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The Ethics of De-Extinction

Abstract

“de-extinction” refers to the process of resurrecting extinct species by genetic methods. This science-fiction-sounding idea is in fact already in early processes of scientific implementation. Although this recent “revival of the dead” raises deep ethical questions, the ethics of de-extinction has barely received philosophical treatment. Rather than seeking a verdict for or against de-extinction, this paper attempts an overview and some novel analyses of the main ethical considerations. Five dimensions of the ethics of de-extinction are explored: (a) the possible contribution of de-extinction to promoting ecological values, (b) the deontological argument that we owe de-extinction to species we rendered extinct, (c) the question of “playing God” through de-extinction, (d) the utilitarian perspective, and (e) the role of aesthetic considerations in the ethics of de-extinction. A general feature arising from the paper’s discussion is that, due to de-extinction’s special character, it repeatedly tests the limits of our ethical notions.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Much of the agenda for the philosophical exploration of de-extinction was laid out succinctly by Sherkow and Greely [3]. While concluding work on this paper, Sandler [4] has appeared online; so did Cottrell et al. [5]; see also Gamborg [6].

  2. 2.

    Donlan et al. [26]. (Theoretically, such ethical responsibility could mandate de-extinction even when it has no ecological value.)

  3. 3.

    “If we’re talking about species we drove extinct, then I think we have an obligation to try to do this,” says Professor Michael Archer, head of the Lazarus Project team; see Zimmer [27].

  4. 4.

    Rescher ([32]: 80). Ronald Sandler argues for a similar view; see Sandler ([4]: 2).

  5. 5.

    Cf. Peter Singer’s title: “Is the Sanctity of Life Ethic Terminally Ill?”

  6. 6.

    I provide a fuller account of this topic in “Respect for Persons, Life, and Nature” [unpublished].

  7. 7.

    It is by now obvious that “species rights” is totally different from “animal rights.”

  8. 8.

    This argument in particular suggests the more general point that the moral case for de-extinction, explained here as an argument from justice, can be re-conceptualized in terms of virtue ethics. I thank a reviewer for this journal for pointing out this possibility. This of course lends further support to the case for de-extinction by showing the breadth of its possible justifications.

  9. 9.

    The advancement of knowledge may be seen as an objective value, beyond preference satisfaction.

  10. 10.

    On cloning and de-extinction see Gamborg [6].

  11. 11.

    See Meno, St. 77, Symposium, St. 201ff.

  12. 12.

    See Rachel Barney’s exquisite review: [48].

  13. 13.

    Greater Hippias, St. 296, trans. Benjamin Jowett.

  14. 14.

    In the Philebus (St. 65) we are even given a formula of sorts, where the good is a function of three elements: beauty, proportion and truth.

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I wish to thank Uri Eytan, whose interest in de-extinction prompted me to embark on the research that led to this paper.

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Correspondence to Shlomo Cohen.

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Cohen, S. The Ethics of De-Extinction. Nanoethics 8, 165–178 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11569-014-0201-2

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Keywords

  • De-extinction
  • Environmental ethics
  • Bioconservation
  • Biodiversity
  • Species rights
  • Respect for life
  • Genetic engineering
  • Cloning