Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 19, Issue 2, pp 435–448 | Cite as

Playing God and the Intrinsic Value of Life: Moral Problems for Synthetic Biology?

Original Paper

Abstract

Most of the reports on synthetic biology include not only familiar topics like biosafety and biosecurity but also a chapter on ‘ethical concerns’; a variety of diffuse topics that are interrelated in some way or another. This article deals with these ‘ethical concerns’. In particular it addresses issues such as the intrinsic value of life and how to deal with ‘artificial life’, and the fear that synthetic biologists are tampering with nature or playing God. Its aim is to analyse what exactly is the nature of the concerns and what rationale may lie behind them. The analysis concludes that the above-mentioned worries do not give genuine cause for serious concern. In the best possible way they are interpreted as slippery slope arguments, yet arguments of this type need to be handled with care. It is argued that although we are urged to be especially vigilant we do not have sufficiently cogent reasons to assume that synthetic biology will cause such fundamental hazards as to warrant restricting or refraining from research in this field.

Keywords

Synthetic biology Intrinsic value of life Artificial life Playing God Slippery slope 

Notes

Acknowledgments

This publication is based on research conducted within the project Ethical and regulatory challenges raised by synthetic biology (SYNTH-ETHICS) in 2009, funded by the European Commission. I would particularly like to thank Armin Grunwald and Viktor Schubert for valuable discussions of earlier versions of this article. Thanks are also due to Philip Ball and an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments.

References

  1. Ball, P. (2011). Unnatural. The heretical idea of making people. London: The Bodley Head.Google Scholar
  2. Bhutkar, A. (2005). Synthetic biology. Navigating the challenges ahead. The Journal of Biolaw & Business, 8(2), 19–29.Google Scholar
  3. Boldt, J., Maio, G., & Müller, O. (2009). Synthetische Biologie. Eine ethisch-philosophische Analyse. Zürich, Switzerland: EKAH.Google Scholar
  4. Calvert, J., & Tait, J. (2008). Conecpt note: Synthetic Biology. Risks and opportunities of an emerging field. Geneva, Switzerland: International Risk Governance Council (IRGC) (This report was updated 2010: http://www.irgc.org/IMG/pdf/irgc_SB_final_07jan_web.pdf. Accessed 25 Sep 2011).
  5. Dabrock, P. (2009). Playing god? Synthetic biology as a theological and ethical challenge. Systems and Synthetic Biology, 3, 47–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. de Vriend, H. (2006). Constructing Life. Early social reflections on the emerging field of synthetic biology. The Hague, the Netherlands: Rathenau Institute. Working Document 97.Google Scholar
  7. Grunwald, A. (2010). From speculative nanoethics to explorative philosophy of nanotechnology. Nanoethics, 4(2), 91–101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Habermas, J. (2001). Die Zukunft der menschlichen Natur. Auf dem Weg zu einer liberalen Eugenik? Frankfurt A.M., Germany: Suhrkamp.Google Scholar
  9. Highfield, R. (2006). Ripped genes. The Daily Telegraph, 27 May. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/highfield06/highfield06_index.html. Accessed 25 Sep 2011.
  10. Kant, I. (1793). Die Metaphysik der Sitten (cited as GMS). Berlin, Germany: Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften, AA 06.Google Scholar
  11. Kessler, H. (2008). Kreative Schöpfung—Kreativität Gottes. Überlegungen zum Spannungsfeld von Schöpfung und Evolution. In J. Klose & J. Oehler (Eds.), Gott oder Darwin? (pp. 27–58). Berlin/Heidelberg, Germany: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Lauritzen, P. (2001). Cloning and the future of human embryo research. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Merkel, R. (2003). Contra Speziesargument. Zum normativen Status des Embryos und zum Schutz der Ethik gegen ihre biologistische Degradierung. In G. Damschen & D. Schönecker (Eds.), Der moralische Status menschlicher Embryonen (pp. 35–58). Berlin, Germany/New York, NY: de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  14. Nerlich, B., Elliott, R., & Larson, B. (Eds.). (2009). Communicating biological sciences. Ethical and metaphorical dimensions. Farnham, UK/Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing.Google Scholar
  15. NEST High-Level Expert Group. (2005). Synthetic biology. applying engineering to biology. ftp://ftp.cordis.europa.eu/pub/nest/docs/syntheticbiology_b5_eur21796_en.pdf. Accessed 25 Sep 2011.
  16. Parens, E., Johnston, J., & Moses, J. (2009). Ethical issues in synthetic biology: An overview of the debates. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.Google Scholar
  17. Peters, T. (2003). Playing God. Genetic determinism and human freedom (2nd ed.). New York, NY/London, UK: Routledge.Google Scholar
  18. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. (2004). Compendium of the social doctrine of the church. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana. http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/justpeace/documents/rc_pc_justpeace_doc_20060526_compendio-dott-soc_en.html. Accessed 25 Sep 2011.
  19. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. (2010). New directions. The ethics of synthetic biology and emerging technologies. Washington, DC. http://bioethics.gov/cms/sites/default/files/PCSBI-Synthetic-Biology-Report-12.16.10.pdf. Accessed 25 Sep 2011.
  20. Preston, C. J. (2008). Synthetic biology. Drawing a line in Darwin’s sand. Environmental Values, 17, 23–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Sandel, M. J. (2007). The case against perfection: Ethics in the age of genetic engineering. Cambridge, MA/London, UK: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  22. SYNTH-ETHICS. (2009). Identification of ethical issues and analysis of public discourse. http://www.synthethics.eu/documents/REPORT%20WP1%20synthethics%20-%20ethics+public%20discourse.pdf. Accessed 25 Sep 2011.
  23. van den Belt, H. (2009). Playing God in Frankenstein’s footsteps: Synthetic biology and the meaning of life. Nanoethics, 3(3), 257–268.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Yolton, J. (1983). Thinking matter. Materialism in eighteenth-century Britain. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS) at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)KarlsruheGermany
  2. 2.Department of Philosophy of the University at Karlsruhe Institute of TechnologyKarlsruheGermany
  3. 3.OffenburgGermany

Personalised recommendations