Bioethics Blogs

A Drive-By Shot at the Concept of “Liberal Neutrality”

A couple of writings by Gregory Kaebnick, the editor of the Hastings Center Report, have my attention these days, and I hope to deal with them in my next few posts.  For the moment, I intend to seize on one point he makes in “Engineered Microbes in Industry and Science,” his chapter in a book he co-edited with Thomas Murray, 2013’s Synthetic Biology and Morality.  Readers of this blog will recognize that I have been slogging through that one.  I should say that I am finding it a fine collection, now that I am finally getting around to reading it, and I recommend it.

In the essay at hand, Keabnick defends synthetic biology, at least when practiced on microbes, from the charge that it fundamentally changes the human relationship to nature.  To do so, he construes that charge in three ways, rebutting each construal:  that, with synthetic biology, humans are directly devaluing life, inappropriately elevating humans by “stepping outside their proper role in the cosmos,” or inappropriately violating other living things.  The argument parallels his 2010 comments to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, and merit greater treatment, for another writing than this post.

A focus of Kabenick’s objection to these criticisms is that, whether they are theistic or from a thoroughgoing environmentalism (i.e., pagan[?]), they are fundamentally metaphysical, and therefore dubious considerations to guide public policy.  In this, he invokes the fairly standard liberal neutrality argument.  But I find the way he does that a bit curious:

“Public policy should not endorse [metaphysical] views if by so doing it would also exclude views that are also compatible with the basic principles of a liberal society.

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.