Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education Website Archive

The content on this page and other DIISRTE archive pages is provided for historical reference only. The material in the DIISRTE archive has been superseded, or served a purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application.

Content in the archive may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available. Links to external websites do not constitute an endorsement or a recommendation of material on those sites or of any products or services offered by, from or through those sites.

Ethics of biotechnology

Ethics are the rules or standards that govern the way people behave and their decisions on the ‘right thing’ to do. It asks basic questions about what is right and wrong, how we should act towards others and what we should do in specific situations.

It is important to note that ethics discussing biotechnology and its applications are not fundamentally different from other situations. Ethics are practiced by everyone, every day.

One common feature of ethics is that different people with different values often disagree on the ‘right thing’ for individuals and society. One reason for this disagreement is that one thing that benefits some may not be of benefit to others.

An example is embryonic stem cell research, which some people see as having great potential to develop cures for diseases; but others object to because it involves the destruction of human embryos that have the potential to become a human being.

There is no clear right or wrong position in ethics, as a person’s individual experience and view of the world often guides the way they make ethical choices.

For instance, someone who has a strong environmental outlook might see the use of genetically modified (GM) crops as unnatural. But someone who has a strong scientific-based view of the world might see the use of GM crops as a natural extension of traditional crop breeding technologies.

Commercial outcomes and ethics

Many new technologies raise ethical concerns that might not be part of the world view held by those who develop the technologies in the first place.

When it comes to developing products for commercial use, the goal is usually to increase sales and increase profits for shareholders. The decision for developing products can be seen as good for industry development, but perhaps not as good for some individuals who do not have products developed to suit their needs when there is not enough company profit to be made. Also, in some areas of biotechnology development, the money needed to fund research projects is out of the range of individuals or small groups and can only be undertaken by multinational or overseas companies. For some this is perceived as acceptable, as it helps local researchers form links with wealthy larger companies. But others do not think it is not acceptable, as local research and development leave the community and are then controlled by international corporations.

Many people believe that biotechnology products and applications should respond to and fulfil community needs. For example, some products may be of obvious social benefit (such as a drug that treats cancer), while others may be created by a business by attractive advertising and skilful marketing (for example, unusual coloured flowers for the floral industry or fluorescent fish for the pet industry).

In a world with decreasing resources, where many people go hungry, is spending research dollars on developing a fluorescent fish an acceptable thing or not? Your answer will differ depending on your world view.

When looking at ethical positions it is important to realise that the ‘right thing’ for one person may not be right for others and it can be very difficult to balance these conflicting views.

There are particular ethical positions that are commonly shared, such as the view that it is essential for all biotechnology products to be safe for humans and the environment (which is why Australia has developed a sound regulatory system to look at safety). But other ethical positions are diverse, such as an individual’s rights to do what they want with their body.

This interactive explores the ethics of gene therapy in more detail.

Frameworks for ethics

There are many different ethical ways to view the world and none of these are inherently right or wrong. There are many approaches, or frameworks, to ethics. Some of these approaches are listed below:

Action-based (whether or not actions in a particular circumstance are ethical):

  • Principalism uses benefit-maximising and harm-reducing principles.
  • Consequentialism is based on the greatest good for the greatest number.
  • Non-consequentialism (deontology) refers to rights and responsibilities.

Agent-based (emphasis on the person rather than the action they perform):

  • Virtue-based can acknowledge character traits over consequences.

Situation-based (a broader perspective that takes into account other factors such as time, place and culture):

  • Casuistry considers each situation to be completely unique.
  • Feminist concentrates on communication, consultation and sensitivity.
  • Geocultural focuses on relativity (cultural, special and time-specific contexts).

You can explore these approaches to ethics in more detail with this interactive.