Biological Theory

, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp 391–401

Life as a Technological Product: Philosophical and Ethical Aspects of Synthetic Biology


    • Department of Medical Ethics and the History of Medicine, BIOSS Centre for Biological Signalling StudiesUniversity of Freiburg
Thematic Issue Article: Synthesis (σύνθεσις)

DOI: 10.1007/s13752-013-0138-7

Cite this article as:
Boldt, J. Biol Theory (2013) 8: 391. doi:10.1007/s13752-013-0138-7


Synthetic biology is a new biotechnology that is developing at an impressive pace and attracting a considerable amount of attention from outside the scientific community as well. In this article, two main philosophically and ethically relevant characteristics of this field of research will be laid bare, namely its reliance on mechanistic metaphors to denominate simple forms of life and its appeal to the semantic field of creativity. It is argued that given these characteristics synthetic biology can be understood as a prime example of a kind of human interference with reality that German philosopher Hannah Arendt called “fabrication.” This kind of self-world-relation contrasts to “action,” a relation that introduces, among other things, the idea of an inherent value of the object acted upon. Taking up this latter perspective, one scientific and two ethical challenges to synthetic biology’s take on the realm of life are identified.


ActionArendtCommunicationConcept of lifeCreationEngineeringEthicsHabermasSynthetic biologyTechnology
Judging from the comments and descriptions of the researchers themselves, synthetic biology can be understood as an advanced form of genetic and metabolic engineering. While the latter two are limited to changing single genes or restricted numbers of genes, synthetic biology aims at defining and assembling standardized and freely interchangeable sets of genes in order to enable single cell organisms to fulfill specific tasks. Geneticist George Church writes:

Genetic engineering focuses on individual genes (typically cloning and overexpression). The logical extension of that to system-wide change is genome engineering. Intermediate between these is metabolic engineering, which involves optimizing several genes at once. Synthetic biology is “meta” to all of these in establishing standards for modules, intentionally interoperable in their assembly and functioning. Hierarchical properties permit computer-aided design at different levels of abstraction, from the sub-molecular level to supra-ecosystem levels (News Feature 2009).

Modularization and standardization are concepts well known from engineering technologies. Thus, following this line of defining synthetic biology, synthetic biology amounts to introducing engineering principles into biotechnology. As an effect, firstly, the objects and products of synthetic biology often are referred to as “machines,” i.e., the paradigm example of a product of engineering activities. For instance, the title of the popular MIT synthetic biology student competition reads “International Genetically Engineered Machine” (iGEM) competition. In the same vein, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute are aiming at developing a bacterial genome that only consists of those genes that are essential for the organism’s ability to survive and replicate (Gibson et al. 2010). Incurring engineering vocabulary, the minimal genome and similar organisms are frequently dubbed “platform” or “chassis,” ready to be mounted with task-specific genetic modules.
Secondly, connected to synthetic biology’s engineering approach one often comes across terms belonging to the semantic field of construction and creativity in researchers’ accounts of the content of the field. Synthetic biologist Martin Fussenegger claims:

With the post-genomic era having provided encyclopedic information on gene-function correlations, and systems biology now delivering comprehensive details on the dynamics of biochemical reaction networks, molecular biology has come of age and life scientists are now adult: ready to reassemble these cataloged items in a systematic and rational manner to create and engineer functional biological designer devices and systems with novel and useful functions. A new type of constructive systems biology—synthetic biology—is born. (News Feature 2009).

Likewise, the heading of the JCVI’s research group’s paper quoted above reads: “Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome” (Gibson et al. 2010).

Once more, the iGEM competition confirms the point. The aim of the student teams is to design and use standardized DNA parts in bacterial cells in order to enable the cells to perform novel tasks. For instance, results of the student efforts include E. coli producing different colors in response to inducers, reacting to light exposure, and smelling of banana. Some of these products may one day become a part of useful applications, many may not. In any case, what is striking in these experiments is that novel functions are not built into existing organisms as an enhancement of given functions, but the bacterial organism acts as an all-purpose-vehicle to carry all kinds of diverse genetically encoded novel abilities. The ability to freely and rationally design functions appears to call for the vocabulary of creation and creativity in accounts and definitions of synthetic biology.

Apart from approaches that presuppose living systems as their basic material, synthetic biology also comprises research programs that aim to build living cells entirely from non-living molecules. With regard to traditional disciplines these “bottom-up” approaches (as opposed to the “top-down” approaches of standardized genetic parts and minimal genomes) combine chemistry and biology rather than engineering and biology. This is reflected in the fact that methodologically bottom-up approaches do not aspire to modularization and standardization. Their aim is, first and foremost, to show how transgression from the non-living to the living is possible in general and, more specifically, how this decisive step may have taken place on earth four billion years ago. In other words, bottom-up approaches are still in a phase of analysis by help of experiments and thus far from turning analysis systematically into “synthesis,” i.e., technology. So while this kind of research for now does not take part in synthetic biology’s engineering program, it does introduce the idea of creation as well. It is in this context that one encounters the term “creation of life” in scientific reports and reviews. For instance, chemist Steven Benner remarks concerning what will have been achieved if bottom-up research proves to be successful: “In a word ‘life’ will have been created” (Benner 2003). Hence one may conclude that while top-down research is restricted to rearranging parts in living entities and thus to creating new forms or manifestations of life, bottom-up approaches are seen as potentially being able to create life as such.

