While it sounds a bit like science fiction, the issue of whether or not human genes can be owned has become a matter of concern. While the legal issue is interesting, my focus will be on the philosophical aspects of the matter. After all, it was once perfectly legal to own human beings—so what is legal is rather different from what is right.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for the ownership of genes is a stock consequentialist argument. If corporations cannot patent and thus profit from genes, then they will have no incentive to engage in expensive genetic research (such as developing tests for specific genes that are linked to cancer). The lack of such research will mean that numerous benefits to individuals and society will not be acquired (such as treatments for specific genetic conditions). As such, not allowing patents on human genes would be wrong.
While this argument does have considerable appeal, it can be countered by another consequentialist argument. If human genes can be patented, then this will allow corporations to take exclusive ownership of these genes, thus allowing them a monopoly. Such patents will allow them to control the allowed research conducted even at non-profit institutions such as universities (who sometimes do research for the sake of research), thus restricting the expansion of knowledge and potentially slowing down the development of treatments. This monopoly would also allow the corporation to set the pricing for relevant products or services without any competition. This is likely to result in artificially high prices which could very well deny people needed medical services or products simply because they cannot meet the artificially high prices arising from the lack of competition. As such, allowing patents on human genes would be wrong.
Naturally, this counter argument can be countered. However, the harms of allowing the ownership of human genes would seem to outweigh the benefits—at least when the general good is considered. Obviously, such ownership would be very good for the corporation that owns the patent.
In addition to the moral concerns regarding the consequences, there is also the general matter of whether it is reasonable to regard a gene as something that can be owned. Addressing this properly requires some consideration of the basis of property.
John Locke presents a fairly plausible account of property: a person owns her body and thus her labor. While everything is initially common property, a person makes something her own property by mixing her labor with it. To use a simple example, if Bill and Sally are shipwrecked on an ownerless island and Sally gathers coconuts from the trees and build a hut for herself, then the coconuts and hut are her property. If Bill wants coconuts or a hut, he’ll have to either do work or ask Sally for access to her property.
On Locke’s account, perhaps researchers could mix their labor with the gene and make it their own. Or perhaps not—I do not, for example, gain ownership of the word “word” in general because I mixed my labor with it by typing it out. I just own the work I have created in particular. That is, I own this essay, not the words making it up.
Sticking with Locke’s account, he also claims that we are owned by God because He created us. Interestingly, for folks who believe that God created the world, it would seem to follow that a corporation cannot own a human gene. After all, God is the creator of the genes and they are thus His property. As such, any attempt to patent a human gene would be an infringement on God’s property rights.
It could be countered that although God created everything, since He allows us to own the stuff He created (like land, gold, and apples), then He would be fine with people owning human genes. However, the basis for owning a gene would still seem problematic—it would be a case of someone trying to patent an invention which was invented by another person—after all, if God exists then He invented our genes, so a corporation cannot claim to have invented them. If the corporation claims to have a right to ownership because they worked hard and spent a lot of money, the obvious reply is that working hard and spending a lot of money to discover what is already owned by another would not transfer ownership. To use an analogy, if a company worked hard and spent a lot to figure out the secret formula to Coke, it would not thus be entitled to own Coca Cola’s formula.
Naturally, if there is no God, then the matter changes (unless we were created by something else, of course). In this case, the gene is not the property of a creator, but something that arose naturally. In this case, while someone can rightfully claim to be the first to discover a gene, no one could claim to be the inventor of a naturally occurring gene. As such, the idea that ownership would be confirmed by mere discovery would seem to be a rather odd one, at least in the case of a gene.
The obvious counter is that people claim ownership of land, oil, gold and other resources by discovering them. One could thus argue that genes are analogous to gold or oil: discovering them turns them into property of the discoverer. There are, of course, those who claim that the ownership of land and such is unjustified, but this concern will be set aside for the sake of the argument (but not ignored—if discovery does not confer ownership, then gene ownership would be right out in regards to natural genes).
While the analogy is appealing, the obvious reply is that when someone discovers a natural resource, she gains ownership of that specific find and not all instances of what she found. For example, when someone discovers gold, they own that gold but not gold itself. As another example, if I am the first human to stumble across naturally occurring Unobtanium on an owner-less alien world, I thus do not gain ownership of all instances of Unobtanium even if it cost me a lot of money and work to find it. However, if I artificially create it in my philosophy lab, then it would seem to be rightfully mine. As such, the researchers that found the gene could claim ownership of that particular genetic object, but not the gene in general on the grounds that they merely found it rather than created it. Also, if they had created a new artificial gene that occurs nowhere in nature, then they would have grounds for a claim of ownership—at least to the degree they created the gene.
