A Brief for The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification of New Zealand
8 October 2000
Iowa State University
Ethically justifiable conclusions rest on two kinds of claims: (a) factual
judgments, based on the best available scientific evidence and theories,
and (b) ethical judgments, based on the best available moral principles
and theories. Is it ethically justifiable to pursue genetically modified
crops and foods? The decision rests ultimately with the citizens of New
Zealand who will use their conscience and reason to decide on the ethical
questions. However, as these citizens are, by and large, not scientists,
they must, to one degree or other, rest their factual understanding of
the matter on the opinions of scientific experts. Therefore, ethical responsibility
in this decision devolves heavily upon scientists.
I. The ethical responsibilities of scientists
Science is a communal process devoted to the discovery of knowledge,
and to open and honest communication of that knowledge. It rests on two
classes of values.
Epistemological values are values by which scientists determine which
knowledge-claims are better than others. The values include clarity, objectivity,
capacity to explain a range of observations, and ability to generate accurate
predictions. Claims that are internally inconsistent are jettisoned in
favor of claims that are consistent, and fit with established theories.
(At times, anomalous claims turn out to be justifiable, and an established
theory is overthrown, but these occasions are rare in the history of science.)
Epistemological values in science also include: fecundity, the ability
to generate useful new hypotheses; simplicity, the ability to explain
observations with the fewest number of additional assumptions or qualifications;
Personal honesty and social responsibility represent a second class of
values. If scientists are dishonest, untruthful, fraudulent, or excessively
self-interested, the free flow of accurate information so essential to
science will be thwarted. If a scientist plagiarizes the work of others
or uses fabricated data, that scientist's work will become shrouded in
suspicion and otherwise reliable data will not be trusted. If scientists
exploit those who work under them, or discriminate on the basis of gender,
race, class, or age, then the mechanisms of trust and collegiality under-girding
science will be eroded.
The very institution of scientific discovery, therefore, is supported,
indeed, permeated with moral values. This fact becomes important in different
ways, depending upon the scientist's social role.
University scientists must be scrupulous in giving credit for their research
to all who deserve credit; careful not to divulge proprietary information;
and painstaking in maintaining objectivity, especially when funded by
industry. Industry scientists must also maintain the highest standards
of scientific objectivity, a particular challenge since their work may
not be subject to peer-review procedures as strict as those faced by university
scientists. Industry scientists must also be willing to defend results
of their research that are not favorable to their employer's interests.
Scientists employed by nongovernmental organizations face challenges,
as well. Their objectivity must be maintained in the face of an organization's
explicit advocacy agenda, and in spite of the fact that their research
might provide results that might seriously undermine the organization's
fund-raising attempts. All scientists face the challenges of communicating
complex issues to a public that receives them through media channels that
often are not equipped to communicate the qualifications and uncertainties
attaching to much scientific information.
At its core, science is an expression of some of our most cherished values.
The public largely trusts scientists, and scientists must in turn act
as good stewards of this trust.
II. A method for addressing ethical issues
Ethical objections to GM typically center on the possibility of harm
to persons or other living things. Harm may or may not be justified by
outweighing benefits. Whether harms are justified is a question that ethicists
try to answer by working methodically through a series of questions:
1. What is the harm envisaged? Describe briefly (a) the harm or potential
harm; (b) who are the "stakeholders," that is, all of the persons
and non-persons (animals, ecosystems, other nonhuman entities) who may
be harmed; (c) the extent to which these stakeholders will be harmed;
and (d) the distribution of harms (are those at risk of being harmed the
same or different from those who may benefit?).
2. What information do we have? Sound ethical judgments go hand-in-hand
with thorough understanding of the scientific facts. In a given case,
we may need to ask: (a) Is the scientific information about harm being
presented reliable, or is it fact, hearsay, or opinion? (b) What information
do we not know that we should know before making the decision?
3. What are the options? In assessing the various courses of action,
emphasize creative problem-solving, seeking to find "win-win"
alternatives in which everyone's interests are protected. Here we must
identify (a) what objectives each stakeholder wants to obtain; (b) how
many methods are available by which to achieve those objectives; (c) what
are the advantages and disadvantages of each alternative?
4. What ethical principles should guide us? There are at least three
secular ethical traditions: a. Rights theory: Always act so that you treat
human beings as autonomous individuals, and not as mere means to an end.
b. Utilitarianism: Always act so that you maximize good consequences and
minimize harmful consequences. c. Virtue theory: Always act so that you
act the way a just, fair, good person would act.