Compared to top-down research one may understand current bottom-up approaches as a first move to enable all-encompassing technological arrangement and rearrangement of parts to create new wholes in the realm of organisms. Just as by now historical experiments of the early 1970s on building transgenic organisms proved the possibility of arranging and rearranging genetic parts in living beings and thus paved the way for today’s synthetic biology engineering agenda, today’s bottom-up experiments may pave the way for tomorrow’s agenda of systematically engineering life from non-living basic material that may differ altogether from the material nature has chosen. If this is correct, bottom-up research constitutes the seed of a synthetic engineering biology that allows the scope to be widened from whole DNA design and assembly to whole organism design and assembly.

In any case, as a summary and basis for the following analysis one can adhere to two main characteristics of synthetic biology, as being described by its practitioners. Although these characteristics do not capture all research strands in this field, it seems safe to say they cover some of its currently most influential alleys. The characteristics are: Firstly, synthetic biology is understood as a biotechnology that systematically introduces engineering concepts and methodologies. And secondly, synthetic biology research is seen as a creative technology that aims at designing novel products.

Two Types of Human Activity

Philosophically speaking, acts of engineering and producing can be backed up by general ontological and epistemological assumptions that shape the directions and methods of single engineering activities and the ways the objects and products of those activities are perceived. Historically, Aristotle distinguished praxis and poiesis. Roughly, poiesis is meant to denote activities that are performed as a means to an end, whereas praxis is an activity that is its own end. From the point of view of technological and biological theory, this distinction becomes significant if one interprets poiesis as actions that aim at precipitating a certain state of affairs, paradigmatically by producing specific objects. In contrast, praxis can be understood as social interaction in which a specific state of affairs may be aspired to but where there is not and ought not to be any guarantee that interaction will bring about the state of affair in question.

This is a line of thought that, among others, Hannah Arendt has followed in her attempt to classify types of human activities. Arendt distinguishes “labor,” “work” (or, as an equivalent, “fabrication,” a term that seems to capture more precisely what is at stake), and “action.” In characterizing these three types of activity, Arendt focuses especially on the respective products. The category “labor” includes the actions of a peasant who through his repeated effort brings into being objects that immediately become part of the cycle of life again, either by being consumed or, if not consumed in time, by degradation (the milk turns sour, the corn plant withers). Fabrication, by contrast, leads to objects that are durable and that, once brought into existence, can remain existent independently of the continued effort of fabrication. Lastly, action, in Arendt’s terminology, does not produce objects but consists of social interactions, mainly in the form of speech, that reveal who one is and establish relationships to other “actors” (in the technical sense of “someone being capable of performing acts” in which Arendt uses this term) in a web of human relationships that is incalculable for anyone who is part of it, i.e., for all humans.

As becomes apparent, in this terminology fabrication covers the ground of poiesis, whereas action is meant to denote social interactions and, hence, praxis. Now, for the purpose of this article, firstly fabrication and action are the two types of human activity that are of specific interest. And secondly, in order to identify the significance of these concepts with regard to biotechnology one needs to shift focus from concrete products and actions to epistemological and ontological assumptions specific to the two forms of activity and guiding one’s behavior towards those objects. So the question is: what are the basic epistemological and ontological assumptions behind fabrication and action, respectively?

“Fabrication” and its Four Features

In order to approach this question, a closer look at Arendt’s description of fabrication is instructive. In a dense passage of a few pages she stresses, firstly, the significance of a model instructing the production process and establishing the possibility to endlessly repeat the process:

The actual work of fabrication is performed under the guidance of a model in accordance with which the object is constructed. This model can be an image beheld by the eye of the mind or a blueprint in which the image has already found a tentative materialization through work. In either case, what guides the work of fabrication … precedes the actual work process.… [T]he image or model whose shape guides the fabrication process … does not disappear with the finished product, which it survives intact, present, as it were, to lend itself to an infinite continuation of fabrication. (Arendt 1998, p. 140 f.)

Secondly, the production process is a means to the end of fabricating the product, and thirdly, the product figures as a durable and “new” thing:

The process of making is itself entirely determined by the categories of means and ends. The fabricated thing is an end product in the twofold sense that the production process comes to an end in it … and that it is only a means to produce this end. … In the process of making, … the end is beyond doubt: it has come when an entirely new thing with enough durability to remain in the world as an independent entity has been added to the human artifice. (Arendt 1998, p. 143)

Fourthly and finally, Arendt introduces the idea that products of fabrication always can be subject to destruction. She furnishes two distinct reasons for this claim. Firstly, destructibility comes along with reliability of the production process, she says. Secondly, unlike goods that meet basic human needs, such as food, fabrication products are less urgently required and thus dispensable:

This great reliability of work is reflected in that the fabrication process, unlike action, is not irreversible: every thing produced by human hands can be destroyed by them, and no use object is so urgently needed in the life process that its maker cannot survive and afford its destruction. (Arendt 1998, p. 144)

In short, one can distill four characteristics defining the activity of “fabrication” according to Arendt: (1) the activity is guided by a model or a design, (2) it is governed by a given end in regard to which the fabrication process itself appears as and is treated as a means, (3) the result of the process is a durable “thing,” and (4) the product can be destroyed by its creator.

