Bennett Foddy

Bennett Foddy

Bennett Foddy on ethics and synthetic biology

Sometimes science reveals distinctions to be false. Time and space were thought to be distinct, separate things, until Einstein showed that they were fundamentally intertwined. Graphite and diamond were thought to be made of distinct substances, until [Smithson] Tennant showed that they would release the same gas when burned.

In a similar way, progress in the field of synthetic biology is eroding the longstanding moral and theoretical distinctions we make between life and machinery. The recent breakthrough by [Craig] Venter‘s group proves that life may be built from its component parts, and set into motion, just like inanimate machinery. No divine spark is required, no soul need be blown into the cells. Life no longer even requires a parent or progenitor.

One of the most widespread and longstanding moral beliefs is that there is an important difference between living organisms and inanimate machines. Nearly everybody agrees that there are moral boundaries on our treatment of living things. For vegetarians or vegans, this may include a belief that we should never intentionally kill another living being. For others, it may include a belief that we ought never to interfere with the cellular mechanics of a living being, as we do when we produce genetically-modified foods.

By contrast, nobody thinks that it is wrong to destroy, create, or tamper with a machine — even if the machine in question is exceedingly complex. This moral distinction is put in crisis by the synthetic biology projects of Venter and others. Going forward, we will need to find a more meaningful moral distinction than the line between the animate and the inanimate. Failing that, we are faced with an unacceptable set of alternatives: either to grant machines the moral status we currently accord to living things, or to treat living things in the manner of machines.
Bennett Foddy in his post “Synthetic biology: eroding the moral distinctions between animate and inanimate.” on the blog “Practical Ethics: Ethical Perspectives on the News” affiliated with the University of Oxford (May 20, 2010 at 19:05). Cited by Wildcat2030 on the Tumblr blog “A Momentary Flow” (May 22, 2010). Cited by @Wildcat2030 on Twitter (May 22, 2010 6:34am). Cited by @amishare at Lapidarium.

Related Media: Craig Venter unveils “synthetic life” (, May 2010)