Different Understandings of Life as an Opportunity to Enrich the Debate About Synthetic Biology

NanoEthics 9 (2):179-188 (2015)
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Comments and reports on synthetic biology often focus on the idea that this field may lead to synthetic life or life forms. Such claims attract general attention because “life” is a basic concept that is understood, interpreted and explained in multiple ways. While these different understandings of life may influence the ethical assessment of synthetic biology by experts and the public, this field might, in turn, influence how academics or the public view life. We suggest in this paper that synthetic biology provides an opportunity to discuss and compare different views and explanations of the world, starting from the concept of life. We argue that a narrow focus on just one interpretation of this concept may be harmful and that people will benefit from being aware of a diversity of understandings of life because they provide answers to different questions. Moreover, the confrontation among views is important for the development of reasoning abilities, and a nuanced view on our world will be useful for integrating scientific findings and their implications into a wider context. At the same time, we should not only consider other understandings of life for our own benefit but also because a moral attitude of respect for and toleration toward others implies permission to express and maintain their views. For these reasons, we suggest that a diversity of views on life should be included in public education and in public engagement events on synthetic biology. Moreover, they should be on the research agenda of technology assessment studies within the ELSA or RRI frameworks



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