Ontological and Epistemological Basic Assumptions of Fabrication

Before turning more closely to these four points, it is worth remarking that Arendt takes her characterization to cover the whole field of human work from craft to standardized and industrialized mass production. Critics of her conception have pointed to the fact, though, that her take on work fits mass production much better than the careful, stepwise, and hardly fully standardizable crafting of, for example, musical instruments (cf. Sennett 2008, pp. 6–7).

In order to account for this kind of criticism and at the same time to bring to the fore what can be understood as the valuable core of her typology, I propose to interpret Arendt’s classification as an attempt to identify certain ideals of how one ought to relate to the world and its objects. It may very well be true that many cases of craftsmanship do not fit the criteria of fabrication, if those criteria are applied to actual and concrete crafting activities. Nonetheless, if these criteria are interpreted as an ideal to which one may aspire in one’s work, then “fabrication” may be lending a certain direction to many actual crafting (and production) activities. In this case, human activity from craft to mass production may appear as a continuum from the (supposedly) imperfect realization of the fabrication ideals in craftsmanship to the almost perfect implementation of those ideals in mass production, given that “fabrication” is the ideal to which human activity ought to aspire.

In addition, if Arendt is interpreted in this way it becomes tenable to apply her concepts to a technological field unknown to her, namely synthetic biology. The ideals of fabrication may come to govern all kinds of human productivity, including the engineering of organisms; if it is correct that main strands of synthetic biology research do indeed incorporate these ideals (as will be argued in the last section of this paper), they can be described and criticized accordingly.

Design, Means-End Relation, Durability, and Destructibility

Now, the ideal human-to-nature relation implicit in Arendt’s account of fabrication can be analyzed with regard to assumptions concerning the epistemic abilities of the designer and fabricator, and the ontological status of the products of fabrication: the possibility of an antecedent design implies that the fabricator possesses sufficient knowledge of the regularities governing the behavior of the parts out of which the product is supposed to be built to be able to outline, control, and predict the features of the end product. The same holds true with regard to the presupposed reliability of the functioning of the product. To expect reliability of a product of one’s own making is to assume that one is equipped with an amount of instrumental knowledge extensive enough to allow oneself to predict the behavior and possible failures of the product. As a consequence, the fabricator is understood as an observer turned into a technician. The ideal of changing and shaping reality, in the eye of the fabricator, is not a continuous effort of learning by doing, but of making use of regularity knowledge in order to build complex objects.

Correlatively, the product of the fabrication process appears as an entity, the inner workings of which are transparent to the fabricator. The product, whatever it may be, need not “tell” the fabricator about its functions and behavior, since the fabricator already knows, via analysis of internal regularities, the causes of its functioning. Accordingly, when encountering unexpected behavior the fabricator will have to assume that knowledge about the object and its parts was not complete. As a consequence, analysis of the failure, dissection, and reassembly of the product are what appears natural to be done in the case of unexpected events. The product of fabrication appears as an entity that is determined by regularities of the behavior of its parts. Its functions are to be established and changed according to what one prefers the entity to perform.

In her scarce remarks concerning the destructibility of the product, Arendt’s first point is that destructibility comes along with reliability of the process of production. At first sight, the claim may seem unconvincing. After all, what kind of general bearing should the fact that a given process of production is reliable have on the product that results from the production process? Nonetheless, if one reconstructs the core of this claim as referring to the amount and kind of knowledge that is necessary to reliably build a product, the point becomes more reasonable. After all, if one possesses this kind of knowledge and thus is able to reliably produce a specific object, it seems that one also in principle has at one’s disposal the key to reverse the production process and to take the object apart, even if as a matter of fact destruction proves impossible in a given situation (because of lack of time, lack of appropriate tools, and other contingent factors that may interfere).

Imperatives of Fabrication

If one widens the perspective of the fabricator from single objects to the whole of nature, a set of three general imperatives emerges, based on the notion of how to attain and act in accordance with knowledge inherent in the attitude of fabrication.

Firstly, knowledge about the basic regularities of nature is to be acquired, since this is what “knowledge” is meant to consist of in the eyes of the fabricator. Secondly, given the assumptions that all objects can be understood in terms of internal regularities and, moreover, that one’s own human needs and convictions are the only signposts that can guide one’s actions with regard to how to deal with objects, nature is to be rearranged in a way that ensures that it meets human needs most effectively. Thirdly and finally, there are no internal limits regarding the level and extent of the quest of rearranging parts of nature. Hence, in rearranging one may explore combinations that nature itself never came up with and thus create objects that are not known from nature. The ideal incorporated in the perspective of the fabricator is not only a reshaping of nature but a re-creation—in the sense of a re-building from the most basic parts. Borrowing a term introduced by German philosopher Günther Anders in the late 1970s (Anders 1980, pp. 21–25), the ultimate aspiration of the fabricator is to become a Homo creator, the climax of the Homo faber. Anders invented this phrase with the physicists of his time in mind who had become able to produce the new element of plutonium, but the point extends beyond this area: wherever fabrication is deployed and the technical abilities facilitate building novel products, the fabricator becomes a Homo creator.

