New ethics for a mutant world

The implications of an uncertain boundary

The distinction between natural and unnatural seems, on the face of it, simple enough. So, too, do we readily accept value judgments that hold the natural superior to the artificial. But the conditions for naturalness quickly become murky. When it comes to the ethical and ontological implications, this boundary is yet more uncertain, writes Alex McKeown. 

At first sight it seems to be an obvious question with an obvious answer: What is natural? Well, it’s anything that occurs naturally. But this answer is question-begging, as it presupposes we know what it means to be ‘naturally’ occurring, as opposed to occurring through some other, non-natural means.

So perhaps we could say it means anything non-artificial. This answer, though, invites the further question of what it is for something to be ‘artificial’. A similarly straightforward answer to the question of what is artificial might be ‘something that we humans make, rather than something that could be found if we weren’t here’. But despite its apparent plausibility, this also fails to cast the distinction clearly. We’re going to think about the nature of the distinction in some detail here in relation to a hypothetical category of entities which straddle this ambiguous boundary – conscious Synthetic Biological Organisms (SBOs).

Whether conscious or not, SBOs challenge the nominal ontological distinction outlined.

We’ll see that the uncertainty of the boundary has ontological and ethical implications which it’s interesting to consider given the current trajectory of scientific research and development, albeit that conscious organisms of this kind are only a theoretical possibility.

As a rule of thumb, the way we tend to distinguish between things we deem natural and things we deem artificial or synthetic tracks the categorisation of things humans make, i.e. artefacts, as distinct from features of the world that would be there anyway even if we weren’t, i.e. products ‘of nature’. SBOs, as the name suggests, are living biological entities that have not been born, but engineered into being. Whether conscious or not, SBOs challenge the nominal ontological distinction outlined.

One way to demonstrate this is to think about ‘natural’ creatures that humans have made, excluding other humans which come into existence via reproduction. Many beings exist that are ‘unnatural’ in the sense that humans have made them and they would not exist were it not for us. For example, certain vegetables that we eat have been engineered by cross-breeding and would not exist otherwise. Similarly, certain breeds of dogs only exist because humans have deliberately cross-bred to create them. It could be objected that these are not analogous to SBOs, however. After all, we can still recognise these as dogs or as vegetables, which are ‘natural’ in the conventional sense, so the novelty of new breeds doesn’t jar with our conception of dogs or vegetables as natural entities. On this reading, even if new breeds are not strictly ‘naturally occurring’, neither are they necessarily ‘artificial’, ‘unnatural’, or ‘synthetic’. Nevertheless, this ontological ambiguity raises an ethical challenge in the case of SBOs, to which we turn next. This challenge concerns whether or not we should value things because they are natural.

The idea that what is natural must also be good can have superficial appeal. It is easy to believe, for example, that food which has not been biotechnologically interfered with must be safer or healthier given the risks associated with certain human-made chemical preservatives or pesticides. The boom in sales of organic food in recent years indicate that many people find this argument persuasive. The anti-vaccination movement makes similar, erroneous, claims about the dangers of vaccines, relative to the acquisition of ‘natural’ immunity. More generally, the supposed virtues of the natural can be rhetorically appealing because of the misleading association of ‘naturalness’ with notions of purity, an absence of contamination, and so on. Although it can sound appealing, however, the inference that something must be good because it is natural is illicit. Disease is also natural, as are – as the name suggests – natural disasters, murder, cruelty, and so on. Moreover, organic foods are comprised of chemicals too and it is unclear that they are necessarily better for health simply by virtue of being organic. Similarly, while all medical procedures carry some level of risk, there is no reliable evidence that vaccination is dangerous; indeed, it is more dangerous not to vaccinate.

If we believe that some kinds of consciousness of sufficient sophistication entitles certain animals to moral obligations from us, then conscious SBOs warrant such obligations too.

To develop this point a little, many medicines and interventions to prevent death and prolong life are both a) ‘unnatural’ in the sense of being deliberate attempts to change the course of the otherwise likely outcome, and b) presumably a good thing, given the value we tend to place on life and health. By way of summary, the point being made here is that a normative claim about what is good and what we ought to value because of this can be embedded within descriptive claims about certain things that we ontologically denote as ‘natural’. For reasons we scrutinise next, this has ethically problematic implications in relation to discerning how we should act in relation to SBOs with consciousness, were humans ever to create them.

