Agbioview - Combined Posting
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Three postings below
From: "Hector Quemada"
My comment is not directly related to the bioethics issues, but a
to the superweed question. My opinions: Just because there is
wild/weedy relatives, there is no link that allows anyone to conclude
superweeds will arise. One has to demonstrate that the traits
in contributing greater invasiveness or greater difficulty in
These traits are not necessarily the same as traits that confer
advantage, or even traits that allow a wild relative from overcoming
population control. So then, what is a superweed? I don't
that's been explicitly defined, but just another catchphrase cooked
critics. But beyond that, what traits presently being
plants really present the risk of making wild relatives more
From: Gary L Comstock <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: ethics
Thanks for your thoughts.
You and Dr. Apel are certainly correct; humanity disagrees about
there is a moral High Authority, as you've helpfully put it.
among those who agree that there is one, these "believers"
themselves on at least some of the tenets that the Authority
recommends. So, we start with the fact of moral
disagreement. But from
the fact of subjective disagreement it surely does not follow that
no objective truth of the matter. There may or may not be any
truth; it all depends on the strength of the arguments.
Consider a different area in which there is widespread and active
disagreement. Some physicists believe that the fundamental
the universe are matter. Others believe they are energy.
Now, there mere
fact that physicists disagree about such an important issue should
us throw up our hands, declare the matter irresolvable, and think
no truth to the matter. It should make us roll up our sleeves
and go to work.
So in ethics. Some think abortion is permissible; some
don't. The mere
fact of disagreement about such an important issue should not be
as some kind of argument that there is no truth to the matter.
rather provide us with a beginning rather than an ending
point. Fortunately, we have solid beginning points both in
science and ethics.
In physics, there are literally billions of low-level observations we
make about the mid-level (that is, observable to the naked eye)
and about these observations there is virtually no disagreement at
all. From these widely shared observation points one can begin
hypotheses, principle and eventually theories that hold out the hope,
least, of resolving the (relatively few, when compared to the vast
of agreed observations) high-level disagreements in physics.
So in ethics. I know of no one in any culture who disagrees
with the claim
that it is wrong, morally as well as legally, to stick pins in babies
for no other reason than to see whether they will scream. This
is not an
isolated example; we could fill the walls in my office with such
truisms about what is universally accepted as morally wrong
the walls in your office with moral truisms about what is
accepted as morally right actions. From these points of
agreement, we might then begin to try to form ethical theories that
eventually resolve the (relatively few, when compared to the number
agreed judgments) high-level disagreements in ethics (about
You are surely right that ethicists do not carry more authority than
in these areas. Ethicists are trained to help people avoid
in reasoning about ethics, not to conk them over the head with
answers. That is why people in the GMO debate who want only to
the (ignorant) public to accept GMOs ought to hire experts in
relations, not ethicists. Ethicists will always be asking
wanting others to do so as well. The critical point is
that in ethics,
unlike p.r., and like physics and molecular biology, people's
not determine the truth of the matter.
I urge you, therefore, to be more deliberate in your reasoning.
example, regarding humans and nonhumans. It is surely correct
humans engage in moral reasoning. It does not follow from that
only humans have moral standing. (An individual with moral
standing is one
whose interests must be taken into account whenever a moral agent
considering taking an action that will either advance or impend
interests of the individual in question.) Nonhumans who do
not engage in
moral reasoning may (or may not) have moral standing. Were this
then humans who do not engage in moral reasoning (infants, young
the mentally retarded, the senile) would lack moral standing.
And that is
Another example, regarding what is best for the most people.
theorists agree with you that this is the fundamental moral
theorists disagree, however, pointing out that what is best for the
people might require the sacrifice of innocent individual
theorists believe that protecting the integrity of innocent
humans is more basic than maximizing the ratio of utility over
for the maximum number. Things are not as obvious in ethics as
you and Dr.
Apel seem to think.
I humbly make the same recommendation to you that I made to Dr. Apel,
you do a little reading in the area. I would hestitate to begin
experts in genomics how silly and simple their enterprise were
having even the most rudimentary grasp of the basic issues and
the field. A good place to start here would be with James
Elements of Moral Philosophy."