It is important to note that the term Homo creator in this context does not figure as an antipode to Homo faber, but as a subcategory. This is to say, in addition, that the term does not capture the whole variety of human creative activities. It is restricted in its scope to the creativity of freely assembling parts to form a novel product, guided by the assumption that knowledge of the parts allows the behavior of the product to be predicted. That is to say, that if the scientific and technological ideals of Homo creator are to be criticized, this is not a criticism of creativity as such, but of a specific kind of technological creativity and its implicit assumptions concerning a product’s behavior and, more generally, concerning how to gain and apply scientifically relevant knowledge.

“Action” and its Three Characteristics

According to Arendt, action refers to activities that are interpersonal, which is to say that in action there are no objects to be acted upon, but action is an activity that takes place between “actors” who refer to each other as subjects (again, the sense of the term “actor” here is strictly technical. An “actor” on Arendt’s account is someone capable of performing an act). Action, thus, is closely connected to speech and communication, and its primary realm is, for Arendt, besides personal relations, the political and public sphere. Arendt identifies three key characteristics of action that, from the point of view of someone who aspires to the ideals of fabrication, must come as “frustrations” (Arendt 1998, p. 220). Why this is so becomes apparent if one takes a look at especially the first two entries on the list of characteristics, since they stand in plain contradiction to the characteristics and expectations of fabrication. The characteristics of action are: firstly, the outcomes of action are unpredictable; secondly, the process of actions initiated by an act is irreversible; and thirdly, according to Arendt the process of action does not have an “author” (Arendt 1998, p. 220).

If one follows Arendt’s own proclamation, the three characteristics are meant to be derived mainly from a description of the objects with which the action is dealing, i.e., persons. In order to trace the line of the argument, as in the case of “fabrication” I nonetheless propose to understand this claim as referring to a set of epistemic and ontological assumptions that supply the frame of an understanding of human relations to reality as a whole. In doing so, one avoids falling prey to the objection that, as a matter of fact, Arendt’s concept of action and her description of what a “person” is meant to be, if encountered in action, do not apply to many, perhaps most cases of political and interpersonal activity. Understanding action as an epistemological and ontological framework for actual activities allows one to maintain its validity as an ideal that can be operative in activities without having to claim that the ideal, in order to be operative, must be fully turned into reality in actual single instances of action.

Unpredictability and the Ontological and Epistemological Framework of Action

Arendt derives the assumption that an action’s consequences are unpredictable from her concept of “who” (as opposed to “what”) a person is. In action and speech, she writes, a person reveals who she or he is. Now, according to Arendt, who one is needs to be distinguished from what one is. The latter is meant to capture facts about a person’s character and all other of a person’s qualities. Who one is, by contrast, comes to light in one’s actions only momentarily and vaguely. “This,” she maintains, “is a basic factor in the equally notorious uncertainty not only of political matters, but of all affairs that go on between men directly” (Arendt 1998, p. 182).

In order to render plausible the notion of a “who” that cannot be identified as a datum, but nevertheless is visible in action, it may help to take refuge in strong notions of practical reasoning. If practical reasoning is an ability to attain truths about what it is good to do and to let this knowledge direct and, if necessary, change one’s actions, this ability will imply, to a certain degree at least, the idea of developing and discovering practical action-related knowledge. If one engages in this kind of activity, one will display in one’s actions what one holds to be truly good, and thus give an impression of “who” one is. At the same time, since those convictions are possibly subject to revision and amendment, the “who” that thus becomes visible is provisional.

From this one may conclude, and this is the conclusion Arendt explicitly holds, that the consequences of an action must always remain unpredictable, since (and this is a justification for this claim furnished on the grounds of the interpretation given here) actions are followed by reactions that in turn prompt reactions, all of which originate from actors whose actions are attempts at expressing their current—changing and amendable—convictions about the good. “Since actions act upon beings who are capable of their own actions, reaction, apart from being a response, is always a new action that strikes out on its own and affects others” (Arendt 1998, p. 190).

Given the further assumption that convictions about the good are held and formed in relation to historical and contemporary convictions, arguments, and attitudes of others, action obviously presupposes limits to one’s epistemic abilities. Every person is immersed in a temporally expanded “web of human relationships,” as Arendt has it (Arendt 1998, p. 184), the end of which cannot be known by any of the actors involved in the web. One’s epistemic abilities are limited with regard to knowing the consequences of one’s actions. Moreover, if one presupposes that what a single action consists of is defined (partly or wholly) by the end state of affairs that it brings about, the fact that the end state of the web of human relationships is not known also implies that the full meaning of any single act is necessarily concealed from the actor (Arendt 1998, p. 192).

Ontologically speaking, it becomes apparent on this reconstruction of Arendt’s argument that action presupposes the existence of “actors,” that is, of entities that possess the ability to form their actions according to insights into what they judge to be good—as explained above. This is a basic ontological assumption that one is prevented from holding if one were to strictly impose causal explanatory schemes onto human activities. Going beyond Arendt’s own focus on humans and following arguments explored by, e.g., Hans Jonas, the point is as follows: From the perspective of causal bottom-up explanations at the most basic stage of analysis the behavior of any organism is to be explained in terms of the movements of its parts (molecules or atoms, e.g.). What appears to us as the organism is, in reality, a set of parts grouped closely together in space and time. Nothing, apart from spatial and temporal affinity, distinguishes this set of parts from those parts that for our eyes appear as the organism’s environment. Hence, descriptions of behavior in terms of an organism reacting to stimuli in its environment according to its instincts, interests, or convictions can only be understood as abbreviated accounts of what is actually happening. If taken literally, they must count as wrong. The idea of telos-oriented instincts, interests, and convictions has as little place in a causal bottom-up account of behavior as the very notion of a self-organizing organism that can be separated from the environment in which it lives. This is the reason that has led Hans Jonas to discard purely causal bottom-up accounts of the behavior of organisms and to introduce the notion of individual proto-subjects as an indispensable basic concept into his philosophy of biology (Jonas 2001, pp. 74–86).

