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Ethics commentary – Fraught with peril

One issue emerging from the recent media circus over Craig Venter’s apparent creation of a synthetic life form is the potential danger … of ethics commentary itself.

Many of the headlines emphasised ethicists’ concerns about the development, often referring to clichéd “Playing God” fears even when the (often atheist) ethicists were actually raising more mundane concerns about weighing up potential risks and benefits.

There are two elements that contribute to the pervasive exaggeration of fear and risk that often accompanies new scientific discoveries. The first relates to the media itself, which is prone both to selective reporting and deliberate distortion. There were both scientists and ethicists who were on the record saying that the Venter development was no big deal – but they had much less airplay. In a paradigm example of the latter problem, an article written by one of the contributors to this blog had the phrase “it is fraught with peril” inserted by a subeditor into the middle of an article for a US newspaper. That phrase was then elevated to become the headline. The basic problem is neither new, nor surprising. The media is far more likely to report news and sound bites that are sensational (and negative) than commentary that is reasoned, considered and/or positive.

But ethicists writing or commenting on the Venter issue may also have contributed. Knowing what the media wanted to hear, there may have been a temptation to ‘sex up’ comments about the risks or ethical concerns about new developments. After all, the ethicist who is restrained, tempered and cautious in their commentary is unlikely to be quoted or to get much attention for their department or their work. And it is highly likely that the media will be able to find someone else less scrupulous who is willing to make more inflammatory soundbites.

Does this matter? One reason for worrying about it is that ethics is often taken to be about dispassionate analysis of arguments and reasons. If ethicists have a role in public debate we might reasonably expect them to present more than superficial or knee-jerk responses to topical questions (they may have a particular epistemic duty by virtue of their role). If they fail to live up to this, either because their comments are distorted, or because they have pandered to the perceived preference of journalists, there is a risk that ethicists’ comments reinforce a public perception of the dangers of scientific developments like Venter’s synthetic cell.

So what should ethicists or philosophers do when asked to comment on issues of the day? Should they retreat to the academy and refuse to enter the fray? Should they comment and take the risk of being misquoted? Perhaps one, partial, answer is provided by blogging. The new ability of philosophers to access the public in a timely way, and provide reasoned analysis and argument that is not filtered or distorted may mitigate the ethical problems of ethical commentary.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. The peril involves questions over the theory of evolution and the implication upon those who believe in creation. That a synthetic cell is created validates that life is created. The ethical question is this: do this synthetic work promote life, or is this the beginning of our destruction?

    What is evident here is that life is complex; too complex! We should be aware that the functions of cell reproduction involved here is just a copy work of existing genome reassembled from one bacterium to another. And this means that since this “creation” is not Creation, in the sense of one being able to deliberately put in the logic design and control specifically the outcome and the functions of the resulting life form, in the same way we make computers where we are able to put in logic and functions into a motherboard, there is therefore, a danger that bacteria may be created accidentally or deliberately that is very dangerous to human existence and other living forms.

    The problem is that human curiosity cannot be controlled. Just the same, it should not keep us from putting up some rules to put people in check.

  2. Dominic Wilkinson

    thanks Gabriel,

    my main point was about the risks – not of synthetic biology, but of ethicists’ comments about synthetic biology.

    You are right that there are various dangers associated with this new technology – as there are also enormous potential benefits. The relevant ethical question is about managing those dangers and risks. But I am not sure that that was the message that came across the media coverage.

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