An SBO is something that is biological and alive, but which has nevertheless been engineered. In future it may become possible to engineer conscious SBOs. Let’s say this were to happen and humans eventually create SBOs with consciousness similar in kind and degree to that of animals such as cats and dogs, i.e. creatures to which we tend to ascribe (albeit arbitrarily, given that humans also happen to eat other animals, which are also conscious) sufficient moral status that we deem it obligatory not to harm or kill them. Two questions then arise: first, are these SBOs natural or unnatural? And second, does the answer to the first question have any bearing on their moral status?

The first question can be defended plausibly in either direction. One could answer yes, SBOs are natural, because although we have made them, they are comprised of the same material that we find in nature and are cellular living organisms. Or one could answer no, they are unnatural or artificial, because they don’t otherwise exist in nature and so are as natural as a car or the International Space Station or the Empire State Building.

However, it is harder to respond so equivocally to the second question. If SBOs are conscious in the same way as a cat or a dog, then given the reasons that we attribute moral status to those animals, e.g. because they are sufficiently conscious that they can suffer, they evidently display emotions of happiness or distress, and so on, SBOs would have moral status too. The answer to the question, therefore, would be no – their unnaturalness or artificiality does not undermine their moral status. Irrespective of our other commitments, if we believe that some kinds of consciousness of sufficient sophistication entitles certain animals to moral obligations from us, then conscious SBOs warrant such obligations too. Incidentally, this argument would apply for the same reasons to conscious machine-based, i.e. non-biological, intelligence, as well.

Appeals to naturalness alone are illegitimate as a way of adjudicating between what we should and should not do with our technologies, innovations, and scientific knowledge.

In one sense this conclusion is banal and uncontroversial, but it’s instructive for what it implies; namely that there is not something morally privileged about being ‘natural’ that is absent in ‘artificial’ beings. This insight is helpful because it can alert us to error if a thing’s naturalness is invoked as a reason for concluding that it must also be good or in some way superior to things which we create. For example, trees may well be valuable in certain ways, but this is not only because they’re natural: they may valuable also because they are aesthetically satisfying, or because their conversion of carbon dioxide into oxygen sustains our life.  But a painting, i.e. something ‘artificial’ created by a human can be beautiful too, and machines which could convert carbon dioxide into oxygen would also be valuable if they helped to sustain our lives.

This general point is important because it underlines why appeals to naturalness alone are illegitimate as a way of adjudicating between what we should and should not do with our technologies, innovations, and scientific knowledge. Moreover, defending value on the grounds of naturalness assumes, to return to an earlier point, that we can reliably distinguish between the natural and the artificial at all, and the case of SBOs is an especially difficult instance of this.

To finish here by emphasising the unreliability of this nominal distinction between the natural and the artificial, we can approach the point from another direction. Even if we dispute all of the arguments made so far, if we zoom out very far it is unclear where we could non-arbitrarily distinguish between the natural and the artificial, since everything exists in nature somewhere. The raw materials for all organisms, whether existent independently of humans or created by them, are found within nature and their existence conforms to and is permitted by certain universal background conditions. In this regard, nothing exists outside nature since they all reside within the ‘natural’ universe. Since the physical defines the limits of the natural, from this standpoint there is nothing which can strictly speaking be considered as contrary to the natural.

So, what can we say in summary? Talk of things that are ‘natural’ often implies positive normative commitments. But, as we saw, murder and other atrocities are natural, so naturalness is neutral when it comes to what is right for us to do, including whether we should or should not seek to create conscious SBOs and what the nature of our obligations to them would be if we were successful in doing so. The ontological commitments of what we typically deem to be ‘natural’ also reveal themselves to be weak once we drill into them. Whether it is impermissible, permissible, or obligatory to create SBOs, conscious or not, has to be answered in some other way that responds explicitly to values rather than shaky categories of naturalness or artificiality.

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I think that we need to fight these developments as hard as possible. Whether or not natural and unnatural is a workable logical distinction at its very core, we tend to realise that these distinctions are nonetheless valuable. The natural human life and the natural human body is the source of pleasure and value in this world. If we loose this we are completely Lost.