Ethical theorists are divided about which of these three theories is
best. We manage this uncertainty through the following procedure. Pick
one of the three principles. Using it as a basis, determine its implications
for the decision at hand. Then, adopt a second principle. Determine what
it implies for the decision at hand. Repeat the procedure with the third
principle. Should all three principles converge on the same conclusion,
then we have good reasons for thinking our conclusion morally justifiable.
5. How do we reach moral closure? Does the decision we have reached allow
all stakeholders either to participate in the decision or to have their
views represented? If a compromise solution is deemed necessary in order
to manage otherwise intractable differences, has the compromise been reached
in way that has allowed all interested parties to have their interests
articulated, understood, and considered? If so, then the decision is justifiable
on ethical grounds.
III. Ethical issues involved in the use of genetic technology in agriculture
Discussions of the ethical dimensions of agricultural biotechnology are
sometimes confused by a conflation of two quite different sorts of objections
to GM technology: intrinsic and extrinsic. It is critical not only that
we distinguish these two classes, but keep them distinct throughout the
ensuing discussion of ethics. Extrinsic objections focus on the potential
harms consequent upon the adoption of GMOs. Extrinsic objections hold
that GM technology should not be pursued because of its anticipated results.
Briefly stated, the extrinsic objections go as follows. GMOs may have
disastrous effects on animals, ecosystems, and humans. Possible harms
to humans include perpetuation of social inequities in modern agriculture,
decreased food security for women and children on subsistence farms in
developing countries, a growing gap between well capitalized economies
in the Northern hemisphere and less capitalized peasant economies in the
South, risks to the food security of future generations, and the promotion
of reductionistic and exploitative science. Potential harms to ecosystems
include possible environmental catastrophe, inevitable narrowing of germplasm
diversity, and irreversible loss or degradation of air, soils, and waters.
Potential harms to animals include unjustified pain to individuals used
in research and production. These are valid concerns, and nation-states
must have in place testing mechanisms and regulatory agencies to assess
the likelihood, scope, and distribution of potential harms through a rigorous
and well-funded risk assessment procedure. It is for this reason that
I have said, above, that GM technology must be developed responsibly and
with appropriate caution. However, these extrinsic objections cannot by
themselves justify a moratorium, much less a permanent ban, on GM technology,
because they admit the possibility that the harms may be minimal and outweighed
by the benefits. How can one decide whether the potential harms outweigh
potential benefits unless one conducts the research, field tests, and
data analysis necessary to make a scientifically-informed assessment?
In sum, extrinsic objections to GMOs raise important questions about GMOs,
and New Zealand ought to have in place the organizations and research
structures necessary to assess the questions. I believe, however, that
this conclusion describes the status quo. There is, however, an entirely
different sort of objection to GM technology, a sort of objection that,
if it is sound, would indeed justify a permanent ban. Intrinsic objections
allege that the process of making GMOs is objectionable in itself. This
belief is defended in several ways, but almost all of the formulations
are related to one central claim, the unnaturalness objection: It is unnatural
to genetically engineer plants, animals, and foods (UE). If UE is true,
then New Zealand ought not to engage in bioengineering, however unfortunate
may be the consequences of halting the technology. Were a nation to accept
UE as the conclusion of a sound argument, then much agricultural research
would have to be terminated and potentially significant benefits from
the technology sacrificed. A great deal is at stake. In my book, Vexing
Nature? I identify fourteen ways in which UE has been defended. For present
purposes, those fourteen objections can be summarized as follows:
(1) To engage in ag biotech is to play God. (2) To engage in ag biotech
is to invent world-changing technology. (3) To engage in ag biotech is
illegitimately to cross species boundaries. (4) To engage in ag biotech
is to commodify life.
Let us consider each claim in turn.
(1) To engage in ag biotech is to play God.
In a western theological framework, humans are creatures, subjects of
the Lord of the Universe, and it would be impious for them to arrogate
to themselves roles and powers appropriate only for the Creator. Shifting
genes around between individuals and species is taking on a task not appropriate
for us, subordinate beings. Therefore, to engage in bioengineering is
to play God. There are several problems with this argument. First, there
are different interpretations of God. Absent the guidance of any specific
religious tradition, it is logically possible that God could be a Being
who wants to turn over to us all divine prerogatives; or explicitly wants
to turn over to us at least the prerogative of engineering plants; or
who doesnt care what we do. If God is any of these beings, then
the argument fails because playing God in this instance is not a bad thing.
