Framing the Synthetic Biology Ethics Debate

In an opinion piece posted on Monday, Claire Marris and Nikolas Rose (sociologists at King’s College, London) argue that the ethics debate over synthetic biology needs to “get real” and focus on the current applications of the technology. Check out the article here.

Commentators instead focus on potential reckless use or misuse, overestimate the pathogenic possibilities, and worry about deep questions such as: “Do we have the right to play God?”. These worries are the flip side of grand claims about synthetic biology’s imminent ability to solve challenges in health, environment and energy. Utopias and dystopias seem to be the only scenarios possible.

This way of framing discussions is unhelpful. It is an example of “speculative ethics” that distracts us from less exciting but more pressing questions. What are synthetic biologists actually doing? How easy, or difficult, is it proving? What applications are they realistically going to develop in the short to medium term? What is their intended purpose, and to what extent could these contribute to the public good?

Posted on in Opinions Leave a comment