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TOM DOUGLAS AND JULIAN SAVULESCU OXFORD UEHIRO CENTRE FOR PRACTICAL ETHICS UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD. Two concerns about synthetic biology. Cello et al. 2002 de novo synthesis of poliovirus. Venter proposal minimal bacterial chassis. competing definitions.

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two concerns about synthetic biology

TOM DOUGLAS AND JULIAN SAVULESCU

OXFORD UEHIRO CENTRE FOR PRACTICAL ETHICS

UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Two concerns about synthetic biology
slide2

Cello et al. 2002

de novo synthesis of poliovirus

Venter proposal

minimal bacterial chassis

competing definitions
competing definitions

synthetic biology = de novo synthesis of biological organisms/components

broad

definition

narrow

definition

benefits
benefits

medical applications (diagnostics and therapeutics)

environmental applications (biofuels, biosensors, bioremediation)

industrial applications

Context

Ethical issues no different to:

genetic engineering, transgenesis, chimeras

machine-mind interfaces

artificial reproduction, eg cloning

moral landscape ethical concerns
Moral landscape: ethical concerns
  • synthetic biology poses a high risk of malevolent use – precautionary principle
  • synthetic biology will undermine or fail to respect the moral status of living things – discrimination, inequality, etc
  • synthetic biology will result in accidental harm
  • synthetic biology will lead to the enhancement of human beings – moral imperative to enhance human beings
  • “Playing God”/unnatural/dignity of life/commodification of life objs
  • Will focus on 1 and 2 as these are most serious and common obj
our claims
our claims

on their most plausible interpretations, these two concerns can be understood as variants of a common concern about promoting future wrongdoing

the most common strategy for dissolving this concern (scientific isolationism) fails

the first concern possible malevolent use
the first concern – possible malevolent use

Cello et al. 2002

de novo synthesis of poliovirus

Tumpey et al. 2005

Reconstruction of 1918 Spanish influenza virus

1st concern2nd concern unifying the concerns scientific isolationism

the second concern undermining the moral status of living things
the second concern – undermining the moral status of living things

Cho, Magnus, Caplan & McGee (1999):

X

X

creation of beings between living things & machines

acceptance of reductionist account of life

no longer ascribe “special status” to life

1st concern2nd concern unifying the concerns scientific isolationism

moral status
MORAL STATUS

PERSONS:

human rights

interests

intrinsic value

NON-HUMAN ANIMALS:

?? rights

? interests

? intrinsic value

PRODUCTS OF SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY

???

MACHINES:

no rights or interests

instrumental value only

1st concern2nd concern unifying the concerns scientific isolationism

a reformulation of the second concern
a reformulation of the second concern

human/animal interests sacrificed for the sake of synthetic beings

synthetic beings assigned great moral status

humans/animals harmed

humans/animals assigned lesser moral status (on some theories)

1st concern2nd concern unifying the concerns scientific isolationism

two possibilities
two possibilities

we correctly assign great moral status to synthetic beings

→ humans/animals get permissibly harmed

we incorrectly assign great moral status to synthetic beings

→ humans/animals get wrongly harmed

1st concern2nd concern unifying the concerns scientific isolationism

unifying the two concerns
unifying the two concerns

CONCERN ONE:

synthetic agents used in malevolent ways

pursuing research in synthetic biology brings about future wrongdoing

CONCERN TWO:

human/animal interests get wrongly sacrificed for the sake of synthetic beings (or the reverse)

1st concern2nd concern unifying the concernsscientific isolationism

scientific isolationism a way of dissolving the concern
scientific isolationism – a way of dissolving the concern?

ethics of research

ethics of technology

1st concern2nd concern unifying the concerns scientific isolationism

scientific freedom
scientific freedom

the claim

scientists enjoy a right to absolute freedom of enquiry

but...

scientists should not engage in all research that they have a right to engage in

1st concern2nd concern unifying the concerns scientific isolationism

argument one the intrinsic value of knowledge
argument one – the intrinsic value of knowledge

the claim

scientific inquiry is justified by the intrinsic value of the knowledge it produces

but...

this assumes that the value of knowledge trumps other moral value

1st concern2nd concern unifying the concerns scientific isolationism

argument two the gunmaker s defence
argument two – the gunmaker’s defence

the claim

a scientist is not responsible for malevolent uses of her research

but...

wrongs for which we are not responsible can still be relevant to the ethical assessment of our conduct

1st concern2nd concern unifying the concerns scientific isolationism

argument three it s futile
argument three – “it’s futile”

the claim

individual scientists/policymakers can’t significantly affect the rate of scientific progress

but...

a small delay might enable better regulation

and...

small initial changes may have large knock-on effects

1st concern2nd concern unifying the concerns scientific isolationism

argument four uncertainty
argument four – uncertainty

the claim

we can’t predict the future, so any principle which requires us to do so is unworkable

but...

it may well be possible to identify predictors of malevolent use – we haven’t even tried

1st concern2nd concern unifying the concerns scientific isolationism

conclusions
conclusions

the two concerns – about malevolent use and about undermining moral status – can be understood as variants of a moral general concern about bringing about wrongdoing

the most popular way of dissolving this concern – scientific isolationism – fails

challenges
Challenges

for regulators

minimise the risk of malevolent use of synthetic biology

for scientists

get better at predicting how research will be used

for philosophers

ascertain the criteria for moral status

determine how to weigh risk of future wrongdoing against benefits of pursuing research in synthetic biology and analyse arguments for and against synthetic biology

way forward
Way Forward
  • Good science – risks and benefits
  • Minimise existential risks - restriction of knowledge, raw materials, etc
  • Comprehensive evaluation of abilities, phenomenology, etc of new life forms
  • Appropriate ascription of moral status
  • Equal respect – to treat like cases alike, unless there is a relevant moral difference
acknowledgements
acknowledgements

Dominic Wilkinson, Michael Selgelid

The Wellcome Trust, Christ Church College