welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Transgenics and Morality

Ian Betteridge on the implications of transgenic experiments for moral theory.

Over the past ten years, it has become possible to take genetic material from one species and transplant it into an egg or embryo of another species. This procedure, known as transgenics, can give the recipient some of the characteristics of the donor. Transgenic experimentation could potentially provide great and lasting benefits for both mankind, other species, and the environment. Using gene therapy of this sort, it is possible to ‘design’ forms of wheat that are resistant to disease, thus reducing the amount of pesticides required to farm the food we need. It is also possible to breed sheep that have a kind of immunity to blowfly, by transplanting genes from bacteria that attack the chitinous skeletons of insects into the sheep’s genetic material, so as to produce a ‘fly-killer’ in the animals’ sweat. Pigs, by way of the deft insertion of human genetic material, can be bred that have hearts that will not be rejected when transplanted into a human. For vegetarians like myself, rennet can be produced that does not have its origins in the lining of a cows stomach, thus saving us from the quandary of whether or not to enjoy good cheeses.

Other consequences might not be so desirable. One suggestion, for example, was that a bacterium might be bred which ate plastics, so as to solve the problem of the mountains of nonbiodegradable plastic waste that take up ever more space in landfill sites throughout the world. However, the prospect of these bacteria getting loose from the laboratory, and eating all the plastic they can reach, might prove to be too horrible to contemplate. A jumbo jet falling from the sky, its control cables eaten through by the voracious microbe, might be one of the less serious consequences.

The Moral Neutrality of Technology

However, I am not going to concern myself with the direct consequences, good or bad, of transgenic experimentation. For, like all technologies, transgenic experimentation is in itself morally neutral, at least at first sight.

What is meant by the phrase, ‘morally neutral’? Moral neutrality implies that something has, of and in itself, no qualities that could be judged either good or bad. Instead, it relies upon another thing or being to provide it with moral worth or relevance. To say that something is morally neutral does not mean that it can have no good or bad consequences, but merely that the language of morality is not suited to its nature.

Some examples might be illuminating. Let us consider a force of nature, an earthquake. It makes no sense to talk of an earthquake as if it were itself good or bad; only its consequences can be considered using this form of language.

It is easy to see how a force of nature can be morally neutral, but what of a new type of technology? Surely technologies cannot be morally neutral? Take gunpowder for example; surely the use of gunpowder has led to greater harm than good for mankind? One needs only to look at the wars of history and of the present day to see that the use of gunpowder has been a destructive force for man and the planet itself. However, this is to miss the point of moral neutrality. For moral neutrality says nothing about the use or application of a particular technology, for very little of that use is intrinsic to the technology itself. Gunpowder, for example, when used with precision and skill, has enabled human beings to mine for mineral resources with greater speed and hence with less danger to individual miners. Whereas, in pre-powder times, mines required enormous amounts of manual labour, with the attendant risks to the lives of individuals involved, the speed of excavation given by explosives improves the overall survival prospects of individual miners, and reduces the number of people who are forced to risk their lives down mines at all.

Thus, although a specific application of a particular technology may have good or bad consequences, a technology itself cannot usually be considered in such terms.

However, under certain circumstances there are moral considerations implicit in technologies themselves, rather than in their consequences. This happens when a technology impinges upon the fundamental concepts involved in the notion of morality itself. I will leave open the question of what these concepts are, but it is quite clear any moral system must, at the very least, give an account of what forms of being it is applicable to. That is to say, it must give some kind of definition of the kind of creature it expects moral behaviour from. It must give some kind of account of what a person is.

Thus, any technology that infringes upon or influences the notion of ‘personhood’, a fundamental concept in morality, must have additional moral implications beyond the simple facts of its good or bad consequences. Any technology that modifies our notions of what a person is will affect the shape of our moral systems. Transgenic experimentation, I suggest, is just such a technology.

The Meta-Ethical Implications of Transgenic Experimentation

So what are the implications of transgenic experimentation for the notion of personhood? Clearly, this depends a lot upon the notion of personhood that a moral theory has to begin with. We can divide such notions into two categories: those which define a person as a member of the species Homo Sapiens, and those which use some criteria that cuts across species lines. First of all, I will consider those which involve species.


What is a species? Species can be defined in two ways:

1) Breeding Viability
2) Genetic Characteristics

Breeding viability means the ability of individuals of one species to breed successfully with individuals of another species. Two species are said to be separate if interbreeding between them isn’t possible, either for biological reasons or because they are geographically isolated from each other, perhaps by seas or mountain ranges. However, the biological ability of a species to breed with another is dependent upon the genetic characteristics of the two species involved. Where there are significant genetic differences (manifested, usually, in physical appearance) between two groups of individuals, but interbreeding is possible, the division is properly one of sub-species rather than species. Where interbreeding between members of species is biologically possible and isn’t prevented by geography, the line between the two species will very rapidly be erased, and a new ‘composite’ species will be formed. Thus, where a distinct division is not set between two species, one of them will rapidly disappear.

