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)

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