Making the world a better place: Genes and ethics

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  • Science and Engineering Ethics (1995) 1, 101-110

    Making the World a Better Place: Genes and Ethics

    Roger Crisp st. Anne's College, Oxford

    Keywords: genes, genetics, ethics, genetic engineering, transgenic plants and animals, human genetics


    Imagine the AIDS virus mutates and begins to attack many more people much more quickly. Scientists are blamed for the catastrophe and there is a world wide reaction against science. Laboratories are torn down, books are burned, scientists are murdered. An anti-scientific political movement - perhaps sprung from one of our political parties in Britain? - sweeps the globe. Very little of science remains.

    After some centuries, enlightened people attempt to revive science from the fragments that remain: the odd charred page of an article, a broken measuring instrument. Gradually pseudo-scientific practices develop around these fragments. Nobody realizes that what is being done is not really natural science at all.

    This imagined scenario is not mine. But I have not borrowed it from science fiction. It comes from the first few pages of one of the most influential moral phi losophy books since the Second World War: Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue, published in 1981.

    MacIntyre's suggestion is that our moral practices today are analogous in important ways to the scientific practices of the post-renaissance period in his story. What we are left with are fragments of various moral traditions, shorn of the context in which they once made sense. Interminable moral debates arise between those who found their moral talk on fragments of different traditions. Indeed, there is no real debate, but merely entrenched groups, shouting incomprehensibly at one another over unbridgeable voids.

    MacIntyre's scepticism about modern morality is just one version of a kind of doubt about the claims of morality felt by many people. If he is right, I might as well stop now. But before I do, let me introduce the three main contemporary philosophical traditions or moral theories - that is, theories about how we should act or live.

    This paper was presented as part of the 1993 Waynflete Lecture Series on Genes: Science, Law and Ethics, Magdalen College, Oxford University. Address for correspondence: Dr. R Crisp, St Alme's College, Oxford OX2 6HS, UK 1353-3452/95 1995 Opragen Publications

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    (i) The first type of theory is known as utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is often understood as advocating 'the greatest good for the greatest number'. There are as many versions of utilitarianism as there are utilitarians. But pretty well any version of utilitarianism contains the following: 1. The claim that the only value there is is the well-being of individuals (usually

    referred to as utility). 2. Some account of what this well-being consists in. The classical utilitarians,

    such as Jeremy Bentham, said it was pleasure. 3. The principle that we should live or act in such a way that as much overall

    well-being as possible is produced. This may, of course, require us to sacrifice our own well-being for the sake of others.

    (ii) So that is utilitarianism, the view that we should produce as much well-being as possible. The second broad group of theories is best described as Kantian, since most of these theories take something from the moral writings of the German philosopher of the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant.

    Let me mention two notions central to the Kantian tradition: First, rationalism. We are rational beings and our morality must emerge from

    our rationality. Kant stated the rational moral law in terms of his 'Categorical Imperative'. When you are thinking of doing something, you have to ask yourself the question, 'What if everyone did that?' and see whether you can will that it become a law of nature that everyone does just that. If you find that you can't, then you shouldn't do what you're thinking of doing.

    The second Kantian notion is rights. Kant states the Categorical Imperative in various ways. One formulation tells us to treat persons never simply as means, but always at the same time as ends. One implication of this is that you cannot override someone's important interests in order to maximize well-being overall. That would be to violate that person's rights.

    (iii) The final strand of theory is commonly referred to these days as virtue ethics. This has ancient roots, particularly in Plato and Aristotle, and it has undergone a recent revival over the last thirty or so years. Let me again draw out two central themes.

    The first is the centrality of the virtuous person. Virtue theorists tend to object to the austerely principled approach of utilitarianism and Kantianism. Moral life is too complex to be usefully capturable in a set of easily statable principles. Rather it has at its core the life of the virtuous person, sensitive to the salient features of the various situations in which she finds herself.

    It might be said, then, that moral philosophy cannot be of much use. If you are virtuous, you will know what to do; and if you're not, then mere philosophy won't make you good. If you must read, read novels. But the virtue theorist might suggest that an understanding of the virtues themselves is likely to help us in trying to understand how we should live. This, then, is the second theme: the virtues themselves.

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    So according to MacIntyre's picture, modern ethics is a matter of philosophers from these various schools failing to understand one another. But I doubt myself that this is the case. A utilitarian can see what a Kantian is getting at; it is just that the Kantian must be wrong because utilitarianism is right. The view that only one of these theories could be right is what explains the deep disagreement among contemporary philosophers of morality, not MacIntyre's apocalyptic vision.

    In a sense, of course, not all of the theories could be right, since they offer different prescriptions for action. But this fact is trivial. A moral theory is an attempt to ground reasons for living and acting in values. Utilitarianism offers us the value of well-being - both non-human and human. Kantian theories rest on the value of fairness ('What if everyone did that?' can in most circumstances be rephrased as 'What entitles you to do that and not others?'). They also rest on other values, such as that of autonomy and respect for autonomy, which provides the basis for rights. Virtue ethics is supported by the values of justice, generosity, kindness and wisdom. How can it be right, the virtue theorist will ask, not to live so that one's life instantiates these goods?

    But there is no reason why the world could not contain all of these values - and indeed more, for the list of theories I gave you was in fact rather parochial. Consider for example the theories of morality popular on the continent which rest on the value of authenticity, or Eastern traditions which emphasize bodily transcendence.

