Why we think new technology requires an ethical shift

June 8, 2001

In their general election campaigns, all of the major political parties proceeded on the assumption that a modernising UK economy would embrace ever more technological innovation.

Commercial developments grounded in advances in genetics, in robotics, in informatics and in other such areas will be increasingly central to the nation's international competitiveness and capacities for wealth creation, we were assured.

But how will such innovations be received on the ground? The recent European Union-wide public rejection of genetically modified foods and the continuing controversies surrounding GM crops, cloning and the development of genetic databases suggest that, as things stand, the path is unlikely to be smooth. Indeed, an underlying crisis of public confidence in science in Britain, identified in last year's House of Lords report on science and society, signals that public assent, won through science-based risk assessments, should no longer be taken for granted.

In reaction to developments such as these, the United Kingdom is seeing the emergence of a growing number of advisory committees and commissions with "ethical" remits, such as the Human Genetics Commission. These bodies are aimed at more systematic engagement with the moral and social implications of such processes than has hitherto been the case. And the ripple effects are broadening.

Take the fact that society's claimed need to exploit the new genetics for human medical benefits will require big increases in animal experiments. This comes at a time when public concerns for animal welfare have rarely been higher. The government is looking to bodies such as the Animals Procedures Committee to grapple with the resulting ethical tensions. But to be effective, such bodies must be confident both in their attunements to shifts in public values and the ethical models used to reflect them.

How are people's ethical sensibilities changing in response to new technologies such as cloning? Recent qualitative research points to insights of more general political significance concerning the emergence of new patterns of trust and mistrust in countries such as Britain.

Another crucial question is whether current dominant models of ethical behaviour and relationship - which shape public debate, regulation and institutional practice on such matters - are still appropriate. The dominant cooperative frameworks of society are constructed according to particular theories of justice. For example, they determine who is to be considered as disabled. Faced with the development of population genetic databases, are there not good grounds for asking whether long-established doctrines of "informed consent" are now adequate? Moreover, although some "ethical" questions are routinely asked when information is sought from the public, the important issue is which questions are not.

Many other similar intellectual challenges are being thrown up by the power and pervasiveness of successive waves of technological innovation. Lancaster's new initiative - Jthe Institute for Environment, Philosophy and Public Policy - will integrate a number of established cross-disciplinary partnerships, from philosophy to social anthropology, to engage with them in sustained fashion. As some staff are already active as advisers in the policy world, strong interactions with the wider world are guaranteed while intellectual independence is also maintained.

New times require new ways of thinking, combining the strengths of a variety of humanities and social scientific disciplines as well as linking up with natural sciences. Next Friday's conference to launch the new institute will set in motion an initiative with potentially far-reaching implications.

Ruth Chadwick, Professor of bioethics
Robin Grove-White Professor of environment and society
The Institute for Environment, Philosophy and Public Policy
Lancaster University

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