Ethics Of Genetic Engineering

Richard Williams proposed that the issue of human freedom be re-conceptualized. Rejecting the traditional view of self-direction as the possibility of choosing among alternatives, Williams suggested that we ground our understanding of individual freedom in morality. In this view, human freedom is enhanced as one “lives truthfully. ” Truthful living runs counter to self-deception and thereby opens the way for greater freedom, which is fundamentally concerned with being, or existing.

It is also concerned with doing or choosing, but only as such individual actions harmonize with an already existing schema of existence When the act of choosing results in self-deception, one cannot automatically assume that choice has been exercised. If deception occurs, one has merely used the freedom to choose to step out of the arena in which it exists. The Aristotelian ethics concurs with the basic tenets of Williams’ philosophy.

Aristotle believed that an absolute moral standard was not possible because morality is determined by behavior and outcome and these are governed by the individual and the choices made by that individual. The individual is by definition unique, which foregoes that each choice and outcome is unique. The concept of Plato’s “good” is seen in terms of the action and the result of the action, rather than a predetermined, ‘a priori’, standard. The viewpoint held by Aristotle placed ethics beyond the arena of theoretical and into the empirical, observable world of human behavior.

The nature of the behavior is the purpose of the action, and as such, defines the ethical component. Inasmuch as individuals dwell within a society, there exists an ethical component to community behavior and is grounded on the “purpose” of the behavior: the highest form of community behavior being for the purpose of the ‘good’ of man. Happiness is the most common point of agreement among individuals for the ethical purpose of community behavior.

It is inherent to human nature to be disinclined to analysis the experience of happiness, accepting only that it is a natural tendency to seek the ‘feeling’ of happiness and that changing the nature of behavior gives rise to a fear that happiness will not be forthcoming. Aristotle defines happiness in terms of function, in concert with the idea he presents on the nature of man, in that every individual has a unique function and that the function of the community is to live in a manner that happiness results.

Happiness results from the acquisition of worldly goods, the health and well being of the individual and the satisfaction of the soul. Aristotle believed that individual happiness was only possible within the confines of a community. The issues of the ethical considerations of genetic engineering are significant to today’s culture. Recent developments in technology and the expansion of knowledge into realms heretofore unknown has made possible procedures considered impossible before.

The process of transgenic DNA procedures has opened the door between human and animal. The discussion of levels of sentience and willful purpose of non-humans has become not only pertinent but also essential in determining ethical standards in the evolving sciences. In order to confront the question of accessibility to the procedures of genetic engineering, considered in terms of ethical reasoning as presented by Aristotle, the concept of the individual’s function in the community and the degree to which it influences the ‘good’ of the society must be addressed.

Aristotle lived in a slave economy and much of his philosophy reflects the realities of that system. Class status was paramount to function and worth to the society. Happiness was attainable only for the elite and only through the functioning of the class system. Would genetic engineering be determined to be equally accessible for the world of Aristotle? No. If a slave or a freeman was to benefit from genetic engineering techniques it would be determined by the aristocracy to be for the benefit of the society and not as a matter of individual choice.

The opportunity of the lower classes to benefit from such procedures would not be denied to them, only the decision concerning the possible benefits and the power to make such decisions. Part of the function of the aristocracy was to guide the less intelligently endowed in decisions that would be for the ‘good’ of the whole. It would be considered ‘just’ that the benefits would be equally available, however, the power of distribution would lie with the aristocracy. The ethical consideration of using animals for the benefit of mankind is also determined in the function and place considered to be the ‘natural’ order of the animal’s existence.

The function is determined by the ability to rationalize, or the level of intelligence, and the animal would be considered by Aristotle as being only minimally capable of rational thought and outside consideration of moral standardization. Discussion would be warranted on the extent that animals are capable of forming community for the purpose of attaining happiness. It would be argued that animals are not to be considered in ethical matters as they are deficient of ‘soul’ as defined by Aristotle as both rational and non-rational.

The non-rational, or the ability to eat, sleep, and reproduce is common to all animals, whereas the rational is defined as the element of a desire to understand and to reason. Animals do not have this second, essential element of soul and it would be considered ethical and morally ‘right’ that the ‘good’ of man be attained through the use of the animal. According to Aristotle, the value of a product is determined by the demand. The need for genetic engineering would be determined by the demand for the products of the process.

Add to this Aristotle’s belief that the abstract level of theoretical reasoning could be differentiated from what he referred to as practical reasoning, and the issue of genetic engineering as ‘safe’ and ‘sane’ becomes dichotomized along these same lines. The concept of practical reasoning allows man to function in the world as it exists. In a world where genetic engineering has been instituted it would be assumed that the ‘good’ of the process had been exemplified to the extent of acceptance by the community.

The value had been determined by demand and the ‘safety’ determined by the value toward the growth of the community. Sane action would be considered to be a functioning of both the practical reasoning and the abstract, or theoretical, reasoning within the parameters of the definition of happiness and virtue. Excellence of action is predetermined by the reasoning abilities of understanding and wisdom. These are the virtues of the society and are defined by the intellectual elements of the collective soul. Moral virtues are determined by actions centered within the individual and define the character of the individual.

Sane action would be those behaviors that are condoned by the society and are within the realm of the individual’s definition of character. The issue of whether the institution of genetic engineering would be seen as ‘sane’ falls to the individual to determine. If the precepts, as defined by the community, fall within the individual’s own sense of ‘good’ and are acceptable to his character, then it is to be considered ‘sane’. If these elements are not in accordance with personal definitions of ‘good’ it would fall outside the confines of the individual’s character and would not be defined as ‘sane’.

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