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Modified Natural-Law Approach to Genetic Technologies

Wesley Wildman - Assoc. Professor, Boston University

Steps toward a Bioethical Compass

  • Designing a bioethical compass
  • Using the bioethical compass to decide when we have strayed off course
  • Using the bioethical compass to decide how to stay on course
  • Challenges for our bioethical compass

Step 1

  • Designing a moral compass

Is a Bioethical Compass Desirable?

  • In a maze of social policy options, legal battles, and technological advance, philosophical ethics can seem too slow and too arbitrary to be useful.
  • Orientation to moral paths comes from the groups to which we belong and the traditional perspectives that inspire those groups, not generic moral compasses.
  • But to guide public debate between groups and across traditions we need more that lots of opinions of lots of traditions.

Features of a Bioethical Compass

  • Capable of detecting the objective moral magnetic field of right and wrong, if there is one.
  • Able to win near-universal consensus across cultures so that it can facilitate public debate and judicious social policy.
  • Tells us when we are off course and when we have gone too far.
  • Helps us decide which course we should take when we need to make her decisions.

Securing these Characteristics

  • The magnetic north of the best ethical compasses of the past is the conception of the “natural.”
  • The “natural” seems unavailable for public debate in bioethics.
    Consciousness of historical and cultural variation has made “the natural” seem   socially constructed.
    Evolutionary biology, AI, and biotechnologies have challenged the very meaning of natural kinds.
    If past assumptions about the natural have been correct, little of what has actually happened in biotechnology would even have been possible.

Natural Law Revisited

  • Natural law ethics is needed to guide public debate even though any particular natural law system cannot do the job alone.
  • We neen a clear sense of the natural to get a modified natural law ethics going.
  • Begin with descriptions of nature offered by modern science, which is as close as we can come to a global language.
  • This will not be enough but it is a start.
  • The philosophical point
    Adopting conceptual framework that allows for the possibility of objective moral norms-without simply assuming them-is the way to preserve the possibility of registering such norms.
  • The practical point
    Formulate a viable conception of the natural via science and escape from intractable metaphysical disagreements of particular religious and cultural traditions.

Step 2

  • Deciding when we have strayed off course

Criteria for Detecting Failures

  • Human rights
  • Sanctity of nature
    Dignity of animals
    Information beyond the reach of patent protection
  • Distributive justice considerations
    Including fair access to therapeutic technologies
    Preferential treatment for those with the greatest suffering

Seeking Crosscultural Consensus

  • Consensus on criteria is an empirical question
  • United Nations “Universal Declaration on Human Rights”(1948)
    Universal agreement problematic
    Impressive consensus nonetheless
  • Key the shift to human rights language
    Helpfully masks deep disagreements that don’t matter as much for public policy debates
  • Global ecology dialogue: similar shift to intrinsic value of nature language
  • This process will work (Annas, Grodin, Gilman)
    Extend both kinds of “policy-level” language
    Use dialogue procedures to produce agreement at level of policy language
  • This is natural law in a vague sense, much less metaphysically loaded than specific views of natural that underlie the policy-level consensus.

Effective Corrective Procedures

  • Mechanisms for whistle-blowing
    At least limited free press and free speech
    Democratic processes of decision making (Andresen)
    Checks and balances in appointments and structures
  • Mechanisms for making whistle-blowing socially and economically effective
    International tribunals supported by treaties
    This is largely uncharted territory

Prudence about Human Corruption

  • Human beings regularly sacrifice justice to power.
  • Human beings are capable of extraordinary evil.
  • Human societies produce disastrous consequences unintended by any individuals.
  • If something can go wrong, it probably will

Step 3

  • Deciding which Course to Take

A Natural-law Criterion for Exploring Genetic Technologies

“What nature does in the evolutionary process, human beings ought to do also, as we are able.”

  • Licenses genetic experimentation and therapy while closely constraining it.
  • Focuses on the natural in terms of nature’s processes, evading weaknesses of earlier versions of natural-law ethics
  • Current phrases express this criterion:
    “Playing God in an appropriate way” (Shannon)
    “Created co-creator” (Hefner)
  • Requirements in using the positive criterion
    We need to know what is adaptive, given a particular evolutionary niche
    We need to decide which niches we wish to be adapted for

Determining what is Adaptive

  • The ultimate technical and scientific challenge
  • Knowledge required to make such decision responsibly is staggeringly complex:
    Extensive knowledge of both genome and protein function
    A known protein may have an unknown function
    Experimentation is crucial but potentially devastating in its consequences
  • Continued research and caution is required

Determining Desirable Life-Niches

  • The ultimate social engineering challenge.
  • Must take account of:
    Species survival in unexpected circumstances
    Individual flourishing
    Species flourishing
    Individual survival
  • Public policy debate of these issues is essential.

Step 4

  • Challenges for Our Bioethical Compass

Requirements for Using our Bioethical Compass

  • Development of policy-level language about rights and inherent value of nature
  • Protection of dialogue processes linking policy-level language to languages of specific groups
  • Broadening social procedures for making whistle-blowing effective
  • Ongoing scientific research (what is adaptive?)
  • Beginning public debate over the future (what life niches do we want to be adapted for?)
  • Remembering human propensity to corruption

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Boston University. Video adapted from the Issues for the Millennium Workshop

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