Ethics as rule systems: The case of genetically engineered organisms

Inquiry 37 (1):65 – 84 (1994)
Abstract
Like every major new technology, genetic engineering is affecting the hopes and fears of many people. The risks involved are perceived differently by different groups. One group regards genetic engineering as a simple extension of older techniques with no special risks, e.g. traditional breeding. This conservative denial of special risks is confronted with a different kind of conservatism from a group which, in the name of the preservation of nature, opposes any kind of genetic engineering. A third group, rooted in the liberal tradition, is prepared to accept the risks of genetic engineering as long as they are outweighed by prospective benefits. The liberal as well as the two conservative approaches, however, face serious difficulties in trying to develop a sound ethical argument concerning genetic engineering. In order to avoid these difficulties, an ethical approach focused on paradigmatic examples of good and evil is proposed. Such examples constitute rules of moral description, much as standards of measurement constitute rules of physical description. These rules are elaborated and interpreted in processes of social learning. In the present state of development of genetic engineering, such social learning requires appropriate institutional procedures
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