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April 3, 2000


Further on Bioethics by Gary Comstock


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From: Gary L Comstock
Subject: on values in the GMO controversy

Response by Gary Comstock:

I have agreed with almost all of Andrew Apel's answers to the questions
about GMOs. However, I think we can do much better than his answer to
question #29. See below

(Andrew Apel wrote:
> > Q 29. Applications of biotech ranges from development of vaccines,......
> > possible to draw a line between permissible and unpermissible application
> > of biotechnology?

>Humans are prone to drawing lines wherever they wish, and often do so in
>arbitrary ways; accordingly, it is obviously possible to draw such a line.
>Trying to rationalize such a line on the basis of what is "permissible," and
>what is not, would be a difficult exercise. Humans determine what is
>permissible and impermissible based on what they like or don't like.
>Accordingly, drawing a line on that basis would ultimately be a matter of

It is possible not only to draw lines between permissible and impermissible
applications of biotech. It is possible to justify these lines on the
basis of considerations other than mere human whim. The justifications
will involve ethical considerations. For example, it is ethically
justifiable to develop applications of biotech that will, without any
adverse environmental or social consequences, help to feed hungry children;
it is ethically unjustifiable to develop applications of biotech that will
kill hungry children. Ethically justifiable to: develop GMOs that will
allow more efficient use of arable land; provide nutrients and vitamins to
malnourished people; reduce the use of synthetic chemicals in
agriculture. Ethically unjustifiable to: develop GMOs that will produce
superweeds (canola genes moving into and wild brassicus); produce nut
proteins in soybean products; produce varieties of superfish that will
colonize marine systems and streams.

I've not here provided the ethical justifications of these lines, only
promised them. But others have provided the full justifications, see the
work, for example, of Paul Thompson of Purdue University. Those of us
genuinely interested in the GMO debate, including scientists and public
relations folk, would do well to study such works before asserting that
lines can only be drawn on the basis of mere whim or opinion. We don't
draw lines simply on the basis of what we like and don't like. We also
draw lines based on considerations having to do with moral facts, such as
individual human rights, the duty not to do harm to innocents, the duty to
take into consideration the beauty, integrity, and balance of nature, the
duty to help liberate the oppressed and to maximize the ratio of good over
evil in the world.

Gary Comstock
Coordinator, Bioethics Program
Iowa State University


>Date: Fri, 31 Mar 2000 10:59:27 -0600
>From: Andrew Apel
>I partially agree with Dr. Comstock's disagreement with my assertions
>regarding mthe permissibility of various applications of biotechnology.
>I agree only to the extent that popular agreement would make it patently
>obvious that the use of GMOs to preserve the environment and feed the
>starving > are ethically justifiable. With the rest, I must respectfully
>disagree. Ethics
>is a suspect branch of philosophy at best, and responsible for injecting
>(as it .has here) more disputes than it is capable of resolving, much
>The fact of the matter is, we ethically justify protecting the environment
>because we like the environment, and want to live in a nice one. We ethically
>justify feeding the starving when we want to; on the other hand, we ethically
>justify starving populations when we don't like them.
>Ethics is primarily a method for post-hoc rationalizing of human taste.
>Fundamentally, humans and the human race have no choice other than to do what
>they want; that is a given, and no amount of rationalization will change
>that. I would personally relegate the field of ethics as it is currently
>practiced to an elegant sort of hand-wringing. In the field of biotech,
>>especially in this political atmosphere, we need pragmatics, not ethics.


Response by Gary Comstock:

I'm confused.

In my experience, most defenders of ag biotech genuinely desire to be on
solid scientific ground when asserting their optimism about GMOs. They
also want to be on solid moral ground. With all due respect, Dr. Apel's
attempt at discussing ethics below, displays an unfortunate
naievete. Ethics is a branch of philosophy more than two millenia old. It
has attracted the talents of nearly every great philosopher, remarkably few
of whom have reached the skeptical conclusion implied in Apel's comments
that there are no objective standards of right and wrong, only things we
"like" or "don't like." Thoughtful defenders of GMOs will want to be more
deliberate. This is true for pragmatic as well as academic reasons. We
owe the public an honest effort to respect the public's intuitive sense
that there are moral standards. Putting some effort into coming up to
speed on the voluminous literature of ethical inquiry will prevent
thoughtful defenders of GMOs from putting themselves in the position of
printing such non sequiters as:

>The fact of the matter is, we ethically justify protecting the environment
>because we like the environment, and want to live in a nice one. We ethically
>justify feeding the starving when we want to; on the other hand, we ethically
>justify starving populations when we don't like them.

