The ethics of global catastrophic risk from dual-use bioengineering

A discussion of ethical and legal issues arising from bioengineered technologies that could benefit humanity or pose risk of a global catastrophe.

Seth D. Baum and Grant S. Wilson, 2013. The ethics of global catastrophic risk from dual-use bioengineering. Ethics in Biology, Engineering and Medicine, vol. 4, no. 1, pages 59-72.

Pre-print: Click here to view a full pre-print of the article (pdf).

* This paper was written for a talk of the same title presented at the 7th Annual International Conference on Ethical Issues In Biomedical Engineering.

* Blog discussion at Global Catastrophic Risk Institute

Global catastrophic risks (GCRs) are risks of events that could significantly harm or even destroy civilization at the global scale. GCR raises a number of profound ethical issues, with a range of ethical theories suggesting that GCR reduction should be society's top priority. This paper discusses GCR ethics in the context of dual-use bioengineering: bioengineering that can cause either benefit or harm, including increases and decreases in GCR. Advances in bioengineering offer great promise, but also introduce new perils. Key ethical questions include what phenomena hold intrinsic value and how the phenomena are valued across space and time. Another key question is how decisions about bioengineering risks should be made. The global scope of bioengineering and GCR suggests a role for international law. Bioengineering does not fall neatly within existing international regimes such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, Cartagena Protocol, and Biological Weapons Convention. An international regime with comprehensive coverage of bioengineering would help address dual-use bioengineering as it relates to GCR.

Non-Technical Summary: pdf version

Background: Dual-Use Bioengineering and Global Catastrophic Risk
Dual-use technologies are technologies that can be used in both beneficial and harmful ways. Some technologies produced through biological engineering (bioengineering) are dual-use. Of all the possible harms from dual-use technologies, global catastrophic risk is a significant concern. Global catastrophic risks (GCRs) are risks of events that could significantly harm or even destroy civilization at the global scale. This paper discusses ethical issues raised by those bioengineered technologies that pose a GCR. The paper also explores how international law can reduce GCR from dual-use bioengineering.

Ethics of Global Catastrophic Risk
Different ethical views will reach different conclusions about the importance of GCR. Some views consider GCR to be very important; others do not. Certain views could even consider global catastrophe to be a good thing. For example, if the main priority is to reduce suffering, then global catastrophes that kill many people would be good because those people would no longer suffer. But ethical views that let the good in life outweigh the bad generally conclude that global catastrophes are bad. Views that value all people equally consider GCR to be especially bad because global catastrophes involve so many people. Indeed, these egalitarian views often find that reducing the risk of global catastrophe is a top priority for humanity.

Benefits and Risks of Bioengineering
Bioengineering has already led to major benefits in fields like medicine, leading to breakthroughs like a vaccine for human papillomavirus and gene therapy techniques to treat diseases, and agriculture, where genetically engineered crops increase yields and possess favorable traits such as drought and herbicide resistance. But dual-use bioengineering has also been used to create weapons and other threats. Some bioengineering technologies also have the potential to influence GCR, either by reducing the risk, increasing it, or both. For example, while a genetically engineered virus could help create vaccines to prevent a pandemic, such a virus could also unintentionally escape from the lab. Or, bioterrorists could use the virus as a blueprint to create an extremely deadly biological weapon.

International Regulation of GCRs from Bioengineering
GCR arising from bioengineering has an inherently international scope. A global catastrophe from bioengineering could impact the entire planet, and bioengineering research and development can be done anywhere in the world. Therefore, international law is an appropriate tool to regulate bioengineering. While some aspects of bioengineering already fall under existing international treaties, these treaties do not sufficiently curtail the GCRs that arise from dual-use bioengineering. One solution is to create a new international legal regime that either regulates bioengineering alone or both bioengineering and other emerging technologies. Other international law options include nonbinding international norms (‘soft law’) and the establishment of an organization dedicated to mitigating GCR from emerging technologies.

Created 28 Jun 2013 * Updated 7 Jan 2014