A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Month: January 2014

Scholastic reasoning versus modern cell biology

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogEmbryonic stem cell research can find effective treatments for a wide range of currently untreatable diseases. No wonder embryonic stem cell research can be perceived as an important practice.

A human embryo can develop into someone’s child, who breathes, talks and lives. No wonder embryonic stem cell research can be perceived as a controversial practice.

What interests me here is how these two in my view humanly comprehensible perceptions of stem cell research are translated into an intellectual arena called “ethical debate.”

On this arena, forms of reasoning with different historical roots meet to combat each other. The idea is that here finally the issue shall be settled: is embryonic research, as a matter of fact, morally controversial, or is it not?

Or are we rather debating Aristotle versus modern cell biology?

Attempts to prove that the research is controversial bear witness of a legacy from the metaphysics of Aristotle. The human embryo is supposed to have a unique potentiality to become a person: a potentiality so actively present in the embryo that the embryo is to be understood as a “prenatal person” or as a “potential person.”

Attempts to disprove such scholastic claims instead rely on the latest scientific evidence in cell biology. In 2012, Shinya Yamanaka and John B. Gurdon were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work on what is called “dedifferentiation.” Stem cells derived not from embryos but from, for example, skin cells can be genetically induced to regress into less differentiated states that in turn can differentiate into various directions.

These findings are invoked in an article in The American Journal of Bioethics to finally take leave of the argument from potentiality:

  • “Technically speaking, fertilized egg cells (earliest embryos), iPSCs (induced pluripotent stem cells), and skin cells are all potential ‘baby-precursors,’ in part due to modern cell biology.”

So much for the unique potentiality of the human embryo: a skin cell will suffice.

To what extent do such debates concern the two perceptions of stem cell research in their human comprehensibility?

Pär Segerdahl

We think about bioethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se

Readings on biobank regulation

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogToday I recommend three short and instructive readings on biobanking:

The European Parliament voted in October 2013 on an amended proposal for a new European Data Protection Regulation. In a newsletter from CBR and BBMRI.se, the legal scholars Jane Reichel and Anna-Sara Lind explain implications for biobank research:

A new law on biobanks entered into force in Finland in September 2013. The law allows broad consent for future research and enables use of already collected samples. It also gives donors a stronger position and better protection of their integrity, Joanna Forsberg and Sirpa Soini write in Nature:

International guidelines on biobank research diverge, not least concerning the specificity of the consent and the use of already collected samples and waiver of consent. These ambiguities are discussed in the European Journal of Epidemiology, in an article by Joanna Forsberg, Mats G. Hansson and Kathinka Evers:

These texts help clarifying the complicated regulatory framework.

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog

Some considerations on the creation of artificial life (by Mirko Ancillotti)

mirko-ethicsblogIt is hard to understand and explain why new biotechnologies often are so upsetting. I am inclined to think that many people accord a special value to nature and to what is considered natural. This stance is held in spite of the fact that human beings have purposively modified nature, e.g., through the selection of plants, since they started with agriculture and breeding about 10,000 years ago. It should be admitted that these interferences have highly improved their (our) quality of life. Biotechnologies alter what is naturally occurring and these changes are felt as being particularly dangerous for human beings (directly or through fatal modifications of the environment). In my opinion, what is natural is morally neutral and it would be paradoxical to assume “naturalness” as a guiding principle.

The paper of Douglas, Powell, and Savulescu investigates whether the creation of synthetic life is morally significant and concludes that it is not. As mentioned in the original post, they consider three attempts to establish the moral significance of creating artificial life. I would like to focus on the third attempt, the one claiming uncertainty about the ontological and moral status of synthetic products because of their uncertain functional status.

The ontological status of synthetic products is regarded as being problematic because these products don’t clearly fit the organism-artifact dichotomy. The worry about ontological status is understood by the authors as a worry about functional status. According to the etiological account of functions, those expressed by an organism are the result of evolution and it can be thought that a living entity has an interest in expressing its functions, and be alive.

In what the authors call “Moral Prudentialism,” the moral status of an organism depends on interests and interests depend on functions. An artificial organism may have interests in remaining well-functioning, but what is problematic and gives rise to functional uncertainty is that its functions are not the result of evolution. Instead, they have been purposively designed and built into it by an external rational agent (an artificial organism’s function satisfy human purposes).

I agree with the authors in rejecting the attempt to give moral significance to the creation of artificial life on account of functional (and ontological) uncertainty. The moral assessment of an entity should be based on what the entity actually is and expresses. The etiological account of functions seems to be a poor help in assessing individuals, but I think that it should still be taken into account. Indeed, there is to consider the fact that synthetic organisms have not developed through natural or slightly modified (by humans) selection in an evolutionary equilibrium with other species and ecosystems (naturally occurring organisms are not necessary in harmonious equilibrium, but they are typically at least tolerated without provoking an ecological havoc).

If their genealogy is not considered a central factor in assessing their value or significance, it is nevertheless worth noting that, given the extreme potentialities of synthetic biology to give rise to forms of life completely different from existing ones (possibilities that are much more prominent than in genetic engineering), it seems reasonable to investigate the moral significance of creating artificial life by looking at the whole picture and not at the individual capacities of an organism considered in isolation.

Mirko Ancillotti (MA, Philosophy, CRB)

Human and inhuman

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogThe words “human” and “inhuman” are often used as moral judgments. For example: reasoning is (brilliantly) human; violence is (terribly) inhuman.

Such forms of speech are perfectly in order. Yet, we easily go astray if we use the same forms of speech in attempts to diagnose war and conflict, or the path to peace. (Which is extremely tempting, especially for sensible people.)

The human is purified as rational being. Violence and conflict are understood as results of inhuman interference with human reason. Can such idealized analysis illuminate real problems?

What occasions these thoughts is a review in the Guardian, which in terms of blogging was published ages ago. Stuff worth thinking about was written already in 2006. The British philosopher John N. Gray then reviewed Amartya Sen’s book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny.

Sen explains violence between groups as caused by inhuman interference with what is properly human. A proper human makes rational choices in a plurality of group belongings. But ill-disposed propagandists make gullible people think that their human identity already is fixed through a singular group belonging. This short-circuits reason and causes them to blast car bombs and commit genocide against people with other narrowly defined identities.

Without denying the reality of identity-driven violence or the danger of propaganda, Gray questions the innocent intellectualism of Sen’s diagnosis. Sen makes it sound as if people resort to violence because a false theory of human nature was drummed into them. He presents violence as if it were caused by inhuman factors disturbing human nature.

But people hardly lynch each other because of “erroneous beliefs.” And the fear, despair and cruelty of their actions are only too deep-rooted human traits, Gray observes grimly.

It is difficult to think clearly about the human. Perhaps even Gray, in spite of his clear-sightedness, occasionally starts out from a moral delimitation of the human: a more disillusioned one that prefers blaming rather than exalting the human.

(Gray’s own new book, The Silence of Animals, was reviewed last summer by Thomas Nagel.)

Pär Segerdahl

Minding our language - the Ethics Blog