Actor, Author, and the Irreversibility of Actions

Closely connected to these aspects is Arendt’s claim that action implies irreversibility. Unlike fabrication, action is not oriented at building products. Nonetheless, action does have an effect on reality, namely in giving rise to actions, reactions, and interpretations of actions. Since these actions, reactions, and interpretations are not predictable, it is impossible to gain control over and retract them. As long as one conceives of oneself as an actor and does not aim at challenging the conditions of action (i.e., the existence of others and the willingness to act in relation to others) one’s action irreversibly becomes part of the web of relationships in which it can be criticized, disconfirmed, and excused, but from which it cannot be erased. Arendt illustrates her point by describing action as a combination of the power of being capable to initiate an act and the impotence of having to suffer the “boundless” consequences of the action. The consequences are boundless, in Arendt’s sense of the term, not because there always is as a matter of fact a boundless number of people reacting to an act, but because of the potential of every single act to “change every constellation” (Arendt 1958, p. 190). Referring back to the ontological assumption introduced above, this potential to change can be understood as an action’s capability, qua its being an attempt to give expression to a truth about the good in general, to prompt reactions in situations and times that are completely different from the situation in which the original act was performed.

Finally, Arendt distinguishes the “actor” of a deed from an “author.” This distinction is due to the limited epistemic horizon implicit in action, and, thus, emphasizes the importance of this basic epistemic assumption in Arendt’s account. An actor, according to Arendt, is everyone capable of performing acts, and, thus, everyone who is part of the web of human relationships that in its entirety remains incomprehensible to the actor. In other words, the term “actor” implies both the ability to initiate acts, and also the idea that one cannot escape coming to suffer from unwanted or unforeseen consequences of one’s act. Therefore, following Arendt’s terminology, it is impossible to become an “author” of a course of actions, since this would imply being able to control both beginning and end of the story that binds together a course of actions (Arendt 1998, p. 184). Understanding oneself as an author of a course of actions thus would imply being blind to the necessary epistemic restrictions that one is subject to in acting. An “author” knows the story of his or her action from its beginning until the end of all of the action’s consequences. Thus, assuming that Arendt is correct in claiming that humans can at best fulfill the role of actors, believing oneself to be an author of one’s acts amounts to overestimating one’s epistemic abilities.

Imperatives of Action

Taken as a general perspective on reality, action incorporates imperatives that can guide behavior directed not only at human beings, but at other classes of entities as well.

Firstly, since under the auspices of action others are supposed to be part of the quest for the truly good just as oneself, acquiring knowledge is tantamount to getting in contact and establishing communication with others. This may include speech, but if communication is broadly construed as an attempt to get to know the meaning and aim of another’s actions and behavior, establishing communicative contact may also take place without using language.

Secondly, since the reason for establishing communicative contact is to try to align actions and behavior with regard to what can be seen as a common good, contact in action is a series of actions and reactions that can be regarded as a series of questions, preliminary answers, further questions, and so on. Again, this does not necessarily presuppose speech. One may, for example, interpret physical interference or the changing of a situation in which an entity is located as “posing questions” as long as these actions respect the integrity of the object as a whole and do not—without further justifying reason—transgress what one already knows to be the object’s good. Thirdly, the communicative process, unlike the process of fabrication, is not oriented towards an attainable and definite end state of affairs. Hence, action remains a permanent task and challenge.

A Final Comparison: Fabrication, Action, and Inherent Value

In ethical theory building a recurrent issue is how to substantiate the notion of an “inherent” or “intrinsic” value of an entity. To assume that an entity does not have inherent value amounts to claiming that it is prima facie ethically acceptable to treat the entity solely as a means to one’s ends. Conversely, to ascribe inherent value to an entity implies to—fully or to a certain degree—take account of and respect the entity’s own ways of behaving and acting. Inherent value thus is a core concept of any ethical theory.

There are two major routes of argument along which it becomes possible to regard entities as incorporating inherent value. The first one is aesthetic: An object appears to be so delicately and intricately built, so overwhelmingly and powerfully grand, or to be part of a chain of events reaching inconceivably far back into the past, that it immediately commands awe and self-effacement to every human observer. Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, to name but one example, may be seen as exploring this line of thought.

The second alley is identical to what has been developed above as the perspective of action, if applied to the non-human world. The entity to which one relates is conceived of as taking part in the search for the good in which one is immersed oneself. Hence, on this view one does not have an a priori right to discard the interests and behavior of the entity, but is supposed to commence action towards it in order to get to know the entity and accommodate its interests, if this appears reasonable. The inherent value of the entity is a result of conceiving of the entity as a proto-subject. Thus, the observer is compelled to respect its ways of behaving and turns from observer into companion. This is the root idea from which, as remarked above, philosopher and ethicist Hans Jonas systematically develops his ethically minded theory of biology.

