Assessing the Ethical Justifiability of Agricultural Biotechnology?

Later this week I am heading to Montreal for the annual conference of the Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies (S.Net). At the conference I will present a paper that I have been working on together with Dr. Christopher Preston (an environmental philosopher from the University of Montana) on what happens if we look at agricultural biotechnologies through the lens of feminist care ethics.

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This is part of the work of the Agri/Cultures project to contribute to the requirement within the Norwegian Gene Technology Act to assess GMOs for their ethical justifiability. Not an easy task!

In today’s political decision-making on emerging technosciences, two frameworks dominate the landscape of ethical assessment: consequentialist and deontological approaches.

Within consequentialist approaches, a technology is judged to be good or bad on the basis of its consequences. This is typically tied to utilitarianism, in which the aim is to maximise the utility or the good (e.g. often referred to as creating the greatest happiness for the greatest number). Within this approach, a technology would be assessed as ethically justifiable based on the consequences of its development, uptake and use.

In contrast, deontological approaches to assessments of what is good or bad, right or wrong, are based on the actions themselves, rather than on their consequences. Within this approach, ethical judgements are based on whether the action follows appropriate principles, rules or norms. In our case, this can be interpreted to mean that the ethical justifiability of a technology would consider the extent to which its creation, uptake and/or use violates social norms, rules or principles.

There are, however, other approaches that have received less attention. The first of these is virtue ethics, which was the dominant ethical framework applied in pre-modern societies and focuses on the underlying attitude rather than the action. That is, an ethical assessment within this approach does not primarily consider the nature of the action, or the consequences of the action, but the attitude that motivates the action. Virtue ethics is going through somewhat of a revival now as an increasing number of scholars explore what it may offer the range of socio-ecological challenges facing the modern world.

The approach that I have started exploring in the current paper though, is that based on an ethics of care. A ethics of care comes out of feminist scholarship and emphasises the importance of the concrete and context specific relationships that people are engaged in when making an ethical assessment. In this sense, an action is not considered right or wrong based on whether it follows agreed rules/norms, or solely on utilitarian calculations of consequences, but rather on how it impacts relationships. For our purposes, this includes not only relationships between human beings, but also relationships with and between other types of beings as well. Furthermore, feminists emphasise ethical assessments as not only involving a set of rational calculations, but also importantly involving emotional reactions.

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In the developing paper, we outline six key themes within feminist theories and care ethics – relationality, contextuality, dependence, power, affect, and narrative – and show how considering emerging technologies through the lens of these themes can shine a light on a number of salient issues that are typically missed by the dominant and largely consequentialist risk assessment frame used in political decision-making today. We also argue that the care ethics lens is a better fit when technologies are understood not simply as devices designed to create a certain end experience for a user but as transformative systems that smuggle in numerous social and political interests. Exploring the advantages of these feminist care ethics themes for the assessment of agricultural biotechnology, we show how this lens might have anticipated the very questions that have proved themselves to be the sticking points for GM crops.

For example, a focus on relationality allows you to see how the relationships between farmers and seeds change in significant ways with patented GM technologies. A focus on contextuality opens for different countries, regions and contexts to make different assessment choices. Being attentive to issues of dependence and power allows friction points such as concentration and monopolies within agri-food systems to be deemed relevant for the assessment. Opening for affect allows emotional responses to the roll out of these crops to be taken seriously, while a commitment to narrative encourages people to tell their own stories, which can reveal the underlying worldviews and socio-technical imaginaries that are often in conflict in GM debates.

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Through the paper we therefore argue that applying a care ethics lens can significantly broaden the frame of appraisal processes used for the governance of emerging technologies and usefully grant legitimacy to questions and concerns that are prominent in public discourse but typically left out of practices of risk assessment.

Hopefully we get some great feedback on the  paper at the conference and we would absolutely welcome comments and interactions with our ideas here as well!

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