While we consider ourselves to be the dominant species on the planet, we do face dangers from other species. While some of these species are large animals such as lions, tigers and bears our greatest foes tend to be tiny. These include insects, bacteria and viruses.
While we have struggled, with some success, to eliminate various tiny threats advances in technology and science have given us some new options. One of these is genetically modifying species so they cannot reproduce, thus resulting in their extermination. As might be suspected, insects such as disease carrying mosquitoes are a prime target. One approach to wiping out mosquitoes is to genetically modify mosquito eggs so that the adults carry “extermination” genes. The adult males are released into the wild and reproduce with native females in the target area. The offspring then bear the modified gene which causes the female mosquitos to be unable to fly (they lack flight muscles). The males can operate normally and they continue to “infect” the local population until (in theory) it is exterminated. As might be imagined, this approach raises various ethical concerns.
One obvious point of concern is the matter of intentionally exterminating a species. On the face of it, such an action seems to be morally dubious. However, it does seem easy enough to counter this on utilitarian grounds. After all, if an organism (such as a mosquito) is harmful to humans and does not have an important role to play in the ecosystem, then its extermination would seem to be morally justified on the grounds that doing so would create more good than harm. Naturally, if a harmful species were also beneficial in other ways, then the matter would be rather more complicated and such extermination could be wrong on the grounds that it would do more harm than good.
The utilitarian approach can be countered by appealing to an alternative approach to ethics. For example, it could be argued that such extermination is simply wrong regardless of the beneficial consequences to humans. It can, however, be pointed out that species go extinct naturally and, as such, perhaps a case could be made that such exterminations are not inherently wrong. The obvious counter would be to point out that there is a significant moral difference between a species dying of natural causes and being destroyed. The distinction between killing and letting die comes to mind here.
I am inclined to accept that the extermination of a harmful species can be acceptable, provided that the benefits do, in fact, outweigh the damage done by exterminating the species. Getting rid of, for example, the HIV virus would seem to be morally acceptable. In the case of mosquitoes, the main concern would be the role of the mosquito in the ecosystem and the impact that its extermination would have. If, for example, the disease carrying mosquito was an invasive species and its elimination would not impact the ecosystem in a negative way, then it would seem to be acceptable to exterminate it. Naturally, if the extermination is local and the species remains elsewhere, then the ethics of the situation become far less problematic. After all, I have no moral objection to the extermination of the roaches, termites, fleas and other bugs that attempt to reside in my house—there are plenty that remain in the wild and they would pose a threat to the well-being of myself and my husky. Naturally, I would only accept the extermination of a species on very serious grounds, such as a clear danger presented to my species. Even then, it would be preferable to see if the extermination could be avoided.
A second point of concern involves the methodology. While humans have attempted to wipe out species by killing them the old fashioned ways (like poisons), the use of genetic modification could be morally significant.
There is, of course, the usual concern with “playing God” or tampering with nature. However, as is always pointed out, we routinely accept such tampering as morally acceptable in other areas. For example, by using artificial light, vaccines, surgery and such we are “playing God” and tampering with nature. As such, the idea that “playing God” is inherently wrong seems rather dubious. Rather, what is needed is to show that specific acts of “playing God” or tampering are wrong.
There is also the reasonable concern about unintended consequences, something that is not unknown in the attempts to exterminate species. For example, DDT had a host of undesirable effects. I do not, of course, think that modifying mosquitoes will create some sort of 1950s style mega-mosquitoes that will rampage across the land. However, there are reasonable grounds to be concerned that genetic modification might have unexpected and unpleasant results and this possibility should be seriously considered.
A final point I will address is a practical one, namely that even if a species is exterminated by genetic modification another species might simply take its place. In the case of mosquitoes it seems likely that if one type of mosquito is wiped out, then another one will simply move into the niche vacated and the problem, such as a mosquito transmitted illness will return. The concern is, of course, that resources would have been expended and a species exterminated for nothing. Naturally, if there are good grounds to believe that the extermination would be effective and ethically acceptable, then this would be another matter.
Since today is Labor Day, I won’t labor. Well, not as much as usual. However, there are some folks who are working today. For example, when I went grocery shopping I saw a sign saying that for the convenience of customers, the store would be open on Labor Day.