The argument seems to assume, however, that God is not like any of the
gods just described. Assume that the orthodox Jewish and Christian view
of God is correct, that God is the only personal, perfect, necessarily
existing, all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful being. On this traditional
western theistic view, finite humans should not aspire to infinite knowledge
and power. To the extent that bioengineering is an attempt to control
nature itself, the argument would go, bioengineering would be an unacceptable
attempt to usurp Gods dominion. The problem with this argument is
that not all traditional Jews and Christians think that this God would
rule out genetic engineering. I am a practicing evangelical Christian
and the chair of my local Church's Council. In my tradition, God is thought
to endorse creativity, scientific and technological development, including
genetic improvement. Other traditions have similar views. In the mystical
writings of the Jewish Kabbalah, God is understood as One who expects
humans to be co-creators, technicians working with God to improve the
world. At least one Jewish philosopher, Baruch Brody, has suggested that
biotechnology may be a vehicle ordained by God for the perfection of nature.
Personally, I hesitate to think that humans can "perfect" nature.
However, I have become convinced that GM might help humans to rectify
some of the damage we have already done to nature. And I believe God may
endorse such an aim. For humans are made in the divine image. God desires
that we exercise the spark of divinity within us. Inquisitiveness in science
is part of our nature. Creative impulses are not found only in the literary,
musical, and plastic arts. They are part of molecular biology, cellular
theory, ecology, and evolutionary genetics, too. It is unclear why the
desire to investigate and manipulate the chemical bases of life should
not be considered as much a manifestation of our god-like nature as the
writing of poetry and the composition of sonatas. As a way of providing
theological content for UE, then, argument (1) is unsatisfactory because
ambiguous and contentious.
(2) To engage in ag biotech is to invent world-changing technology, an
activity that should be reserved to God alone.
Let us consider (2) in conjunction with a similar objection (2a).
(2a) To engage in ag biotech is to arrogate historically unprecedented
power to ourselves.
The argument here is not the strong one, that biotech gives us divine
power, but the more modest one, that it gives us a power we have not had
previously. But it would be counterintuitive to judge an action wrong
simply because it has never been performed. On this view, it would have
been wrong to prescribe a new herbal remedy for menstrual cramp, or to
administer a new anaesthetic. But that seems absurd. More argumentation
is needed to call historically unprecedented actions morally wrong. What
is needed is to know to what extent our new powers will transform society,
whether we have witnessed prior transformations of this sort, and whether
those transitions are morally acceptable. We do not know how extensive
the ag biotech revolution will be, but let us assume that it will be as
dramatic as its greatest proponents assert. Have we ever witnessed comparable
transitions? The change from hunting and gathering to agriculture was
an astonishing transformation. With agriculture came not only an increase
in the number of humans on the globe, but the first appearance of complex
cultural activities: writing, philosophy, government, music, the arts,
and architecture. What sort of power did people arrogate to themselves
when they moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture? The power of
civilization itself. Ag biotech is often oversold by its proponents. But
suppose that they are right, that ag biotech brings us historically unprecedented
powers. Is this a reason to oppose it? Not if we accept agriculture and
its accompanying advances, for when we accepted agriculture we arrogated
to ourselves historically unprecedented powers. In sum, the objections
stated in (2) and (2a) are not convincing.
(3) To engage in ag biotech is illegitimately to cross species boundaries.
The problems with this argument are both theological and scientific.
I will leave it to others to argue the scientific case that nature gives
ample evidence of generally fluid boundaries between species. The argument
assumes that species boundaries are distinct, rigid and unchanging while,
in fact, species now appear to be messy, plastic and mutable. To proscribe
the crossing of species borders on the grounds that it is unnatural seems
scientifically indefensible. It is also difficult to see how (3) could
be defended on theological grounds. None of the scriptural writings of
the western religions proscribe genetic engineering, of course, because
genetic engineering was undreamt of at the time the holy books were written.
Now, one might argue that such a proscription may be derived from Jewish
or Christian traditions of scriptural interpretation. Talmudic laws against
mixing "kinds," for example, might be taken to ground a general
prohibition against inserting genes from "unclean" species into
clean species. Heres one way the argument might go: For an observant
Jew to do what scripture proscribes is morally wrong; Jewish oral and
written law proscribe the mixing of kinds (e.g., eating milk and meat
from the same plate; yoking donkeys and oxen together); bioengineering
is the mixing of kinds; therefore, for a Jew to engage in bioengineering
is morally wrong. But this argument fails to show that bioengineering
is intrinsically objectionable in all of its forms for everyone. The argument
might prohibit Jews from engaging in certain kinds of biotechnical activity
but not all; it would not prohibit, for example, the transferring of genes
within a species, nor, apparently, the transfer of genes from one clean
species to another clean species. Incidentally, it is worth noting that
the Orthodox community has accepted transgenesis in its food supply. Seventy
percent of cheese produced in the United States is made using a GM product,
chymosin. This cheese has been accepted as kosher by Orthodox rabbis.
