Team:UGent/Ethics/Prof dr Filip Buekens


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Prof. dr. Filip Buekens

Filip Buekens is professor at the Catholic University of Leuven and Associate Professor at Tilburg University. He teaches and does research in philosophy of language, philosophy of mind and philosophy of the social sciences. His research is focused on the interaction between meaning, truth and communication. He also does research on the structure of our concept of truth.

According to professor Buekens, there are two main problems synthetic biology is currently dealing with. First of all, we do not know the consequences. In the past we have dealt with disastrous effects of for example softenon and DDT, due to not thinking the consequences through the way we were ought to. The second problem is our lack of instinctive intuitions concerning synthetic biology. When you punch someone in the face; your first intuition is the right one: punching someone is wrong. Synthetic biology on the other hand is still in its infancy and is not very well known to the general public.

What springs to Buekens’ mind when hearing about synthetic biology is to be cautious : apply the principle of prudence! Is it morally justified to create something without knowing the long term consequences? It certainly is, we do it all the time. But it is not because you CAN do it, that you HAVE TO do it. Progress in science should never be an end in itself.

Buekens does not have a problem with creating life, but it depends on what the definition is of ‘life’. To live is to have the ability to reproduce. But once the organisms have the ability to reproduce, is it still possible to have a good understanding of the consequences?

GMOs deal with a great amount of sentimental aversion. We can avoid going down the same road with synthetic biology by providing more education. Synthetic biology is a relatively new discipline. As a result it is important to promote this field of science in order to avoid negative publicity as previously seen with GMOs. Better to prevent than to cure.

Greenpeace sometimes releases horrifying photos of e.g. modified tomatoes. We have to try to get rid of this romantic sentimentalism. They are of the opinion that once you don’t have everything under control, it is simply unacceptable to proceed. This is obviously not possible. Also, there is still a problem with the psychology of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). They are utopians and think that there can exist a world in which there is no hunger, only biological food and no need to produce genetically modified organisms. But you cannot have it all. (It has to be mentioned that NGOs are not all negative, they have e.g. accomplished more environmental consciousness.)
Another very important aspect to bring into consideration is semantics. People tend to feel uncomfortable with words like ‘genetic manipulation’, but words like ‘modification’ suddenly raise a more considerate and approving reaction.

To shortly summarize, the most important take home messages are:

  • Apply the principle of prevention:
    Synthetic biology = ok, but this does not mean you can do whatever you want. Because what can happen if some of those techniques and protocols fall into the wrong hands? You always have to assume the worst case scenario and consider all the consequences before undertaking any action at all.
  • Semantics is very important.
  • Make sure the man in the street knows the advantages of synthetic biology, before any irrational thoughts or sentimental aversions appear.
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