With this I must, unfortunately, extricate myself from this
With every good wish (including the wish that I were writing from
At 11:05 PM 04/04/2000 -0500, Andrew Apel
I agree with you wholeheartedly. I accept your chiding, but I
consider ethics a suspect branch of philosophy because, as you point
out, humanity can't any more agree on a Higher Authority than it can
agree on what is good for folks generally. Both are moving targets,
and subject to the whims of politics and the advances of science and
culture. Bottom line, the victory in such disputes goes to the
winner, and the victory is never better than temporary. I would write
a more complete response, but it is late in the evening and tomorrow
I will be out of the office for five days.
"Beyersdorf, Mike" wrote:
Forgive me for singling you two learned
gentlemen out from the AgBioView pack, but I felt that this message
might not have value for most of that group. I must report my selfish
aim in this endeavor is to seek my own enlightenment rather than the
group's. While I am a plant breeder rather than a philosopher, this
While I might chide Mr. Apel for his attack ("suspect branch of
philosophy at best"), on ethics as a subject matter, I agree
with the premise that ethics is based on what people "like"
or "don't like." I think that ethics is, in fact, a branch
of human philosophy, and as such it's tenets must be based on what is
best for humans as opposed to gazelles or porpoises or what ever form
of being eventually supplants us. Ethicists can have no higher
authority than that which is best for the most people, therefore Mr.
Apel's comments regarding what people like and don't like ring true
for me, taking a rather broad view of the meaning of the word
"like". I would be very interested to read what authority
you would cite instead of "best for most people".
Certainly we can't cite a higher authority, because again
humanity cannot agree on even whether such authority exists. We can't
even cite "what is best for humanity" because we cannot
agree on what that might be. For instance; it may be best for the
human race to genetically manipulate our bodies to better withstand
the rigors of space travel. We can't possibly know when spaceship
earth might crash somehow, making somewhere else our only option. But
as our population continues to rise, it is almost certainly NOT in
humanities best interest to limit the exploration of technology. We
surpassed our ability to subsistence farm on planet earth some three
billion people ago.
I would also disagree with the ethical
lines you would draw for those who practice the profession of
biotechnology. For one thing, you use the word "develop"
where I would use "release", words that have very different
meanings in the research community. You don't feel it is ethical to
develop so called super weeds, so would you deny my search for a
super food source? One avenue of research would parallel the
development of super weeds. For another; the major issue being used
against Ag biotechnology is it's effect on the environment where well
intentioned people are split on whether any particular product is
adverse in it's effects. You wish to draw a line that humanity could
never agree on even if we could agree on the need for such a line.And
for lack of a higher authority, I'm afraid that I have to agree with
Mr. Apel that ethics probably doesn't solve our problems except as
they are practiced by individuals.
Aloha from the desk of Mike Beyersdorf
Kihei, Hawaii Research Station
Monsanto - Ag Technology
Subject: Re: NESCIENCE, NOT SCIENCE, FROM THE ACADEMY : NAS Biotech
I am quite amazed at some of the reactions to NAS report. Given all
limitations of Constitutionms of Commitee, I had critiqued the report
entirely opposite ground for a paper I have been curently writing on
Environment ( Incidentally I am not opposed to Biotech, on the
contrary I am
accused by many to be too optimistic about the biotech's promise
a) the ethical and professional standards require that instead of
word"urge" for change in EPA's policy, the NAS committee
should have required
such a change. I interpreted it as too soft.
b) It did take into acount considerable evidence ( i have read
only the summary
because link for report did not work) about environmental and health
yet it sort of did not indicate any need for inviogorated synthesis
and make a definitive statement about those risks.
c) Since this report will set the trend for discussion in many third
counries not having adequate capabilities to estimate risk (in Africa
parts of the world, the rigour and precision of its judgmnets did not
I agree that scrutiny should match the quantum of risks but the
occurance of risk that is the probability over time, space, species
of living environment also will determine how much scrutiny is
I request colleagues more knowledgeable than me to enlighten us about
views about the liberal attitute of report because ( as Miller
membership was too "biased" towards EPA.