Given that Labor Day is supposed to celebrate “the economic and social contributions of workers”, it seems odd that businesses would stay open. Naturally, it makes sense that essential businesses and services would remain open even on Labor Day. However, some business do not seem to be so essential that they cannot allow their workers a day off.
Of course, I must note that I grew up in a small town that effectively shut down on Sundays-nothing was open other than the pharmacy and churches. As such, the idea of businesses being closed on certain days (holidays and Sundays) seems natural to me. This is, obviously, not an argument in favor of recognizing Labor Day.
However, there are some good arguments for having such days off. There are, of course, the religious arguments for this-after all, one of the ten commandments is about the Sabbath. Interestingly, people generally ignore that commandment-even when they are devoted to pushing one part of Leviticus.
One non-religious argument is that it seems to be a good thing to have holidays and days on which commerce stops so that people can rest. This would seem to have good psychological effects and, of course, there is the question of whether we really need to be able to shop so relentlessly on all days.
It can, however, be objected that a modern economy must run without any days off. After all, these are not the days of horses and whale oil. These are the days of iPads and Amazon and business is 24/7/365. As such, the idea of a day on which non-essential commerce ceases is a quaint idea…and, of course, assumes that there is even such a thing as non-essential commerce these days.
It can also be objected that a “day off” for workers is a day they are not getting paid and a day that businesses are not making money. As such, it makes sense for business to remain open on Labor Day (and also on the Sabbath). It can also be noted that this should be a matter of choice-that is, no government or God should tell workers and employers when they should and should not work.
However, I still think that there should be days on which commerce ceases and Labor Day should certainly be one of them.
My tenth Kindle book is out, For Better or Worse Reasoning: A Philosophical Look at Arguments Against Same-Sex Marriage.
It is the usual 99 cents in the US and the equivalent in dead parrot jokes in the UK. It is also available on all the Amazons(aside from the river and the women), but I am too lazy to copy-paste them all in.
As a special bonus for readers of this blog, you can get it for free from May 14 to May 18, 2012 (US dates).
This concise work is aimed at presenting a logical assessment of the stock arguments against same-sex marriage. While my position is in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, I have made every effort to present a fair and rational assessment of the stock arguments against it.
The work itself is divided into distinct sections. The first section provides some background material regarding arguments. The second section focuses on the common fallacious arguments used to argue against same-sex marriage. The third section examines standard moral arguments against same-sex marriage and this is followed by a brief look at the procreation argument. The work closes, appropriately enough, with a few modest proposals regarding marriage.
- “Argument” Defined
- General Assessment of Arguments
- Stock Fallacious Arguments against Same-sex Marriage
- Appeal to Tradition
- Appeal to Belief
- Appeal to Common Practice
- Slippery Slope
- Weak Analogy
- Non-Fallacious Arguments
- Intuitions & Definitions
- Appeal to Intuition
- Argument by Definition
- The Religious Arguments
- The Moral Arguments
- Homosexuals are Immoral Argument
- The Unnatural Argument/The Natural Argument
- Appeal to Consequences
- The Sanctity Argument
- The Procreation Argument
- Marriage: A Few Modest Proposals
While some States in the United States have passed laws allowing same-sex marriage, other states have passed laws to ban it. Some states have even taken an extra step by amending the state constitutions to define marriage as being between one man and one woman. On May 8th, 2012 North Carolina voters went to the polls to decide whether or not their state constitution would be amended to “defend” marriage. While this matter is interesting from a legal perspective, my main interest is from a philosophical perspective, mainly regarding the quality of the arguments in favor of such restrictions on marriage as well as their ethics.
As I have done in other essays on the subject of same-sex marriage, I will quickly run through the stock fallacious arguments given for such laws. The first stock argument is that marriage between a single man and woman is a matter of tradition. This is, obviously enough, a fallacious appeal to tradition. The mere fact that something is a tradition hardly shows that it is right or correct. To use the usual counterexample, slavery was (and is in some places) a well-established tradition, yet this hardly serves to justify it.
A second fallacious argument is that marriage between a man and a women is what most people do, thus it is correct. In other words, it is a common practice and thus is right. Obviously enough, this is merely a fallacious appeal to common practice. There are, obviously enough, many bad practices that are quite common (like lying), but their being common does not make them good.
