Genetic modification

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L133-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved April 20, 2021, from

3. Ethical and philosophical issues in genetic modification: overview

Genetic modification raises a number of interesting and demanding philosophical and ethical issues, particularly regarding the acceptable limits of its use. Some of the issues and concerns are more general in nature; while others are specific to certain applications or techniques. While some prevalent ethical concerns with genetic modification have traditionally been used as thought experiments, scientific and technical advances mean that previously theoretical analyses now have direct practical relevance. For example, advances in techniques of genome editing have made targeted human germline genome editing more feasible. Additionally, new issues have arisen that simply weren’t recognised previously, such as facilitating the creation of a human with a genetic complement from more than two people, as occurs in mitochondrial donation (see Reproduction and ethics).

These examples illustrate a problem with attempting to discuss the philosophical and ethical issues of genetic modification; namely, that predicting what issues may arise can be difficult. The relentless pace of progress achieved in scientific and technical research in this area is likely to outstrip the ability to pre-emptively conceive of the relevant issues that will arise. As such, while some issues will likely remain at the heart of debates surrounding genetic modification, others may be superseded by, for example, newer scientific developments; or become redundant through, for example, resolution of concerns over issues such as safety. Some issues may also never come to be realised; and yet others still may bring new issues that we had never previously considered.

This mix of concerns is further increased when the breadth of genetic modification is considered – it can be carried out on any entity that has genes. This means that issues must be accounted for not only in humans, but also in non-human animals and plants. Inevitably, some of the concerns over the effects on humans may not be considered relevant or as significant when applied to these other areas, or, conversely, may be considered amplified or more significant.

Citing this article:
Newson, Ainsley J. and Anthony Wrigley. Ethical and philosophical issues in genetic modification: overview. Genetic modification, 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L133-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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