In conclusion, it is difficult to find a persuasive defense of (3) either
on scientific or religious grounds.
(4) To engage in ag biotech is to commodify life.
The argument here is that genetic engineering treats life in a reductionistic
manner, reducing living organisms to little more than machines. Life is
sacred and not to be treated as a good of commercial value only, to be
bought and sold to the highest bidder. Could we apply this principle uniformly?
Would not objecting to the products of GM technology on these grounds
also require that we object to the products of ordinary agriculture on
the same grounds? Is not the very act of bartering or exchanging crops
and animals for cash vivid testimony to the fact that every culture on
earth has engaged in the commodification of life for centuries? If one
accepts commercial trafficking in non-GM wheat and pigs, then why should
we object to commercial trafficking in GM-wheat and GM-pigs? Why should
it be wrong or us to treat DNA the way we have previously treated animals,
plants, and viruses? While (4) may be true, it is not a sufficient reason
to object to GM technology because our values and economic institutions
have long accepted the commodification of life. In conclusion. None of
the four major formulations of the unnaturalness objection (UE) to ag
biotech seem sound. Whereas I once was tempted to believe that GM technology
is morally objectionable I have, after years of study, come to reverse
myself. I changed my mind in large part because I became convinced that
intrinsic objections to agricultural biotechnology cannot be sustained.
IV. Religion and ethics
Religious traditions provide an answer to the question, "How, overall,
should I live my life?" Secular ethical traditions provide an answer
to the question, "What is the right thing to do?" When in a
pluralistic society a particular religion's answers come into genuine
conflict with the answers arrived at through secular ethical deliberation,
we must ask how deep is the conflict. If the conflict is so deep that
honoring the religion's views would entail dishonoring another religion's
views, then we have a difficult decision to make. In such cases, the conclusions
of secular ethical deliberation must over-ride the answers of the religion
in question. The reason is that granting privileged status to one religion
will inevitably discriminate against another religion. Individuals must
be allowed to follow their conscience in matters theological. But if one
religion is allowed to enforce its values on others in a way that restricts
the others' ability to pursue their values, then individual religious
freedom has not been protected. Moral theorists refer to this feature
of non-religious ethical deliberation as the over-ridingness of ethics.
If a parent refuses a life-saving medical procedure for a minor child
on religious grounds, the state is justified in over-riding the parent's
religious beliefs in order to protect what secular ethics regards as a
value higher than religious freedom: the life of a child. The over-ridingness
of ethics applies to our discussion only if a religious group claims the
right to halt GM technology on purely religious grounds. The problem here
is the confessional problem, of one group attempting to enforce its beliefs
on others. I mean no disrespect to religion; as I have noted, I am a religious
person, and I value religious traditions other than my own. Religious
traditions have been the repositories and incubators of virtuous behavior.
Yet each of our traditions must in a global society learn to co-exist
peacefully with competing religions, and with non-religious traditions
and institutions. If someone objects to GM technology on purely religious
grounds, we must ask on what authority they speak for their tradition,
whether there are other, conflicting, views within their tradition, and
whether acting on their views will entail disrespecting the views of people
from other religions. It is, of course, the right of each tradition to
decide its attitude about genetic engineering. But in the absence of other
good reasons, we must not allow someone to ban GM technology for narrowly
sectarian reasons alone. To allow such an action would be to disrespect
the views of people who believe, on equally sincere religious grounds,
that GM technology is not necessarily inconsistent with God's desires
V. Minority views
When in a pluralistic society the views of a particular minority come
into genuine conflict with the views of the majority, we must ask a number
of questions: How deep is the conflict? How has the minority been treated
in the past? If the minority has been exploited, have reparations been
made? If the conflict is so deep that honoring the minority's views would
entail overriding the majority's views, then we have a difficult decision
to make. In such cases, the conclusions of the state must be just, taking
into account the question of past exploitation and subsequent reparations,
or lack thereof. This is a question of justice. The question of justice
would arise in the discussion of GM technology if the majority favored
GM technology, while the minority claimed the right to halt GM technology.
