Philosopher Andreas Christiansen is a member of the Center for Synthetic Biology's research community since 2013. For his PhD thesis he will focus on ethical questions related to synthetic biology - his special focus is on the concepts of reason, good, value and the interests of the public
The aim of ethics is finding out what we should do. Many possible questions about what we should do come up when a new technology, such as synthetic biology, emerges. Examples of questions that have been discussed with respect to synthetic biology are the following:
(1) Should we label products of synthetic biology in a certain way?
(2) Should there be special oversight procedures for synthetic biology?
(3) How much public money should be allocated to synthetic biology research?
(4) What problems should synthetic biologists aim to solve?
(5) Should we even be doing synthetic biology at all?
One part of my job as part of the ethics “team” at the Center for Synthetic Biology (consisting of me and my advisor, Sune Holm) is to discuss these questions with scientists at the Center. Another part is doing basic ethics research that helps answer the questions.
Like most scientists, much of an ethicists work is concerned with coming up with solutions to smaller parts of a larger problem that is the ultimate goal of the work.Much like the scientists contributing with parts that will ultimately enable the full Light Driven Platform, I focus on parts of a larger Ethical Platform for Synthetic Biology.
I currently work on two issues that bear on what we should do with respect to synthetic biology:
1. Synthetic biology is, in some respects, not much different from earlier technologies, such as selective breeding. The argument is commonly made that, given that there is only a minor difference, our actions with respect to synthetic biology and (e.g.) selective breeding should be the same – if we should label synthetic biology products, then we should also label selective breeding products, and so on. My work here focuses on determining to what extent this type of argument is a valid one.
2. It is generally agreed that new technologies should be applied in ways that serve the public interest – or at least not in ways that are directly contrary to the public interest. However, what exactly ‘the public interest’ is isn’t exactly clear. My work here focuses on evaluating different understanding of the public interest that has been proposed (for example that the public interest is the sum of individuals’ interests).
In working on these two issues, I (like all researchers) use a method. It consists in analysing the logic and structure of the basic ethical concepts – especially the following:
- The concept of a reason, i.e. that some consideration, x, counts in favour of or against some action or attitude, y (so we say that x is a reason for y).
- The concept of good, i.e. that one state of affairs is better than another.
- The concept of value, i.e. that some people, animals, things etc. are valuable in various ways.
By paying attention the logic of these concepts, it becomes possible to get traction on what the correct understanding of the public good is, and on the validity of arguments based on the similarity between synthetic biology and earlier technologies.
Andreas is supervised by Associate Professor Sune Holm during his PhD.