A third common fallacious argument is that most people believe that marriage should be between a man and woman. Even if it is assumed that this is true, this would still seem to be a fallacious appeal to belief. After all, the mere fact that most people believe something (like the earth being believed to be the center of the solar system) does not prove that it is true.
Now that the easy to dismiss fallacious arguments are out of the way, I can look at some of the other arguments that have been presented in support of such laws.
One stock argument is essentially an appeal to religion, specifically Christianity (at least the versions that forbid polygamy). The argument typically goes that since God married Adam to Eve, this defines marriage in the biblical sense. Those with clever wits often put it more rhetorically by saying that it was “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Since marriage is defined by the Christian faith as between one man and one woman, that is what the law should be. As might be imagined, there are many problems with this.
One obvious legal problem is that to the degree the proponents of such laws claim that it is based on a specific faith, they are in danger of violating the first amendment of the United State constitution, namely the bit that “congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” While I am not a constitutional lawyer, I would suspect that a plausible case could be made that creating a law explicitly based on a religion does involve the establishment of a religion. In addition to the obvious legal problems, there is also the moral concern regarding the imposition of a specific faith’s values upon the population as a whole. This would seem to be a clear and direct violate of religious liberty and thus would seem to be morally unacceptable.
A second obvious problem is that basing the law on a religious view would seem to require that this view be established as correct. After all, if it is claimed that marriage is such that it can only between a man and a woman because of what God wants, then it needs to be established that God exists and that this is what God, in fact, wants. Otherwise, the law would have no established foundation and would be as sensible as basing a law on a myth or fictional tale. Naturally, if it can be shown that marriage is between one man and one woman as a matter of metaphysical necessity, then that would nicely establish the foundation of the law. In fact, it would show that no such law would really be needed since no one else could, in fact, be married. To use analogy, we do not need laws that ban people from driving their cars faster than the speed of light-they simply cannot do this because of the nature of reality.
There are, of course, non-religious arguments for these laws. A rather common argument is that the laws are needed to protect the sanctity of marriage. The idea seems to be that allowing same-sex marriage would be harmful to marriage (and presumably the married) and thus, on the principle of preventing harm, same-sex marriage should be outlawed by a constitutional amendment.
One obvious point of concern is whether or not allowing same sex-marriage harms marriage and heterosexual couples. While, of course, it might upset them that people are doing something they do not like (getting married), that is obviously not sufficient justification. What would be needed would be objective evidence that same sex-marriage would do enough harm to marriage and married couples to warrant forbidding same sex-marriage. The evidence for this seems to be, obviously enough, sorely lacking and the burden of proof rests on those who would make an imposition on the liberty of others to show that such an imposition is warranted.
Intuitively, same-sex marriage would not harm marriage or married couples. After all, it is difficult to imagine what sort of damage would be inflicted. Would married couples love each other less? Would there be more cases of domestic violence or adultery? Would married parents be suddenly more inclined to abuse their children? None of this seems even remotely likely.
But, suppose it is assumed that marriage must be protected. If this is taken seriously, then it would certainly seem to follow that it would need to be legally protected from whatever might damage its sanctity. To use an analogy, laws to protect people from murder are not just limited to, for example, making it illegal to murder someone with aluminum baseball bat. Rather, it is the murdering that matters. The same should apply to marriage: if marriage must be protected by making it between one man and one woman, then surely it must also be protected against whatever would damage its sanctity. As such, it would seem equally reasonable to ban marriages involving any sort of person whose actions or nature might do damage to the sanctity of a marriage.
Intuitively, allowing immoral people to marry would seem to damage its sanctity. As such, people would need to establish their moral goodness before marriage and presumably any straying from the path of virtue (such as by having an affair or otherwise failing in their vows) would result in the marriage being suspended or even nullified. Naturally enough, people who intend to get married in the hopes of financial gain, from lust, or for any reason that would sully the sanctity of marriage would need to be prevented from getting married. Given all these dire threats to the sanctity of marriage, it would seem that if the matter is serious enough to warrant a constitutional amendment it would also warrant the creation of a full government agency to regulate and protect the sanctity of marriage. After all, if the defenders of the sanctity of marriage were content to merely prevent same-sex marriage, one might suspect that they were acting from mere prejudice against same sex couples rather than by a sincere desire to protect marriage. While this might seem as big government violating liberty, those supporting such laws will surely see that there is little difference between same-sex couples that they cannot marry because marriage must be protected and telling anyone who would violate the sanctity of marriage that they cannot marry. As such, more general restrictions on who can get married (such as people who are not morally good or who are not marrying purely from love) would seem no more (or less) unjust that preventing same sex marriage.
