Putting Concerns about Nature in Context: the case of agricultural biotechnology

Concerns about nature are playing increasingly prominent roles in a variety of social debates, including medical biotechnology, environmental protection, and agricultural biotechnology. These concerns are often simply rejected as incoherent: critics argue that there is no good account for how natural states of affairs can have moral value, and that the concept of "nature" is too multifarious and vague to be deployed in moral argument anyway. When these concerns are defended, they are frequently formulated as strong claims that make implausible ontological commitments and that ignore the linkages between these different debates. Agricultural biotechnology provides an especially challenging case study for evaluating concerns about nature. I offer a qualified defense that recognizes these concerns as conceptually linked, attends to social context at appropriate points, and overcomes the charges of incoherence. This defense supports a restrained treatment of concerns about nature in public policy: public policy can neither endorse nor dismiss them. In the case of agricultural biotechnology, this stance probably mandates some form of labeling.