As said before, many ethical issues of synthetic biology are basically the same ones that arose with the boom of genetic engineering. So the question pops up if there are any new ethical problems related to synthetic biology. Some scientists claim that there aren’t any new ethical issues. The already existing debate on ethics of science, covers synthetic biology too. They think that it will be more important to discuss how to evaluate the impact of products of synthetic biology. This won’t be easy, but it is a needed expansion of the existing debate on the ethics of science in general.
Yet another point of view states that synthetic biology can create new life and therefore it requires completely new ethics. New issues arise due to the novelty of objects in question and also due to the engineering approach towards living creatures.
Types of ethics
Some scientists want to make a distinction between the ”ethics of consequences” and the ”ethics of principles”. Seen form the point of view of the consequentialists, an action is morally right, if it produces good consequences. This is a far from objective point of view, as what is good or bad is always related to a certain context. One can only discuss consequences in terms of better than or worse than and even this is not always so. There should always be an awareness of the context where those ethics relate to.
The ”ethics of principles” concern more intrinsic values. In this case: the intrinsic values of life as it exists in the given conditions on earth. New biological systems, that did not evolve from evolutionary processes and that do not exist in natural conditions, can be considered as being different in terms of intrinsic value.
People who join this big debate on synthetic biology, are thinking about all the consequences on the level of micro-organisms. But what if in the future the creation of more complex, for instance multicellular, organisms is possible? Will the discourse change then? Is it necessary that it changes or is it basically the same discussion?
As synthetic biology products have features of both living organisms and machines, the border between living and non-living matter is blurred. Some people think it’s necessary to define what life is. Once that’s done, we can decide where the boundary with artificial life should lie. A problem with this approach is that the concept of life is a very broad and vague one. We have to take in account that every day we understand more and more about every single part works. It is not inconceivable that some day we’ll understand everything there is to life. At that point, living things will become some sort of machines to us, so it’s possible the distinction will become totally redundant.