In any case, the perspective of the fabricator can include neither the first nor the second argument. If an object appears to be intricately built, this will not cause the fabricator to marvel, but it will ignite the fabricator’s scientific and technical ambition to understand and produce objects displaying the same kind of sophistication. And, if an entity appears to make attempts at engaging the fabricator in a common quest for the good, the fabricator will not be able to take these attempts seriously. Instead, the fabricator will be curious to understand the causal factors leading to this behavior and will try to change it by making use of the knowledge of these factors (if, for instance, the entity’s attempt at establishing contact becomes unnerving). If the fabricator stays true to his epistemic and ontological assumptions, above all the decisive role of basic parts in explaining the behavior of an organism, initial moments of marveling at unexpected, seemingly “autonomous” behavior must give place to curious dissecting of the organism’s parts in order to understand how these parts can bring about the impression of causal independency and self-guidance.

Either Fabrication, or Action

The realm of biology constitutes a middle ground between the realm of non-living matter and the realm of human life. Now, if the paradigm objects from the perspective of fabrication stem from the realm of non-living entities, and if the paradigm entities at which the attitude of action is directed originate from the realm of humans, the question is which perspective should take precedence with regard to non-human life, or alternatively, where in the realm of non-human life the two perspectives ought to meet. A possible third option, namely introducing a third perspective tailor-made for biology, is not viable, if one accepts the premise that fabrication and action are to be understood in terms of basic epistemological and ontological assumptions.

Fabrication is based on the supposition that, in principle, the behavior of all objects of reality can be explained in terms of internal regularities and thus be known and predicted. To contradict this thesis, without at the same time letting loose the ideas of knowledge and truth, is to assume that the behavior of an entity is itself subject to processes of knowledge acquisition, so that in order to get to know an entity one has to refer to these epistemic processes to which one is confined to oneself. In terms of the concept of truth, the alternative is between the primacy of a theoretical or a practical notion of truth, or, in other words, between truth as a stating of facts and truth as a seeking of the good.

The latter understanding of truth is exactly what the epistemological and ontological assumptions of action amount to. Taking into consideration Arendt’s philosophical provenance, the affinity of her typology of human activity to this basic dichotomy does not come as a surprise. Besides hermeneutics, though, the intention to supply an explanation of knowledge acquisition in terms of activity and action is at the core of many strands of pragmatic philosophy as well as a phenomenologically inspired philosophy of the “other.” The substantial differences of these projects notwithstanding, for the purposes here it suffices to say that the assumption of an epistemic and ontological dichotomy between the outlooks of fabrication and action is the premise for the following task of comparing the application of fabrication and action ideals to biology.

Synthetic Biology as Fabrication

If it is correct to suppose that one either has to opt for fabrication or action as one’s basic outlook on reality, biological concepts will either have to be understood as descriptions of basic forms of exchange between a being and its environment involving rudimentary degrees of freedom, on the one hand, or as complex conglomerations governed by regularities that apply to physical and chemical matter. Clearly, synthetic biology adopts the second option. In fact, the main research approaches of synthetic biology can count as a straightforward implementation of the ideals of fabrication in the realm of the living.

Firstly, the use of engineering concepts and methodologies such as modularization and standardization bear witness to the fact that the corresponding research areas within synthetic biology aim at developing reliable production processes in which parts can be assembled and reassembled in order to build products with defined characteristics and abilities. In synthetic biology, this aim is inextricably connected to the ability to design modules and modularized objects. Again, designing production process and product is one of the key features of fabrication. In addition, synthetic biology’s engineering and designing approach introduces means-end calculation as a guiding principle for how to shape and optimize the production process with regard to the product as its end, and the product’s features with regard to human preferences as their end. Finally, the products of synthetic biology are conceived of as complex chemical machines and thus referred to as entities that can be fully understood in terms of internal regularities.

Secondly, the fabrication ideal of re-creating parts of nature is manifested in synthetic biology’s vocabulary of creation. Although synthetic biology top-down approaches obviously do not “create life,” the reassembling of basic parts of single-cell organisms is so profound that the resulting organisms will potentially have to be described as “novel,” and hence the building of these organisms as “creating.” One can frame this point by saying that top-down research amounts to freely “re-programming” life and thus to generating novel objects (Bedau 2011).

This is not to say, of course, that synthetic biology’s creating ought to be interpreted along the lines of the theological concept of a “creatio ex nihilo.” It is to say, though, that, for one thing, synthetic biology organisms may come to differ from natural organisms to such a degree that one cannot assume to be able to infer knowledge of their abilities and behavior from the knowledge of natural counterparts. For another thing, it is to say that in entering the sphere of creating novel products synthetic biology is not confined to carrying out some minor aspects of the attitude of fabrication, but encompasses fabrication’s whole range of aims, including ultimately the idea of creation. If one takes at face value statement such as, “The genetic code is 3.6 billion years old. It’s time for a rewrite,” reportedly announced by MIT scientist Tom Knight (Silver 2007), it can hardly be denied that the self-understanding of synthetic biology comprises the whole set of fabrication aspirations and thus can be described as adhering to the fabricator’s ideal of becoming a Homo creator (Boldt and Müller 2008).