Naturally, being a person with a social conscience and a professional ethicist, I would be willing to accept the position of Marriage Czar and head up the Sanctity Defense Agency to ensure that marriage remains eternally pure and unsullied. No doubt I would have to spend most of my time dissolving existing pseudo-marriages, but I am sure people will thank me for this in the end.
While churches have long enjoyed the ministerial exception rule that allows them to ignore the usual anti-discrimination laws in regards to employment, certain churches have expanded that exception beyond the ministry. For example, Emily Herx was fired from a Roman Catholic school and she claims this was because she used in vitro fertilization(IVF). In response to what she regarded as discrimination, she brought a law suit against the church.
The Roman Catholic Church officially rejects IVF and the church has contended that the sort of lawsuit filed by Herx is a challenge to its right “to make religious based decisions consistent with its religious standards on an impartial basis.” In January of 2012 the United States Supreme Court ruled that religious employers can fire religious workers on the basis of ministerial exception and the employer cannot be sued for discrimination. Rather unfortunately, the Supreme Court neglected to define “religious worker” and this has provided religious employers with considerable cover when they fire employees.
One important concern raised by this sort of situation is whether or not the ministerial exception is morally acceptable or not. A second point of concern is (on the assumption the exception is acceptable) providing an adequate definition of “religious worker.”
On the face of it, the ministerial exception does seem morally unacceptable. After all, it essentially allows religious institutions to discriminate and to “justify” this by appealing to their dogma. This seems rather problematic. After all, if a secular racist or sexist institution claimed a special exemption because of its dogma or ideology, that would be rightfully regarded as absurd. After all, making discrimination part of the dogma hardly serves to transform it from discrimination to something acceptable.
The obvious counter is that religious institutions are relevantly different from all other institutions such that religiously based discrimination is morally acceptable. This, of course, seems rather absurd. After all, if I claim that my sexism or racism comes from God, that hardly seems to magically transform it to something that is acceptable. Naturally, if it can be decisively proven that God exists, that what God commands is good and that God commands us to discriminate in certain ways, then that would be another matter. However, this seems rather unlikely to happen.
Another obvious counter is that religious freedom grants members of religious institutions the moral right to practice their faith. Because of specific doctrines, certain faiths have practices that blatantly violate the anti-discrimination laws, but these must be tolerated on the basis of said freedom.
I am willing to concede that religious liberty, like other liberties, can provide a legitimate basis for exceptions. To use an analogy, people who are conscientious objectors on religious grounds can justly be granted an exemption to military service (or to using weapons if they still wish to serve). That said, there are obvious exceptions to this. For example, the worshipers of Kali used to engage in murder as part of their faith. However, it would seem to be rather wrong to allow the faithful of Kali to murder with impunity. As another example, some religions allow for polygamy, but the United States has not granted this liberty to people of those faiths (or sects if one prefers). If the state can legitimately forbid religious exemptions for murder or polygamy, it seems reasonable that the state can also forbid exemptions for discrimination. After all, while discrimination is not as bad a murder, it still seems immoral (and is clearly illegal) and thus it seems reasonable to forbid discrimination even if a faith insists on practicing discrimination.
I would also argue that when religious institutions go beyond the ministry and enter into the realms of education, hospitals, and other businesses then they are obligated to follow the rules of those areas. A church can hardly accuse the state of trying to violate the separation of church and state when the church insists on entering areas that are legitimately regulated by the state, such as education, hospitals and business. By entering into those areas, the church has voluntarily placed itself under the same rules as the other players-to claim a special exemption because they have some connection to religion would be rather unfair and also absurd. To use an analogy, imagine if an athlete tried to get religious exemptions to the core rules of his or her sport. Obviously that would be absurd-if s/he is competing in the sport, s/he must follow the same rules as everyone else and religion is not a relevant factor in this. If s/he cannot abide by the core rules of the sport, then s/he should not compete. After all, there is no special obligation to grant exemptions to people just because they happen to disagree with the rules.
A final response in defense of religious institutions is to make a utilitarian argument, namely that more harm would be done by compelling religious employers to follow the same laws as everyone else than would be done by compelling them to follow these laws. If this can be shown, then this exception would be acceptable. I am inclined to think that this would actually do more harm than good, but this is somewhat of an empirical matter and can be tested.
In my next post I will address the matter of the legitimate extent of the exception.