"Ethics in Modern Biology"
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Offered Spring, 2001
Robert Streiffer, Ph. D.
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Course Overview; History of Biotechnology and its
Regulation; Recombinant DNA Techniques
I will go over administrative details, provide a quick overview of
the content and requirements of the course, and provide a brief
history of biotechnology. I will also provide a lay-introduction to
background biology, the basics of recombinant DNA technology, and an
introduction to the regulatory framework governing biotechnology. To
get started on the ethics side, we will read an early article by
Stephen Stitch, a philosopher who analyzes and critiques the main
moral arguments which were being made towards the beginning of the
Technology Studies, Risk Assessment, and Pesticide Producing Crops
In addition to readings which provide a relatively neutral framework
for assessing technology, we will also look at both pro- and
anti-technology views. Technology studies emphasize, among other
things, unintended consequences of adopting technology that tend to
be overlooked, and consequences of adopting technology that have
so-called revenge effects, effects which undermine the original
purpose for which the technology was adopted. As an aid to
understanding these views on technology, we will look at the impact
of Bt-producing crops on the monarch butterfly as an example of an
unintended consequence, and we will look at the argument that the use
of pesticide producing crops will result in pesticide resistant pests
as an example of a revenge effect.
Contractualism and the Imposition of Risk
We will look at an ethical theory known as contractualism, and use it
to explore the question of what the moral principles are for
determining how large a benefit must be in order to justify a given
level of risk when utilizing biotechnology. According to
contractualism, morality requires each of us to be able to justify
our actions to others on principles that it would be unreasonable for
them to reject. Obviously, it would not be unreasonable for someone
to reject a principle which allowed me to impose any kind of risk
upon them that I wanted, and so contractualism does not allow me to
do so. But it would be unreasonable for someone to reject a principle
which never allowed me to impose any kind of risk upon them
whatsoever, and so contractualism permits me to impose some risks on
others. After looking at some of the risks various kind of
biotechnology impose, we will try to see what we can do by way of
coming up with a reasonable middle ground.
Week 7. Patenting Life
The standard consequentialist justification for the patent system is
that allowing patents on any patentable subject matter that is
useful, novel, and nonobvious promotes technological innovation by
increasing expected profits and thereby attracting funding for useful
research and development. In this section, we will look at the kind
of ethical theory known as consequentialism, of which utilitarianism
is a prominent example, and analyze the consequentialist
justification for patenting biotechnology. Many people also object to
patenting kinds of living organisms on non-consequentialist grounds,
and we will analyze the main non-consequentialist objections as well.
Methods and Uses of Animal Biotechnology
As a prerequisite to focusing on ethical issues arising from the
application of biotechnology to animals, we will survey the methods
and uses of animal biotechnology.
Consequentialist Considerations regarding Animal Biotechnology
In this section, we examine the main consequentialist considerations
regarding animal biotechnology, including issues of human safety,
animal welfare, and sociological effects.
regarding Animal Biotechnology
Many people believe that even if certain kinds of animal
biotechnology would be beneficial, they are nonetheless morally
unacceptable. In this section, we will analyze the main
non-consequentialist objections to certain kinds of animal
Alleged Regulatory Failures
The public has a profound distrust of many of the biotechnology
companies and, to a certain extent, this has spilled over onto the
regulatory agencies as well. As a prelude to looking at procedural
and democratic considerations, we will look at some of the
allegations of misconduct or neglect that have been made against the
biotech companies and regulatory agencies, and some of the ethical
arguments which might be deployed in the hopes of justifying conduct
which at least appears to be suspect.
Procedural and Democratic
Some of the objections voiced by the public are not so much about the
particular governmental decisions that have been made regarding
biotechnology as they are about the political process by which those
decisions, right or wrong, were made. In this section, we look at
different conceptions of democracy with an aim to exploring the
question of how such decisions should be made. We will explore the
extent to which representatives must defer to the public's
preferences, the role that public deliberation plays in a democracy,
and the role that experts should play in a democracy.
Robert Streiffer, Ph. D.
Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Philosophy Department, UW-Madison
5185 Helen C. White Hall, 600 N. Park St.
Madison, WI 53706-1475
Medical Ethics Address
Program in Medical Ethics, UW-Madison
1411 Medical Sciences Center, 1300 University Ave.
Madison, WI 53706-1532
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