Ethics and Philosophy of SynBio
== Synthetic biology <--> philosophical questions ==
Synthetic biological research is based on a whole suite of underlying philosophical assumptions. For instance, two of the central tenets of small systems synthetic biology are modularity and the standardization of functional parts.
So, where does the philosophy come in?, you may ask. Small systems synthetic biology is premised on the idea that the biological world has a particular structure and that structure is modular, e.g. that living organisms have a modular organization. The premise of biological modularity is an ontological claim.It is a premise about how the world is structured or organized. But it is a philosophical premise that can be tested in practice.
The concepts of modularity and standardization of parts used within synthetic biology both frame future investigations and serve to define it as a discipline.
In addition to ontological questions there are also epistemological questions (questions about the nature of knowledge--how do we acquire knowledge) and ethical questions (how should we act/behave):
Epistemological questions What can synthetic biology tell us about how biological systems work or how they function?
Ontological questions What kinds of things are synthetically produced pathways, parts, modules, or whole organisms?
Ethical questions How should we act? What research should we pursue? How do we treat/behave towards the products of synthetic biology research?
Normative Ethical questions can be understood to come in three general varieties. Here's the simple taxonomy of ethical approaches:
Deontological approaches: duties or rules Consequentialist approaches: consequences of actions Virtue ethics approaches: moral character
For further elaborations see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy under "ethics" or James Rachels "Elements of Moral Reasoning"
Ethics and Philosophy of SynBio-- 4 case studies:
The 2013 GCAT SynBio Workshop Participants focused on 4 case studies:
In each, they identified philosophical and ethical issues, concerns, and impacts of this new synbio research and technology:
For each case, participants considered the following questions:
What can this tell us about how biological systems work or how they function? (ontological questions)
What kinds of things or entities could be produced—and how would you classify them? And on the basis of what methodology? (epistemological and methodological questions)
How should the products, pathways, platform technologies produced be developed or treated? What should they be used for—are there things they shouldn’t be used for? How do we treat/behave towards the products of these pathways or the data produced? (ethical questions)