Typically, the notion of creation in combination with biotechnology invokes media headlines claiming that scientists are now able to “create life.” As remarked, with regard to top-down approaches such headlines must qualify as media hype. Nonetheless, and this has been hinted at in the beginning, with regard to bottom-up research, scientists themselves sometimes identify “creation of life” as their research agenda. Nonetheless, whether this description fits what bottom-up research eventually might accomplish seems to depend upon the concept of life that one brings to bear on the issue. If one assumes, as one needs to do from the standpoint of the fabricator, that “life” denotes a quality of an entity that can be explained in terms of the physical and spatial characteristics of the law-governed parts of the very same entity, in the same way in which one can explain the stability of a table, for example, then the quality “life” (or “stability”) may serve as a useful abbreviation in further explanations of the organism’s (or table’s) abilities, but the term is not indispensable in this description. On deeper analysis it can be dissolved into the simpler vocabulary of the laws describing the movements of non-living parts. Given this understanding of the concept of life, it may indeed appear reasonable to depict bottom-up research as an attempt to create life in the Arendtian sense of fabricating life. At the same time, on this understanding creating life does not appear to be qualitatively different from other acts of creating complex objects since life stands on par with any other at first sight surprising ability that complex objects may prove to have.

Action’s Take on Synthetic Biology

The perspective of action is indispensable if one wants to make sense of the attribution of freedom and responsibility to the acts of humans. Thus, with regard to technological interventions in humans, the perspective of action will require that interventions of this kind do not eliminate or inhibit those abilities or the willingness to perceive those abilities and to act accordingly. Now, it is obviously less clear what taking up the perspective of action with regard to non-human life may imply.

As a first step of an exploration along these lines, it should be clear that framing the realm of non-human life by making use of the outlook of action does not amount to imposing an arbitrary “metaphysic” on living nature, as the US Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues wrongly assumes (Presidential Commission 2010, pp. 135–140). Firstly, if action is a metaphysic, so is fabrication. The difference lies in the direction of explanation: while fabrication holds that it is possible to explain complex behavior, including knowledge acquisition, on the basis of physical and chemical laws alone, action presumes that one needs to introduce concepts applied to complex behavior as basic premises. Secondly, imposing the action metaphysic on non-human life is not arbitrary but follows from the assumption that without the attitude of action one, for one thing, loses hold of the idea of inherent value, and, for another thing, that limiting the realm of action to humans itself would amount to arbitrarily and without justification (neither from the perspective of action, nor from fabrication) drawing a line between human and non-human life.

What, then, does it mean to take up the perspective of action with regard to non-human life? To start with, in order to be able to establish contact in action, one has to presuppose and prima facie also to respect the existence of an organism and its ways of behaving. Moreover, following the imperatives of action, getting to know an organism does not mean analyzing its parts, but learning about what guides the organism in its behavior in an environment. This does not exclude making attempts at changing behavior, but the means will have to retain a certain degree of looseness in order to allow the organism to react to one’s measures. On this condition, it will still be possible to regard physical interferences as non-verbal acts of communication that serve to determine what may count as a common good. Indeed, the further away from human life the organism in question is situated, the more vague will the concept of an organism’s good probably be bound to become. Accordingly, the imperative to take account of this good becomes less strict the greater the distance from human beings becomes. Nonetheless, as a consequence of what has been said so far, one will be drawn to caring, growing, cultivating, culturing, and modest forms of breeding as leading concepts of action interferences with non-human life.

The reasons that justify these recommendations are twofold. Firstly, there is an ethical reason. Seeing an entity as a counterpart that in acting and behaving displays a subjective attitude towards its environment implies an “ought” to respect the counterpart. Secondly, the justification can also be partly understood as being based on factual assumptions. Explaining the acts of an entity as guided by convictions about the good is not only a statement about the normative status of the entity, but an account of how one assumes the entity to “function,” too. Hence, from the standpoint of action one may assume that the function of an organism in an environment tends to be more stable and reliable if the organism is allowed to maintain and develop “itself” in an environment. Conversely, from the perspective of action one may as well derive the initial supposition that profound genetic modifications and the creation of novel organisms tend to produce living beings less stable and less tolerant to changes in the environment than its natural relatives.

Of course, this theoretical assumption can be proven wrong by empirical evidence in many actual cases. Still, what would survive is the statement’s focusing on advancing cautiously into the realm of creating novel forms of life. While from the perspective of fabrication efficiently designing an organism from scratch appears to be the best way of influencing living nature on the terms of the fabrication ideal of the good, the attitude of action reverses this order. On this account, one first of all opts for indirectly influencing an organism and advances to more direct interferences only if the previous measures are unsuccessful and there appears to be good reason to maintain one’s wish to change the organism’s behavior.

