Taking Precautions

A common argument by ethicists concerned about the implications of bleeding-edge biotechnologies is an appeal to what is called the “precautionary principle.”  This appeal is particularly prominent on the European continent.  It attempts to raise concerns about the metaphysical, essential nature of a new technology, as opposed to the more pragmatist (and consequentialist) approach taken in Britain and the U.S.  I suppose that split should be considered reflective of difference in post-Enlightenment philosophy, and therefore not surprising.

Critics of the precautionary principle don’t give it much respect, treating it as too reflexively conservative, too influenced by hypothetical scenarios, and too quick to lead to conclusions that are too restrictive—for example, concerns about genetically modified organisms that, are claimed to be monstrous by the precautionary folks, and not much of a practical issue by their more pragmatic, “proactionary” counterparts.

Although he never uses the phrase, I take the essay “Creating Life: Synthetic Biology and Ethics” by the German medical ethicist Joachim Boldt, in the 2013 book, Synthethic Biology and Morality, to be a defense of the precautionary principle.  Boldt is concerned about applying synthetic biology—the fusion of engineering and biology—even to single-celled organisms, as Dr. J. Craig Venter’s group did in 2010 with its famous exercise of “creating life” by placing a lab-synthesized genome of one species of Mycoplasma into the cytoplasm of a second species, transforming the latter, phenotypically, to express the characteristics of the “genome-donating” species.  Venter’s was a “top down” exercise in which he manipulated already-existing life—prompting his claims to have “created life” to be refuted by the Nobel laureate Sidney Brenner, who called Venter “a sort of forger” in front of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (PCSBI).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.