Skip to content

Synthetic biology: eroding the moral distinctions between animate and inanimate.

Sometimes science reveals distinctions to be false. Time and space were thought to be distinct, separate things, until Einstein showed that they were fundamentally intertwined. Graphite and diamond were thought to be made of distinct substances, until Tennant showed that they would release the same gas when burned.

In a similar way, progress in the field of synthetic biology is eroding the longstanding moral and theoretical distinctions we make between life and machinery. The recent breakthrough by Venter's group proves that life may be built from its component parts, and set into motion, just like inanimate machinery. No divine spark is required, no soul need be blown into the cells. Life no longer even requires a parent or progenitor.

One of the most widespread and longstanding moral beliefs is that there is an important difference between living organisms and inanimate machines. Nearly everybody agrees that there are moral boundaries on our treatment of living things. For vegetarians or vegans, this may include a belief that we should never intentionally kill another living being. For others, it may include a belief that we ought never to interfere with the cellular mechanics of a living being, as we do when we produce genetically-modified foods.

By contrast, nobody thinks that it is wrong to destroy, create, or tamper with a machine — even if the machine in question is exceedingly complex. This moral distinction is put in crisis by the synthetic biology projects of Venter and others. Going forward, we will need to find a more meaningful moral distinction than the line between the animate and the inanimate. Failing that, we are faced with an unacceptable set of alternatives: either to grant machines the moral status we currently accord to living things, or to treat living things in the manner of machines.

Share on

4 Comment on this post

  1. Might there be consequences of a political nature from this progress to man-made-man. My premise is that at the root of liberal society lies a particular view of the human as a natural rights bearer who must (if the whole thing is to work) be intrinsically valuable and respectable. Such a view of the human depends on perceptions of the human that are falling away.
    We are already losing our special place in the world of animals. Humans are no longer the only creatures who invent and use tools. There is some reason to think that animals other than humans have self-concepts and not merely a desire to serve bodily needs and survive. Some economists have discerned valuing and market activity among primates. So much for the uniqueness of humans in God’s image.
    Moreover, the concept of human free will is no longer one of those “givens”, so freedom does not necessarily entail “the right to choose” in that sense. It is, for determinists, probably worthwhile because it radically decentralizes decision making in a society. But freedom still needs a further rationale, and that is supplied by the idea that humans are intrinsically valuable in some inexplicable sense. But now, if humans can be made to order, if life is something actually created by humans, and if more and more of a human being is stuff other than flesh, bone and blood, what happens to that rationale? Or will robots that look like humans, and maybe those who don’t, be accorded human rights?
    I find the whole thing scary. I’m glad I’m an old fart and not likely to see the way these concerns are dealt with in real life.

  2. The line between life and non-life has always been blurry and synthetic life is certainly making it even more blurry.

    But our current society doesn’t really care at all about the line between life and non-life. We care more about the line between humans and all other life. Vegans see animals as close enough to humans that they don’t eat them, but they still eat living things: plants.

Comments are closed.