No ethicist to my knowledge, especially the pragmatists, would use the word
"ethically" in the way Dr. Apel proposes to use it here. It does no work;
it muddies rather than clarifies. To see why, simply remove the word from
each of Apel's two sentences. Now, you have two plausible claims. Insert
the word, and you have introduced confusion. Used in Apel's way, the word
does little but spin and glitter. I know of no ethicist, pragmatist or no,
who would recommend proceeding in this fashion.

The GMO controversy deserves to proceed according to the best scientific
analysis available. That usually comes from scientists. It also deserves
to proceed according to the best ethical analysis available. Hence, my
confusion. What do pragmatic defenders of GMOs think they will gain by
alienating potential philosophical allies?

Gary Comstock

Response by Gary Comstock:

At 01:53 PM 03/31/2000 -0600, Andrew Apel wrote:
>Bringing values
>into the controversy will only complicate it.

Don't you just hate it when that happens?

Unfortunately, the GMO controversy is already, and by definition,
complicated. Wishing it otherwise, alas, will not make it so, no matter
how loudly or with what force of conviction one wishes it. Values are the
very reason that there is a controversy. Take the public's values,
consumers' fears, environmentalists' concerns, etc. out of the picture,
restrict your sample pool to molecular biologists and their public
relations people in the biotech industry and, presto chango, no
controversy. Bringing values into the controversy does not make it a
"complicated" controversy; it simply points us to the phenomenon that is
the controversy.

Let's be scientific about this. The GMO debate intrinsically consists of
wonderfully variable, and wonderfully valuable, desires, values, and
interests. There is the scientists' interest in defending the virtues of
detachment, universality, honesty, transparency, replicability, and
objectivity; their devotion to the cause of developing scientific theories
with explanatory comprehensiveness, simplicity, elegance, fecundity, and so
on. Then there is the parents' interest in defending the safety of their
children's food; the environmentalists' interest in defending the integrity
of natural processes; the consumers' interest in obtaining safe and
nutritious things to eat. Notice that among these wonderfully valuable
interests, the scientists' values are no less, and no more, privileged than
the others. All of us, when we discuss scientific matters, want to exhibit
the best scientific virtues listed above. All of us, or, I should say most
of us, when we discuss ethical matters, want to exhibit the best moral
values listed above. What won't do is for scientists to declare their
enterprise value-free and so implicitly demean the other enterprises.

For someone to imply that only their set of values are beyond reproach is
to imply that others's interests don't count. This attitude is parochial
at best. I will leave it to the imagination to decide what it can become
at worst.

Complicated things like the genome of maize and the ecosystem of Mauai
require elaborate, complicated, interdisciplinary attempts to understand
them. The controversy over GMO is by definition more complicated than
genomes and ecosystems because it involves both of those things plus human
interests, desires, values, hopes, aspirations, dreams, fears, social
institutions, governmental and nongovernmental organizations, and political
intrigue--as jumbled and complicated a mess as the universe affords.

To do a rigorous, scientific, job of understanding and resolving the GMO
controversy, we need to enlist the talents of good researchers in a wide
array of relevant disciplines. Those disciplines must include ethics and
philosophy, Dr. Apel's dismissive attitude toward them notwithstanding.

>The manner in which science deals with truth is, as far as we can make it,
>value-free, and we can solve the GMO controversy on that basis.

What seems clear is Dr. Apel's desire that the controversy be solved
without discussing anyone's values. Some may wish to try to dissolve the
controversy by excluding from the discussion anyone who comes to it with
their values in tow. I wish them good luck. They will need it._