In his latest essay on genetic engineering, German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, echoing the Arendtian concept of “action” in his notion of “communicative action,” remarks that the attitude of action with regard to non-human life implies “cultivating” or “therapeutic” behavior on the part of the actor. He summarizes the twofold justificatory basis of taking up this attitude as follows:

The care we take when we deal with self-maintaining systems, whose self-regulation we might disrupt, bears witness not only to a cognitive consideration for the inherent dynamic of the process of life. The closer we are to the species dealt with, the more clearly this consideration is intermingled also with a practical concern, a kind of respect. The empathy, or “resonant comprehension”, we show for the violability of the organic life, acting as a check upon our practical dealings, is obviously grounded … in the distinction we make between any kind of subjectivity, however rudimentary, and the world of objects which can merely be manipulated. (Habermas 2003, p. 46f)

As a final remark, although the perspective of action favors communication, probing, and other indirect measures of influencing the behavior of living beings, it does not preclude, either factually or morally, the possibility to build or “create” life from non-living matter. In contrast to the fabrication perspective, though, creating life does not, firstly, amount to the final proof that one has understood all there is to know about what constitutes life in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry governing the parts of a living being. From the perspective of action, understanding life is to become acquainted with an individual living being, which is a challenge that does not come to an end when one has created an organism but rather starts at this point. Secondly, since in order to describe an organism one needs to introduce as a basic, non-reducible concept the notion of a self-organizing subject relating to an environment in which it lives, success in creating life from scratch will have to be interpreted as success in creating conditions that enable the unfolding of the process of self-organization and acting in and reacting to an environment. Thus, creating life from non-living molecules appears to be an act of co-creation rather than fabrication.

Three Implications for Synthetic Biology

Taking the perspective of action as an evaluative guide to the challenges that synthetic biology, as an incorporation of the ideal of fabrication into the realm of life, poses, one can thus discern three major issues. Firstly, from the perspective of action synthetic biology may overestimate its own capacity to reliably design and build novel organisms. Secondly, synthetic biology’s own measures to assess the safety of novel organisms may be limited. And thirdly, synthetic biology cannot itself supply criteria for where on the ladder of life the idea of inherent value is supposed to become relevant.

Life’s Self-Organization as an Obstacle to the Engineering Paradigm’s Research Agenda

It has been pointed out recently that the complexity of life poses a considerable challenge to successfully implementing synthetic biology’s research agenda into biotechnology (Kwok 2010). If one interprets the ontological suppositions of the perspective of action not only as conditions of an ethically relevant rudimentary ability to sense and react to impulses, but also as the identification of ways of organismic development that are particularly resilient, reassembling and creating organisms by design may turn out to be less expedient than hoped for. In this respect, technologies that do not reprogram but make use of the dynamics of existent life-forms constitute competitive research alleys. Among these one may count directed evolution technologies and any other research agenda that induces change of an organism by stepwise altering its environment. One may say, generally, that those technologies are to be favored that do not directly bring about a certain behavior but make use of perceptive and reactive abilities of the organism.

Needless to say, deciding this contest is not a matter of philosophical and ethical inquiry but of empirical evidence, the more so as evolutionary and engineering approaches to biotechnology do not stand in stark opposition but may prove advantageous to each other in a number of respects (Morange 2009). Still, from the perspective of science policy it will be important to promote a wide variety of research options available in this field.

Risk Assessment from the Perspective of Fabrication

Judging from the perspective of fabrication, what comes to one’s mind in the first place when reflecting upon safety risks is a breakdown of the internal machinery of organisms. Given the machine model of life, future behavior of an organism appears to be fully determined by the initial conditions of its molecular makeup. Consequently, in order to guard against unexpected behavior one will first of all define as precisely as possible the initial states and make sure that the actual makeup of the novel organism corresponds to the design as accurately as possible.

Now, if it is correct, as the perspective of action suggests, that the development of an organism must be understood in terms of an unpredictable process of action and reaction of the organism in its environment, controlling the initial molecular state of an organism will not suffice to reduce risks. Rather, retrospective knowledge about an organism’s interaction with its environment appears to be a more reliable basis for predictions, which implies that risk assessment of novel organisms, if lacking a close natural relative, will necessarily appear to be precarious.

Moreover, if the above interpretation of Hannah Arendt’s claim that fabrication involves the supposition that products always can be subjected to destruction is accurate, on the machine model attaining knowledge about how to build an organism is tantamount to acquiring knowledge about how to bring about the disassembly of the organism. Again, on the account of action this equation does not hold true and one would opt for greater caution with regard to supposedly trustworthy disassembly procedures, such as, to name but one example, so-called suicide genes (for an overview of the debate on synthetic biology safety issues cf. Schmidt 2009).

Value of Life and Homo Creator’s Self-Understanding

Finally, from the perspective of synthetic biology the assumption of an inherent value of life must become untenable. This does not only hold for microorganisms but for any organism that synthetic biology may turn its attention to. As long as synthetic biology adheres to the epistemological and ontological assumptions of fabrication and thus construes itself strictly along the lines of engineering principles, it will not be able to understand its objects as inherently valuable, the fact notwithstanding that the higher an organism one turns to, the more will the assumption of value suggest itself.

Since on the account of action the ability to act according to what one regards as good is gradually evolving in the realm of non-human life, inherent value is seen as a gradually increasing factor, too. Hence, in the case of microorganisms synthetic biology’s inability to recognize value will, without doubt, not count as a serious offense to ethical standards. Nonetheless, the inability points to the philosophical and scientific challenge of providing the framework for a self-understanding in which human knowledge does not appear to originate in processes completely unconnected to nature. Synthetic biology, combing both the assumption that humans can attain knowledge and act inventively, on the one hand, and the supposition that nature can be fully explained in terms of molecular regularities, on the other hand, once again calls attention to this old question.


I acknowledge the support of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Joint ELSI research project “Synthetic Biology,” 01GP1003A).

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© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2013