If the minority cited religious arguments to halt GMOs, yet the majority
believed that halting GMOs would result in loss of human life, then the
state faces a decision very similar to the one discussed in the prior
section. In this case, secular policy decisions may be justified in over-riding
the minority's religious arguments insofar as society deems the value
of human life higher than the value of religious freedom. However, should
the minority cite past oppression as the reason that their values ought
to predominate over the majority's, then a different question must be
addressed. Here, the relevant issues have to do with the nature of past
exploitation; its scope and depth; and the sufficiency of efforts, have
there been any, to rectify the injustice and compensate victims. If the
problem is acute, long-standing, and has not been addressed, then imposing
the will of the majority would seem a sign of an unjust society insensitive
to its past misdeeds. If, on the other hand, the problem has been carefully
addressed by both sides and, for example, just treaties arrived at through
fair procedures have been put in place, are being enforced, are rectifying
past wrongs, and are preventing new forms of exploitation, then the minority's
arguments would seem to be far weaker. This conclusion would be especially
compelling if it could be shown that the lives of other disadvantaged
peoples might be put at risk by honoring a particular minority's wish
to ban GMOs.
Earlier I described a method for reaching ethically sound judgments.
It was on the basis of that method that I personally came to change my
mind about the moral acceptability of GM crops. Ten years ago, I wrote
what has been called the first philosophical objection to agricultural
biotechnology, a paper called "The Case Against bGH." I then
wrote a series of papers objecting to GM herbicide resistant crops, transgenic
animals, and, indeed, all of agricultural biotechnology. On further reflection,
however, my opinion changed as I took further account of three considerations:
(a) the rights of people in various countries to choose to adopt GM technology
(human rights principle); (b) the balance of benefits over harms to consumers
and the environment from GM technology (utilitarian principle); and (c)
the wisdom of encouraging discovery, innovation, and careful regulation
of GM technology (virtue theory). I have come to believe that the three
major ethical traditions converge on a common answer to the question before
the Royal Commission. That answer fits with my own theological beliefs.
The answer is that New Zealand should continue to research, develop and
use the technology responsibly and with appropriate caution.
I have profited from a method ("Ethics Assessment") devised
by Dr. Courtney Campbell, Philosophy Department, Oregon State University.
2 Baruch Brody, private communication.
3. William McNeill, "Gains and Losses: An Historical Perspective
on Farming," The 1989 Iowa Humanities Lecture, National Endowment
for the Humanities and Iowa Humanities Board, Oakdale Campus, Iowa City,
Iowa, p. 5. 4. Richard L. Willham, "The Legacy of the Stockman,"
Department of Animal Science, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, 1985,
5 Dr. Jonathan Gressel, observation at the annual meeting of the Weed
Science Society of America.
6. Cf. Dorothy Nelkin and M. S. Lindee, The DNA Mystique: The Gene as
Cultural Icon (New York: Freeman, 1995). References
Comstock, Gary. Life Science Ethics (Ames: Iowa State University Press,
__________ . Vexing Nature? On the ethical case against agricultural
biotechnology (Boston/Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, forthcoming).
__________ . "The Rights of Animals and Family Farmers," Between
the Species 7 (Summer 1992): 153-156.
__________ . "The Case Against bGH," Agriculture and Human
Values 5 (Summer 1988): 36-52.
__________ . "Genetically Engineered Herbicide Resistance, Part
One," Journal of Agricultural Ethics 2 (1989): 263-306, and "Part
Two," 3 (1990): 114-146.
__________ . "The Costs and Benefits of bGH May Not Be Distributed
Fairly," Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 4 (1991):
__________ . "Pigs and Piety: A Theocentric Perspective on Food
Animals," Between the Species 8 (Summer 1992): 121-135.
__________ . "Should We Genetically Engineer Hogs?" Between
the Species 8 (Fall 1992): 196-202.
__________ . "The Moral Irrelevance of Autonomy," Between the
Species 8 (Winter 1992): 15-27.
__________ . "Do Agriculturalists Need a New, an Ecocentric, Ethic?"
Agriculture and Human Values 12 (Winter 1995): 2-16.
__________ . "Is it Unnatural to Genetically Engineer Plants?"
Weed Science 46 (1998): 647-651.
__________ . "Research with Transgenic Animals: Obligations and
Issues" The Journal of BioLaw and Business 2 (Autumn 1998): 51-54.
Reiss, Michael, and Roger Straughan. Improving Nature: The Science and
Ethics of Genetic Engineering (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
Shrader-Frechette, Kristin. Risk and Rationality: Philosophical Foundations
for Populist Reforms (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).
Thompson, Paul. "Pragmatism and Policy: The Case of Water,"
in Eric Katz and Andrew Light, eds, Environmental Pragmatism (London:
Routledge, 1996), pp. 187-208.
__________ . Designing Animals: Ethical Issues for Genetic Engineers,"
Journal of Dairy Science, 75 (1992): 2296.
__________ . Food Biotechnology in Ethical Perspective (London: Blackie,