- Steps in the Analysis of Synthetic Biology
For the last couple of years, The Hastings Center has been running a research project titled “The Ethical Issues of Synthetic Biology” (funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation) that is focused primarily on whether the prospect of altering microorganisms to meet human ends is intrinsically troubling. “Synthetic biology” is not necessarily limited to the alteration of microorganisms, but the applications now under development—such as yeast that produce a precursor of the antimalarial drug artemisinin or blue-green algae that produce fuel—are certainly limited to that. A set of essays in this issue of the Report features a variety of different takes on the field.
For the last six months of the project, synthetic biology was also the topic of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, and in the lead essay in the set, Chair Amy Gutmann discusses the commission’s findings. Four commentaries that follow offer various takes on the commission’s final report and on the ethical questions within it. Rob Carlson, a participant both in the field of synthetic biology and in the Hastings project, welcomes the report but is skeptical about the scientific hype and religious-ethical cant (as I think he sees them) that made its writing necessary. An essay I wrote for the set (I was one of the Center scholars involved in the project) argues that, although the general question about human alteration of nature is a large and legitimate moral concern, some instances of altering nature are to be tolerated, and altering microbes to make medicine or fuel might be one of them.
Mark Bedau—philosopher, project participant, and principal of a company that works around the edges of synthetic biology—contrasts the idea that synthetic biology might be intrinsically unattractive with the idea that it might have positive “intrinsic scientific value.” It will help us gain insight into the nature and the value of life, he argues—it will help us learn how to reprogram simple life forms, and by driving home the point that life is reprogrammable, it will help us learn how properly to value life. In the final essay, Thomas H. Murray suggests that debates about the human relationship to nature might become debates about human identity—debates about the proper place of humans in the cosmos and the proper relationship of humans to the world around them—and that if they do, they may degenerate into “mutual unintelligibility.”
Of course, mutual unintelligibility is pretty much the opposite of what we shoot for at the Center and in the Report. But how to describe what we do shoot for is a bit tricky. It’s a little more than mere mutual intelligibility, if that means understanding each other, but never moving any closer toward agreement. But it is not complete agreement on a single point of view. That goal would be unrealistic. It might also reflect a philosophical misunderstanding, if one thinks that a moral point of view does not answer fully to argument. I wonder if it would always even be desirable. Sometimes, at least, the goal is somewhere in between: further articulation and analysis of one’s point of view, glimmers of agreement where possible, but in some measure an acceptance of moral diversity. This set of essays serves as some sort of illustration of all that, I hope. [End Page 2]
Gregory E. Kaebnick is a research scholar at The Hastings Center and editor of the Hastings Center Report.