controversy & ethics

Christine von Weizsaecker fweizsae at
Thu Feb 9 14:07:07 EST 1995

In article <aquilla.1141956093A at>,
aquilla at (Tracy Aquilla) wrote:

:This is a technical issue. Where's the 'ethics' here? Is it intrinsically
:'wrong' to alter plant or pest populations by our cultural practices? If so,
:how does genetic engineering differ from what we have been doing for
:thousands of years? Is this any different from the eradication of the
:smallpox virus?

:This one is an economic issue, again, no ethics. The question here appears
:to be, is it wrong to 'depress' the economies of struggling countries, and
:again, hasn't this been done for years without any genetic engineering? How
:does this differ from making strides in yields through more  'conventional'
:    Tracy

Dear Tracy,

This is a very surprising argument: As soon as somebody defines a problem
as technical or economic ethics has to move out. The fact that a knife is
a technology does not mean that we do not have to differentiate between
"good" and "bad" uses. We also have to differentiate between different
technological tools. At best they are ambivalent like the kitchen knife
which can be abused for murder. At worst they are machine guns which do
not lend themselves easily to the preparation of a good meal. The same
applies for economics unless we adhere to a certain form of economic
fundamentalism, defining economic laws as good in themselves. One new
ethical point certainly is that there is a new dimension of directed and
willful intervention for which there is a special responsibility. If the
effects of an action do not hit the actor directly but have an enlarged
radius in time and space this increases the "ethical" problem.

Mega-technologies like genetic engineering have a hugely increased radius
in time and space. "Learning in time" is not readily available. The
application of the precautionary principle therefore is more urgent than
in "slow" and "local" processes. All these are "ethical" questions. -
Unless, of course, ethics is being reduced to the status of
"court-advisor" busy legitimising the perpetrators instead of fighting
possible victimization. So far ethics had a strong element of the latter,
being the precautionary voice of the possible victims. 

The new ethics discussion which in many instances leaves this old
tradition very often does not earn the name of ethics. The possible
victims are affected by technology and economics. So why stop the
discussion here. The special effects of genetic engineering will perhaps
show up more clearly if we discuss case by case and step by step.


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