Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics

, Volume 28, Issue 1, pp 161–177 | Cite as

GM Crops, the Hubris Argument and the Nature of Agriculture

  • Payam Moula


In this paper, I investigate the moral status of agricultural biotechnology and, more specifically, genetically modified (GM) crops by employing the hubris argument. The old notion of hubris, given to us by the ancient Greeks, provides a narrative from which we can understand ourselves and technology. Ronald Sandler offers us an understanding of hubris he claims gives us a prima facie reason and a presumption against the use of GM crops. I argue that Sandler’s hubris argument fails for several reasons: (1) Sander and many others fail to have a proper understanding of agriculture as an inherently technological practice which is radically different from ‘nature’; (2) the notions of control and manipulation which are central to the concept of hubris are difficult to understand and use in the context of agriculture; (3) trying to establish a prima facie reason against GM crops runs into serious difficulty since many GM crops are profoundly different from each other; and (4) even if we accept Sandler’s argument of hubris, it actually plays no role in the reasoning and evaluation of the moral status of different GM crops.


Virtue ethics Hubris Humility Ronald Sandler GM crops Biotechnology Agriculture 



I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Per Sandin for being an excellent supervisor and for his valuable feedback on this paper. Thanks also to Sven Ove Hansson and Karin Edvardsson Björnberg for valuable comments. Thanks to William Bülow, Karim Jebari and all my colleagues at KTH for the contribution to this paper from our department seminar.


  1. Ali, A., & Abdulai, A. (2010). The adoption of genetically modified cotton and poverty reduction in Pakistan. Journal of Agricultural Economics, 61, 175–192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Alteiri, M. (2000). Food First Special Report No. 1. Genetic engineering in agriculture: The Myths, environmental risks, and alternatives. Oakland, CA: Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy.Google Scholar
  3. Aristotle. (2002). Nicomachean ethics (S. Broadie & C. Rowe, Trans.). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Comstock, G. (2000). Vexing nature? On the ethical case against agricultural biotechnology. Massachusetts: Kluwer Academic Publishers.Google Scholar
  5. Crisp, R., & Slote, M. (Eds.). (1997). Virtue ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Driver, J. (2012). Consequentialism. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  7. Enserink, M. (2008). Tough lessons from golden rice. Science, 320(5875), 468–471.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Gambrel, J. C., & Cafaro, P. (2010). The virtue of simplicity. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 23, 85–108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Grinbaum, A. (2010). The nanotechnological golem. Nanoethics, 4, 191–198.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Hursthouse, R. (1999). On virtue ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Jamieson, D. (2007). When utilitarians should be virtue theorists. Utilitas, 19(2), 160–183.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Kahane, G. (2011). Mastery without mystery: Why there is no Promethean sin in enhancement. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 28(4), 355–368.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Katz, E. (2011). Preserving the distinction between nature and artifact. In E. G. Kaebnick (Ed.), The ideal of nature: Debates about biotechnology and the environment (pp. 71–83). Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  14. McConell, K. D., & Dillon, L. J. (1997). Farm management for Asia: A systems approach. (FAO Farm Systems Management Series—13). Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome.
  15. McKibben, B. (1999). The end of nature (2nd ed.). New York: Anchor Books.Google Scholar
  16. Mill, J. S. (1998). Three essays on religion. New York: Prometheus Books. (Original work “Nature” published in 1874).Google Scholar
  17. Norlock, J. K. (2010). Forgivingness, pessimism, and environmental citizenship. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 23, 29–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Nussbaum, M. (1990). Aristotelian social democracy. In R. Bruce Douglass, Gerald M. Mara & Henry S. Richardson (Eds.), Liberalism and the good (pp. 203–252). New York & London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  19. Nussbaum, M. (1993). Non-relative virtue: An Aristotelian approach. In M. Nussbaum & A. Sen (Eds.), The quality of life (pp. 242–269). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Oakley, J., & Cocking, D. (2001). Virtue ethics and professional roles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Osborne, L. (2002). Got silk. New York Times. Accessed April 23, 2014.
  22. Papadimitropoulos, L. (2008). Xerxes' “hubris” and Darius in Aeschylus’ “Persae”. Mnemosyne, 61(3), 451–458.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Sandler, R. (2004). An aretaic objection to agricultural biotechnology. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 17, 301–317.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Sandler, R. (2007). Character and environment: A virtue oriented approach to environmental ethics. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Scott, D. (2005). The magic bullet criticism of agricultural biotechnology. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 18, 259–267.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Stokstad, E. (2008). Papaya takes on ringspot virus and wins. Science, 320(5875), 472.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Swanton, C. (2003). Virtue ethics: A pluralistic view. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Thompson, P. (2009). Philospohy of agricultural technology. In A. Meijers (Eds.), Handbook of the philosophy of science: Philosophy of technology and engineering sciences (Vol. 9, pp. 1257–1274). Oxford: Elsevier VB.Google Scholar
  29. Weale, A. (2010). Ethical arguments relevant to the use of GM crops. New Biotechnology, 27(5), 582–587.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.StockholmSweden
  2. 2.Division of PhilosophyKTH School of Architecture and the Built EnvironmentStockholmSweden

Personalised recommendations