Thus if species, rather than any other characteristic, is the deciding factor in determining whether something is or is not a person (and hence subject to moral law) then genetic information is the ultimate empirical test of species identity. If one were to assert that only human beings are persons, one would then have to identify the genetic material that all humans share, and exclude the genetic material that controls such characteristics as eye colour, skin colour, and height. This is, in fact, part of the task of the Human Genome Project, a massively funded international scientific enterprise dedicated to decoding in its entirety the genetic material of human beings.

Now let us indulge in a little thought experiment. Suppose, after having identified the human gene-sequence in full, we were to replace in a chimpanzee embryo the part of its DNA that determined the form of its brain with the corresponding portion of human genetic material. The chimp, if it survived, would grow up to be part human – a human brain in a chimpanzee body. Would we be justified in expecting it to behave in a moral manner?

If we assume that it is the capacity of the human brain to make decisions that makes us subject to moral codes, then one would assume that the answer to this question would be ‘yes’. However, in answering affirmatively, are we not actually looking at a criterion over and above the simple genetic fact of species? We are using instead the criteria of being able to make rational independent decisions for ourselves that the brain endows us with, and not the fact of having or not having a brain itself. Were we to take a similarly significant piece of human DNA (say the part that determines the shape of the hands and feet), and endow the chimp with those appendages, no-one would claim that it was then subject to moral law. If we claim that the brain is different, we do so because of the faculties that the brain endows us with, rather than the fact of possessing a brain.

If, on the other hand, we were to decide that the brain-enhanced chimp was beyond the scope of morality, we would be ignoring the obvious fact of its ability to take account of moral rules, or, indeed, its ability to create its own moral system. Such a creature might well have the intellect of Socrates, and yet, on narrow grounds of genetics, we would be forced to reject its strident pleas that it knows of, and follows, moral rules.

What this thought experiment shows us is that transgenic experimentation demonstrates the absurdity of basing the idea of personhood upon species, because our notion of species is dependent upon genetic information, information which transgenic experimentation makes impossibly blurred. To take genes from man and splice them into another species blurs the line between man and non-human animals. 98% of a chimp’s genetic material is the same as a human’s anyway. Is the 2% difference between man and chimpanzee the significant part? What if we gave a chimp 0.01% of this material? Is it human or chimp? These are exactly the kind of questions that transgenic experimentation raises. The next question, of course, is whether they can be solved.

Non-Species Based Definitions of Personhood

Suppose, then, that we were to take some other notion of personhood – say, for example, the idea that something must be a rational, selfconscious being in order to be subject to the moral law.

What does it mean to say of something that it is rational and self-conscious? The two conditions, when coupled together imply that the thing in question has certain characteristics in its patterns of behaviour, characteristics which include the ability to make decisions based upon the consequences both to itself and to others. It implies that there are possible conditions under which it might at least consider the possibility of behaving in an altruistic fashion, but may, of course, reject this form of behaviour. This requires that the being have an idea of some form of abstract moral law, even if it does not live by this code. lf something fulfils these criteria, we would be justified in assuming it has a moral nature, and should be subject to morality in general.

Does transgenic experimentation have any implications for our notions of morality if we adopt these criteria for having a moral nature? In a broad sense, it does not, as these characteristics are not themselves dependent upon particular ‘hardware implementations’, whether genetic-biological or even software-computer based. What it does highlight is that there is no simple, shorthand way of deciding that a particular individual is or is not subject to moral considerations based upon that individual’s species. Once transgenic experimentation is possible, particularly in the radical forms described above, we can no longer take for granted that a sheep will simply follow its flock. Underneath that woolly coat may lurk the mind of Plato, coupled with the cunning of a wolf – and the moral code of Genghis Khan.


Transgenic experimentation raises questions about what it is to be a member of a particular species. As a result, it challenges our notions of who, exactly, morality is applicable to. If this means that, in the end, we are forced to abandon our anthropocentric notions of who and what has moral rights, and if it demonstrates to us that our ideas about species mean as little as our ideas about eye colour, then perhaps some good might come simply of the existence of this new technology, even without considering the possibilities of its use.

© I. Betteridge 1994

Ian Betteridge is a PhD student and part-time tutor at Hertfordshire University

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X