Reviews Genetics 7(5): 395–401.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Rothstein, Mark A., Yu. Cai, and Gary E. Merchant. 2009. Ethical implications of epigenetics research. Nature Reviews Genetics 10(4): 224.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Skinner, Michael K., Mohan Manikkam, and Carlos Guerrero-Bosagna. 2010. Epigenetic transgenerational actions of environmental factors in disease etiology. Trends in Endocrionology & Metabolism 21(4): 214–222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Sloboda, D.M., G.J. Howie, and M.H. Vickers. 2007. Maternal high fat nutrition either pre-conceptional and/or throughout pregnancy and lactation leads to early-onset puberty in offspring and is further exacerbated by a post-weaning high fat diet. Early Human Development 83: S54–S55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Sneddon, Andrew. 2005. Moral responsibility: The difference of strawson, and the difference It should make. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 8(3): 239–264.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Soini, Sirpa (ed.). 2011. Public health—Ethical issues. Gothenburg: Nordic Council of Ministers.Google Scholar
  61. Swedish Priority Centre. 2007. Vårdens alltför svåra val? Linköping: Prioriterings Centrum.Google Scholar
  62. Szyf, Moshe. 2007. The dynamic epigenome and its implications in toxicology. Toxicological Sciences 100(1): 7–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Szyf, Moshe. 2009. The early life environment and the epigenome. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta 1790(9): 878–885.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Szyf, Moshe, Ian Weaver, and Michael Meaney. 2007. Maternal care, the epigenome and phenotypic differences in behavior. Reproductive Toxicology 24(1): 9–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Talbert, Matthew. 2008. Blame and responsiveness to moral reasons: Are psychopaths blameworthy? Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 89(4): 516–535.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Thompson, Dennis F. 1987. Political ethics and public office. Cambridge, MA, and London, England: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  67. Trouiller, Patrice, Els Torreele, Piero Olliaro, Nick White, Susan Foster, Dyann Wirth, and Bernard Pécoul. 2002. Drugs for neglected diseases: A failure of the market and a public health failure? Tropical Medicine & International Health 6(11): 945–951.Google Scholar
  68. Vieth, Andreas. 2010. Conceptual and ethical problems in the epistemology of genetic information. New Genetics and Society 29(1): 103–116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Zhang, Tie-Yuan, and Michael J. Meaney. 2010. Epigenetics and the environmental regulation of the genome and its function. Annual Review of Psychology 61(1): 439–466.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Vineis, Paolo. 2009. The research program in epigenetics: The birth of a new paradigm. In Epigenetics and human health, ed. Alexander G. Haslberger, and Sabine Gressler. Weinham: Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co.Google Scholar
  71. Weinhold, Bob. 2006. Epigenetics: The science of change. Environmental Health Perspectives 114(3): 160–167.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Whitehead, Margaret, and Jennie Popay. 2010. Swimming upstream? Taking action on the social determinants. Social Science and Medicine 71(7): 1234–1236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Wrobel, Katarzyna, Kazimierz Wrobel, and Joseph A. Caruso. 2009. Epigenetics: An important challenge for ICP-MS in metallomics studies. Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry 393(2): 481–486.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Young, Iris Marion. 2006. Responsibility and global justice: A social connection model. Social Philosophy and Policy 23(1): 102–130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Young, Iris Marion. 2011. Responsibility for justice. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceLund UniversityLundSweden

Personalised recommendations