Publication date: 01/08/2008


One of the major lessons of the 20th century is a warning that explicit ethical evaluation of the implications of a new technology with significant potential to cause widespread social or physical harm should precede its widespread use. The leading example, not least because of the dire circumstances that prompted even worried experts to urge its development, is nuclear technology. However, several other industrial technologies had sufficient environmental or other consequences to increase demands that new technologies receive ethical as well as technical and economic scrutiny before they enter widespread use.

Genetic modification (GM) technology has inspired considerable concern since its initial development in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Genetic modification is based on the ability to produce recombinant DNA (rDNA) by “splicing” genes that trigger emergence of some desired trait (such as ability to produce particular nutrient or increased resistance to a particular disease) present in the DNA of one organism into the DNA of another to produce a new DNA sequence that will yield a plant or organism of the latter type that also has the desired trait. Since its introduction genetic modification has been touted as a major – even revolutionary – advance over earlier forms of creating new plant varieties through hybridization because it allows much more specific selection of traits. It is also seen as revolutionary because it is a “deeper” technology: hybridization works at the level of whole organisms; GM operates at the more basic level of individual genes.

Like the other forms of “biotechnology” – tissue culturing, cloning, adding synthetic ingredients or inputs to the cultivation, husbandry, or processing of feeds and foods, GM technology inspires all the main forms of ethical concern that arise with new ways of handling physical objects: about impacts on the natural environment, about impacts on human health and physical well-being, about distributional consequences, about processes of decision-making regarding whether and if so when to use the technology.

Philosophers, ethicists, and others have expressed four types of objections to GM technology. Objections of the first type are what ethicists call “intrinsic objections” and involve claims that developing and using some technology is inherently wrong regardless of the results of doing so. The others are “extrinsic objections” involving claims that the technology (or action) is not inherently wrong but can be wrong if it causes or contributes to morally unacceptable situations or outcomes.

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