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<nettime> biotech, art, and community ethics
Francis Hwang on Sun, 26 Jan 2003 21:19:19 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> biotech, art, and community ethics

Benjamin Geer wrote:

>In 'On Violence'
>Shierry Nicholsen identifies 'groupthink' as a mechanism that
>inhibits ethical reflection. ...
>Perhaps a similar type of groupthink is at work today among the
>scientists and artists whose unbounded enthusiasm for biotech
>brushes aside all ethical considerations.

There's another dynamic as well. Generally speaking, artists are not 
accustomed to having to deal directly with ethical considerations, 
and they may have to if they're going to work in fields like bioart.

Consider the example of nuclear scientists, which Geer brought up. 
The development of the atom bomb, and the subsequent annihilation of 
hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and 
Nagasaki, forced them to confront the possible implications of their 
work. These aren't simple ethical questions, they're knotty and 
multifaceted and when you find yourself possibly implicated, some 
major soul-searching is appropriate, to say the least. Of course in 
an ideal world, Japanese children would never be incinerated in a 
nuclear explosion. But how do we apportion blame? Who is guilty? 
Einstein? Oppenheimer? Truman? Hirohito?

The issues aren't strictly limited to nukes. A more recent example: 
Innovations in weapons design have allowed manufacturers to create 
semi-automatic weapons that are lighter and have less recoil. But as 
a result, military leaders in Africa, southeast Asia, and elsewhere 
have been able to recruit child soldiers because now a 10-year-old 
can carry a gun. (If the U.S. invades Iraq, we'll have to kill quite 
a few of these child soldiers ourselves; I have read nothing to 
convince me that our own troops are so dehumanized as to be capable 
of such a disheartening task.)

If I'm remembering my history correctly, the atom bomb forced 
scientists in general to think about their role in the scheme of the 
world. They formed organizations to exert influence as scientists, 
and there's been a lot more taking of responsibility. Which is not to 
say that all scientists today are ethical, or that their 
interpretations of personal responsibility are uniform across the 

But contrast this picture with artists. Artists, in the traditional 
formulation, are useful to society in large part _because_ of their 
remove from it. They are supposed to act largely with disregard for 
larger community ethics. But part of this luxury, I think, stems from 
the fact, that much of art is about representation of the world, but 
not actually materially changing the world itself. Art is influential 
on society in many subtle ways, of course, but we don't have the 
concerns of nuclear scientists. Artists don't generally ask 
themselves "If I'm successful with this painting, 100,000 Japanese 
civilians will be killed -- am I okay with that?"

Enter bioart, with all its knotty ethical considerations. Or, imagine 
us 50 years in the future seeing the first examples of "nano-art", 
with the slim possibility that each new artistic innovation might 
cause a "grey goo" disaster described by Bill Joy and others. All of 
a sudden we're doing things that others outside the arts community 
have a right to be concerned about. How do we let them into our 

I remember hearing of a ethics panel that was convened in the U.K. to 
discuss the issue of human cloning. There were a lot of different 
people on that panel -- including a priest (or maybe two?). Would we 
be willing to let priests, or any sort of community spiritual or 
ethical leaders, to tell us what sorts of bioart we can and cannot 
create? I can't imagine that ever happening.


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