Remarks by Gregory Kaebnick

Remarks by Gregory Kaebnick

Toward a Middle Way in Evaluating the Ethical Issues of New Biotechnologies:

The Case of synthetic biology

"Intrinsic" moral objections to biotechnologies—concerns that they amount to too much human interference into nature, for example—should not be dismissed as irrational or illegitimate.

At the same time, a rich and sympathetic understanding of intrinsic moral concerns need not translate into generic opposition to every use of every biotechnology.

"Intrinsic" objections can take different forms—for example, that the technology amounts to "playing G-d" (a religious or metaphysical point), that it amounts to "playing god" (a secular moral point), that it encroaches on the value of the natural world (another secular moral point); the different forms make different claims and have different roles in the public sphere and should be assessed independently.

(With synthetic biology, the intrinsic moral objections do not seem to point to a need for regulatory restraint.)

Evaluating the possible consequences of a biotechnology at least tacitly involves a series of difficult decisions about what we value, how much we value them, whether to discount emotional reactions—or take them into account—and then how to "operationalize" these decisions. It would be helpful to be explicit about them and the normative and positive assumptions that are used to justify them.

(With synthetic biology, a case can be made for pushing the field forward, but there is also considerable reason for caution; in general, we do not understand the risks well enough and should guard against overconfidence.)

The moral assessment of a biotechnology is likely to involve difficult line-drawing decisions and comparisons of (potential) harms and benefits, and in approaching these issues, the details matter.