Bennett Foddy on ethics and synthetic biology

Cover of the comic "Adventures in Synthetic Biology" by Drew Endy, Isadora Deese, Chuck Wadey, and The MIT Synthetic Biology Working Group as published in Nature, Volume 438, (November 24, 2005), p. 449.

Cover of the comic "Adventures in Synthetic Biology" by Drew Endy, Isadora Deese, Chuck Wadey, and The MIT Synthetic Biology Working Group as published in Nature, Volume 438, (November 24, 2005), p. 449.
Image credit: "Do-It-Yourself Biology" by David Bochner in "Findings" (Bethesda, Maryland: National Institute of General Medical Sciences, March 2007)

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)

Bennett Foddy Posted on behalf of on Sunday, May 23rd, 2010 under Quotations.


  1. HeresTomWithTheWeather says:

    i didn’t realize you could undo evolutionary moral development going back millions of years with science. either this one or the unleashing of the mosquitos is my favorite.

  2. HeresTomWithTheWeather says:

    to follow up on my short comment as it might need some explaining, my issue is with leap that physics and geology is “similar” to morality in the effect of science on it. DNA does not produce physics and geology. it does produce morality. they are not similar so, in this case, any deductive reasoning, no matter how flawless, is meaningless. book recommendation: “evolutionary origins of morality”

  3. Hi Tom, glad to see you on here.

    Let me start by saying I have no background in evolutionary perspectives on the development of human morality. I did review this review of the book you mentioned. And I’d like to talk to you more about it.

    With that said, I think it’s useful to focus on the “theoretical distinctions we make between life and machinery” as the crucible of the author’s argument challenging contemporary human ethics and morality. The author seems to assume that erosion of any moral distinctions we make between life and machinery naturally follows from a shift in our semiosis, a shift in our conceptual framework about the world. That assumption is debatable, but the challenge to life as we know it is here. Now.

    This replenishment of the apple cart, a paradigm-shifting development in the relatively new fields of synthetic genomics and synthetic biology, presents a new challenge for moral philosophers/scientists: care to taste? What does the apparent success of Venter’s project imply for the significance of our somewhat polarized words “organism” and “machine” or “animate” and “inanimate” matter? In turn, how does that conceptual shift (or abolition?) change our conception of ourselves as living, sentient, or somehow special beings?

    What if the universe is simultaneously much more interesting and much more mundane than we previously supposed?

  4. HeresTomWithTheWeather says:

    re: organism/machine

    living systems are self-regulating with their surroundings. machines tend not to be. this isn’t what defines them but is what seems, at least to me, to matter in the context of venter’s accomplishment.

    re: animate/inanimate

    these words describe how we perceive things. we may misperceive a branch in the wind to be animate.

    now it appears we can create things that may also be self-regulating. but, my guess is that they won’t be and will either perish or destroy everything in their path.

    i’m skeptical of any moral philosophical ideas that are drawn from scientific findings.

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