Genetic modification

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

7. The aims and goals of genetic modification

Cross-cutting all philosophical and ethical debates in genetic modification is a question regarding the end for which the modification serves as a means. Conceptual issues around the goals of the technology, the necessity of an intervention, and the validity of the aim it is intended to achieve are all relevant.

In plant and agricultural genetic modification, there has been sustained and polarised debate regarding necessity. It has been questioned whether genetic modification provides the best solution, or whether other actions such as better land management or improving food supply channels are preferable.

In human genetic modification, debate is ongoing over a distinction between wants and needs, and whether it is justifiable to provide genetic modification when it is wanted, but not necessarily needed (see Needs and interests). For example, Baylis criticises the provision of new reproductive technologies when their necessity remains under debate (Baylis 2017). She draws on Aristotle’s distinction between natural desires (needs) and acquired desires (mere wants). A natural desire is innate or inherent, shared by all humans. It is a mistake, she argues, to classify a (mere) acquired desire as a need when that desire can be met by other means – especially if those other means do not require the use of genetic modification technologies.

A related concern is the technological imperative, a concept that arises in criticisms of genetic modification (among other technologies). Highlighting technological imperatives serves to show how questions about interventions such as genetic modification can be driven by the availability of the technology itself, rather than a recognised need for the use of that particular technology (see Technology and ethics).

A further issue in genetic modification is whether a modification that aims to enhance rather than treat can be justified. The distinction between treatment and enhancement (the subject of a large literature, see Juengst and Moseley 2019) can be difficult to sustain. Two elements of the debate are particularly relevant: (1) whether there can be a valid distinction between a treatment and an enhancement; and (assuming such a distinction can be drawn) (2) whether it is acceptable to use genetic modification to enhance rather than treat. These questions have largely been used in debates on human genetic modification (see Enhancement in sport), but could also apply to non-human animals or plants.

Debates over the aims or goals of genetic modification should therefore critically engage with the ultimate purpose for which any particular modification is being proposed. In so doing, ethical aspects such as necessity, health and disability, and social justice are all relevant.

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

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