Here are two recent strands of thinking about genetics in clinical psychology: 1. Oliver James's (and others) bold position, that genetics play little or even no role in human psychology. Marcus Munafo has called this "genetic denialism" 2. The diffuse suggestion (one recent example here) that to pursue genetic research into mental health problems is related in some way to a eugenic agenda; to wit, that (i.e.) a genome wide association study looking at the diagnosis of schizophrenia may encourage us to think in quasi-fascistic ways. There are some good responses to the first of these strands, in Munafo's article (linked above), and in this piece by Kevin Mitchell at Wiring The Brain. Here, I want to address the second strand, which I will call genetic disavowalism.
The purpose of genetic disavowalism is pretty clear; to encourage us to think of genetic research and theories of genetic risk as inherently negatively morally valenced. This argument (to the extent that there is an argument; it is seldom made explicitly) is a little under-cooked to say the least. It is of course perfectly possible to acknowledge a genetic contribution to human behaviours and mental states without commencing some inexorable slide toward Nazi-ism. Does the genetic aetiology of Down Syndrome commit society to a re-run of the Nazi Aktion T4 programme? Clearly not. For one thing, a eugenic policy is a choice a government makes rather than a necessary consequence of a given set of scientific knowledge. For another, there is nothing to stop any government undertaking such a programme targetting people on the basis of behavioural or cognitive traits it doesn't like, but which are not genetically determined. Even if genetic theories about human behaviours and tendencies do incline some sorts of person towards ideas about eradicating those behaviours and tendencies (by "breeding them out" or what have you), there is no logical entailment, and we carry on with genetically inclined research because we wonder if there might be benefits to be derived from the knowledge.
Apart from all that, I think that genetic disavowalism has itself a moral problem to contend with; the denial of genetic privilege.
We are accustomed to thinking about privilege in terms of race, gender or social class. As a white man, for example, I have the privilege of not being looked on with suspicion in certain neighbourhoods, and I have the privilege of not feeling tense when groups of NYPD officers walk past me. It has come to be seen as crass and offensive to fail to acknowledge our privilege, especially when discussing race (see Peggy McIngtosh's essay on the invisble knapsack here), but the notion of privilege has been linked to mental health as well, by Martin Robbins here, and by me here.
When I first blogged about sane privilege, I was thinking in terms of the social position people have when they are viewed as less rational in virtue of their psychiatric status. When a person is considered deluded, their utterances become generally more suspect in the eyes of people around them They lose certain testimonial privileges (some of their statements about reality are taken less seriously). But privileges are also conferred on us by our genetic predispositions. This is most obviously the case in the way that skin colour or primary and secondary sexual characteristics are genetically determined facts about our appearance, but it presumably has cognitive implications too.
To the extent that IQ is genetically influenced, my course mates or colleagues with IQs two standard deviations above the mean have an advantage relative to me (with my quite middling IQ) in performance on exams or the production of research and logically sound clinical arguments. Equally, to the extent that my genetics plays a role in my tendency to not have debilitating emotional "highs" or feel my relationship with reality become terrifyingly fragmented, I have a sort of privilege conferred on me relative to people who are prone to such experiences. It is no good arguing that actually a tendency toward certain mental states is actually perfectly desirable, and should itself be considered a privilege. That may so for some people, but unless we want to deny that mental health problems are frequently extremely difficult to live with (and unless we want to throw out even the apparently politically neutral term "distress" to refer to such experiences), we have to acknowledge that is not the case for all.
Acknowledging cognitive genetic privilege need not entail acceptance of an illness account of mental health problems. Peter Kinderman has movingly written about his risk for a psychotic experience, given a possible personal high genetic loading for such an occurrence. At the same time, he resists the implication that this means he has a disorder or "attenuated syndrome". Even if you feel more inclined than Kinderman to describe such a genetic loading as predisposition toward illness, his is a perfectly consistent intellectual position.
Genetic influences on psychology have always been a controversial topic, and there is an easy tendency to accuse genetic researchers or thinkers of secretly holding eugenic aspirations. Perhaps some strains of genetic reasoning are infused with a negative moral valence (think of the pub bore who argues that women are genetically inferior), but to the best of our knowledge, genes make certain aspects of our lives more or less easy for us. They confer varying degrees of privilege. To ignore this is not only unrealistic, it is insensitive.