    I suggest, then, that moral philosophers lower their sights and, if they locate themselves within a tradition, begin to see themselves as aiming to characterize a small part of the evaluative world rather than the whole of it. Nor does my advocacy of open-mindedness here apply only to philosophers. The world is full of conflicts between those who, having located one sphere of value, refuse to accept that there could be others. Biotechnology is no different. The debates here are already polarized, and the positions on genetics are already well staked out. This is a great pity. Polarization is likely to make rational discussion impossible, and it may lead to mistaken decisions. It is not only moral philosophers but all of us who must learn to look for the values underlying ethical positions different from our own. If we fail to do this in biotechnology, we shall end up shouting incomprehensibly across yet another void.


    In the second part of this paper, I shall begin to consider some of the central questions which have arisen in genetics over the last few years by thinking about what values are at stake. What I want to do first is to distinguish, admittedly rather roughly, us - human beings, that is - from the world, and to talk about genetic changes to the world.

    I suggested above that moral philosophy is concerned with the identification of what reasons we have to act or not to act in certain ways. Most of the dilemmas in genetics are of this kind. There appear to be certain reasons for and against

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    certain practices, and the question we have to ask is: how do we resolve the conflict?

    The reasons for developing transgenic plants and non-human animals are fairly straightforward. Genetic advances in this area may produce great benefits in the areas of agriculture, food, health care, energy and the environment, and scientific research. Consider for example the tomato which doesn't go squishy on the supermarket shelf. A couple of well-known animal cases are the Factor IX sheep, which secrete human pharmaceuticals in their milk. and genetically engineered BST (bovine somatropin) which increases milk production.

    (i) What objections could be made to these apparently benign changes to the world? There are, of course, many and I shall not be able to discuss all of them. I shall concentrate on four broad areas of objection, the first being what I call ethical conservatism. Michael Fox, for instance, a well-known American environmentalist, argues that any kind of transgenic manipulation is wrong 'because it violates the genetic integrity or telos of organisms or species'.

    Scientists may well have doubts about the coherence of this kind of conservatism. They will tell us that it is a mistake to see species boundaries as clear distinctions between natural kinds. If the view is merely that the status quo is good in itself, then the worst violator of genetic integrity over time has surely been evolution itself.

    The use of the word 'telos" by ethical conservatives suggests that the roots of their view lie in Aristotelian biology and ethics, according to which the kosmos is constructed in such a way that there is a good life to be lived by each member of a natural kind which can be understood in terms of the life that typifies or characterizes that kind. But this kind of view confuses two senses of 'good for'. In one sense, drastically changing the nature of the species would be bad for that species. Indeed, it might make it disappear. But it is a further question whether this is a bad thing, something to provide us with a reason for not doing it. Consider HIV. If a scientist were to discover something that was very bad for that virus, the fact that this something would 'violate the telos' of that virus seems to provide no reason for not going ahead. In other words, the question we must ask here is not, 'What would be good and bad for a particular species?', but 'What would be good or bad things to do?'. And that question can be asked on the assumption that change in itself is neither good nor bad.

    (ii) The second alleged problem with changing the world is that genetic diversity will be decreased, which may have disastrous consequences for many life forms on earth. This loss in diversity may result, for example, from cloning one individual from another, or from the concentration on certain genes which are useful to humankind at the expense of others.

    An agricultural example of this danger is the U.S. wheat crop. The tendency this century has been to create strains of wheat which are genetically very similar to one another and usually selected for high productivity. In 1954, a stemrust

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    halved the crop of macaroni wheat in the U.S.; and in 1969, a blight fungus had the same effect on corn. Luckily, a 'gene bank' had been kept, and strains resistant to the new pathogens could be selected from it. But without the bank consequences could have been very serious indeed.

    This particular objection does not, like the previous one, rest on a philosophical mistake. There is an argument here, and the question we have to ask is: who is to decide on the magnitude of the risks? Now I am not against the discussion of these issues by the public or by non-expert committees. Nevertheless, on matters like these, the views of impartial and informed scientists must be taken as final. And the view of such scientists at present is - pretty much without exception - that the current level of genetic manipulation poses risks sufficient to justify at the very most requiring scientists to be accountable to the public and subject to governmental scrutiny before proceeding with any experiment. One relevant factor here is that present techniques tend to insert new genes in animals rather than remove them, so that it may be argued that diversity is actually increased. In addition, retrovirus factors can be used such that they infect only once, thus removing the possibility of a gene 'going wild'.

    (iii) Here is a third strand of objections, which relates particularly to the genetic manipulation of animals. Consider, for example, the pigs produced at the Agricultural Research Center at Beltsville in Maryland. The 'Beltsville pigs' are the result of the insertion of foreign growth hormones into pig embryos to increase their growth rate. This has resulted in gross deformity: the pigs are crippled with arthritis, cross-eyed and have various skin problems. Another topical example is the 'Oncomouse', which has been engineered to begin dying from cancer a few weeks after being born. Some will argue, then, that animal welfare considerations rule out genetic engineering. The suggestion is that the widespread practice of genetic engineering of animals is bound to throw up such animals, even if they are not intended.

    One important question here, it might be argued, is whether the lives of animals like the Beltsville pigs are actually worth living. If they are, despite the suffering they involve, then the practice of genetic engineering might be said to have benefited the particular animals which are born. For without the engineering they would not have been born at all. And if the animals' lives are clearly worth not living - that is, worse than nothing - they can be painlessly killed.

    But this argument cannot deal with the Oncomouse. For the whole point of using an Oncomouse is that it be allowed to die from cancer. Putting it down would defeat the object. Let us say that it is bad overall to be born an Oncomouse. Those few early weeks of healthy life will not counterbalance the suffering of the death from cancer. Here, then, we have two welfare values in the balanc...


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