Presentation - Michele Goodwin

Presentation - Michele Goodwin


Whose Values and Principles in a New Biopolitics?: A Few Reflections


It is a pleasure to be here at the Tarrytown 2011 meeting.   This meeting would not have been possible without the leadership and support of the Center for Genetics and Society, and I wish to thank Richard Hayes its Executive Director, Marcy Darnovsky, the Associate Executive Director, and its dedicated staff members Emily Beitiks, Jillian Theil, Douglas Pet and others who contribute their energies and talents to CGS, and specifically in preparation for the Tarrytown Meetings.

This plenary is entitled “reflections on values and principles for a new biopolitics,” and I have been asked to lead this session.   When first approached about this topic, I thought what could be better?  This is an exciting, if not urgent time in biotechnology and global politics.  Increasingly, the two merge in ways that, at times, lack transparency, but demand legal, ethical, and medical considerations.  Thus, understanding the new biopolitics presents predictable challenges, including unpacking definitions and frameworks.

To explain, whenever groups or societies commence the process of thinking about values and principles, we must ask whose values and principles are under consideration.  In other words, whose values and principles are we talking about?  Whose values are on the table or the agenda?  My goal here is to lay the foundation, in some ways for my co-panelists and for the next two days, by asking what I consider foundational questions.   My comments are a three part framework.


First: Definitions and Identity

One of the implied, if not explicit goals of this, the second Tarrytown Meeting, is to drill down to comprehensive agendas and to articulate “our” values across a range of biotechnological issues.  But first, before we begin with prescriptions, there are definitional matters we should attend to.  For example, what are the differences between principles and values and what do the terms mean to us?   Webster’s dictionary defines principles as truths which are accepted and general, a law of conduct or rule of action, or a law of nature.   But which, or all, or none fit our agenda?  Do we have truths yet? 

Or which of these map adequately on what we think the world should be thinking about?  A similar query could be taken up for values, and depending upon what philosophy or social science discipline you consider, the ideas that govern what a principle “is” synonymously defines values. But there are two working definitions which are briefly offered here:

Principle: Rules of conduct and action—we can imagine these as the actions that we commit ourselves to, based upon our values—our version of primum non nocerefirst do no harm.

 Values: Foundational and enduring beliefs shared by members of a community about what is good, harmonious, and desirable.  And coming up with values and principles is a tricky enterprise as I will continue to describe, because it means navigating the spaces of primary and secondary,  the actor and the object, and the difficulty of working within the collective, which leads me to the second part of my framework for today.


Second: Territoriality and Caution

Before we announce or place on the table the values most essential for an enlightened and sustainable new biopolitic, we must consider whether the territory on which we stand is new or only new to us.  By this, I mean to suggest that in the West, from time to time, we come to international forums for policy debate and discussions with the notion that we arrived first, and from that vantage point, articulating novel, original, inventive, and/or innovative ideas.  We are in such an era now with climate change, bioprospecting (or biopiracy), farming, and the development of crops, to name a few.

This notion of first place-or first “placeness “presents an obvious danger—and that is blindness, symbolized by our inability to see or perceive others that we claim or purport to help, because underlying what brings us here and what we seek to do is the fact that we recognize a problem or we wish to ward off a problem. 

The West has a legacy of prescribing “Western thought solutions” to 1) situations where there may not be a problem; 2) if there is a problem, the locals may be addressing it; and 3) conditions that were caused by the West, followed by applying Western solutions that primarily inure benefit to the West.  There is a complex negotiation between paternalism and self-actualization or governance.  So perhaps one of the first values to place into discussion is that of humility.  After that, I would place accountability, integrity, dignity, and perseverance on the table.


Third: The Illusory versus The Real or: Values Cannot Live on Paper. 

A goal of this conference and the driving point behind the theme of the plenary is to begin formulating our language of justice-our theory of justice.

I will not belabor the good found in the exercise of this plenary, because I do want to spend my final moments thinking about the challenges posed by the topic.  There is a compendium of values given to you by the conference organizers—that reflect many years of thinking on similar issues as those posed by this conference.   What you will notice is the diversity of voices and nations that espouse principles and values that we are very likely to laud as exemplifying our ethics or beliefs.  Indeed, we may document those beliefs as our shared values today at this conference.  As I considered this, a thought occurred to me, and that is, what have we done with the values and principles culled together over time?  By this I mean to suggest that as a first principle, our values and principles must be lived and not illusory. 

Second, we must consider direction.  Where should our values and principles lead us?  What are the norms we wish to foster?  For example, should we be driven by utilitarianism, notions of formal equality, egalitarianism, strategic or instrumental agendas, or social justice?  And within the context of any of those theories of justice we are confronted by hard truths.  Many of those we may wish to “save” from Western biotechnological exploitation might actually benefit from some of the biotechnologies we wish to export.  More difficult, how to promote and maintain values and principles among our partners, or governments that may be perceived as vulnerable, but which exploit their own citizens? These issues will arise and are we prepared to deal with them? 

India, for example, figures increasingly in biopolitical debates on biotechnology, including reproduction as it has become a hotspot for surrogacy.  Also, India has fought against the patenting of its unique crops—and in these ways, its government could be perceived as vulnerable, blameless, and a weaker power against the West.  However, as in any partnership based on shared values, we must interrogate whether India lives up to the principles and committments it articulates in treaties.  The US State Department estimates that India has more slaves than any other country in the world: 600-800,000.   Underage marriage is rampant in some parts of the country, and illiteracy among girls and women remains high.  China too occupies an interesting space on the scale of values and principles.  It is a rising nation, quickly shifting from developing country to an economic global leader.  But, it is a nation also known for rampant human rights abuses, including using executing prisoners for organs. Nigeria could be a leader in conversations on climate change, but measures poorly on accountability, wealth distribution, human rights, and environmental justice.


As we launch our meeting, the significance of our charge—to investigate, examine and establish our principles and values--cannot be overstated.  Framing a new biopolitical agenda, including articulating its values and principles is one of the most exciting, and yet urgent opportunities of many generations.  Our tests are many, and among them will be mindfulness of the internal and external challenges in framing our values and principles and negotiating where they do and do not belong.