Team:WITS-South Africa/Philosophy


Human Advances

As the first South African iGEM team, it seems fitting to add to this debate by introducing the theory of ubuntu a means of furthering ethical debate around synthetic biology.

Ubuntu 904.jpg
I am not talking about this - though the penguin is very cute.

I hope to answer the question 'Should ubuntu be seriously considered when making policy?' I am of the opinion that applying the principle of ubuntu might prove to be good policy on both a macro and a micro level. On a micro level, adhering to ubuntu would make scientists and researchers more ethically sensitive. On a macro level ubuntu can maintain sound policy while preserving the importance of individual ethical conduct.

Here is a biref sketch of my argument.- I will be raising raise some key of the main ethical concerns that are raised by our team's lactoguard device. I will then present a workable theory of ubuntu and apply it to these concerns, raised in order to see if doing so can provide constructive insights into how they could be resolved. it can address the issues raised. The paper will therefore be a philosophical 'case study' into bio-ethics.

From this, I will hope to show that ubuntu can provide ethical guidance for synthetic biology, - as it provides both 'internal' and 'external' moral motivations for ethical conduct, and to present a convincing argument that . From this I hope to convince people that the following five 5 tenents of ubuntu can serve as good 'rules of thumb' for ethical conduct within the field:. They are:

• Informal relations are important and have a role in our decision making.

• Community members should show special ‘family-like’ concern for one another and that one’s actions reflect on the community as well as on the individual.

• Every member of that community has a personal stake in its endeavours and should bear some of the responsibility for the community. Conversely, every member should also but also share in the fruits of its endeavours.

• An individual’s contribution to the community does not have to be equal to the benefits that they receive from the community. Some members may be more reliant on the community that than others and some may be expected to contribute more.

• Members of the community have access to the resources of that community and can make use of them in so far as they contribute to the community and are involved with it. They can also profit of from the communities resources, provided that the profit generated goes into supporting the community. I will not fully argue every point – a more comprehensive account is given in my longer paper Anticipating ethical with problems the possible development and distribution of Lactoguard in a South African context. for everything here - one will need to read my full paper for a proper length explaination of everything I have brought up here. But I will not leave you in the dark - here are some bite- sized definitions and explainations that will give you so you can get an idea of what I am talking about and where my arguments will goare. I will also provide some links to external sites that might be of some help.:


Ubuntu is a new field of study in analytical philosophy. I wager Tthis is probably because of the cultural isolation of the Apartheid apartheid years and the general social and political turmoil that has been experienced in on the African continent post-colonialisation Africa. Anyway, on to the positive matter - how do we define ubuntu? Metz describes ubuntu in terms of harmonious relations: ‘An action is right just insofar as it produces harmony and reduces discord; an act is wrong to the extent that it fails to develop community.

Basically, ubuntu is a theory of right action - that it is, it a theory that tells us how to act in order to act in a morally good manner. If we compare Metz's conception of ubuntu with other normative ethical theories, we can see how different ubuntu really is.

Deontologists maintain that an action is right if it is in accordance with some duty or moral rules, such it is wrong to murder. Consequentialists see the moral weight, that is, if the action is good or not, - as resting in the consequences of an action. For example, one might refrain from lying because by not lying one tends to promote good consequences. Consequentialism is often expressed by the saying 'The ends justifies the means'. By Metz's definition we can see that actions can be considered good because of both the duties that harmonious relations have attached to them - such as a duty not to lie or cheat – and . And they can also be considered good because of the consequences that it produces, - such as reconcilling with a person who has wronged you in order to promote harmony in your community. To put this in perspective, - these two schools are traditionally set up in opposition to one another.

I will also argue that ubuntu also has an extra component to it. That component is virtue ethics. Virtue ethics is the oldest form of ethical debate in the 'western' tradition. It's roots are found in the dialogoues and ethical theories of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Virtue ethics is an ethical theory that take the view that it is the concept of virtue that should be of primary concern when analysising moral actions. Virtue is understood as character traits that are considered to be good. Ine of the major problems for virtue ethics is to account for how a person thinks in terms of moralit with refering to duties or concequences. I will this argument is unhelpful - we should instead

I will argue in favour of Metz's conception of ubuntu as I believe it captures the 'Africanness' of ubuntu and is explicit enough to tease out the deontologist, consequentialist and virtue ethical elements of the theory. My contention is that the virtue component of ubuntu is not a distinct object in the ethical framework of the theory in the way that the concept of 'goodness' is considered in classical deontologist and consequentialist theories. Instead, I contendt that ubuntu fosters the development of a sensitivity to ethical situations within the individual in question which can be described as virtue. Ubuntu can therefore be considered to be, at least in part, a character trait.

The Wwikipedia entry on ubuntu alludes to this the connection that I am trying to establish.

Here is Desmond Tutu (who is perhaps one of the best exponents of ubuntu) describing ubuntu

Should we take notice of ubuntu?

I think that that we should. The use of ubuntu is not entirely unpreceidented at a policy level. The philosphy of ubuntu has provided a guiding influenced in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where the focus was not on punishing those responsible (on both sides) for the hideous crimes committed during the struggle against Apartheid. Instead, the focus was on communal harmony and reconcilliation. Desmond Tutu describes his view of restoritive justice:

Here he is again talking about forgiveness:

What would policy look like if it where to be informed by ubuntu? They could possibly look something like these very rough outlines:

• Informal relations should play an important role in governing the industry. A person's work should be scrutinized by his peer's in an informal setting and those recognised as leaders to the best of their abilities. Scientific research and the commercialization of products and knowledge should be subject to the informal approval of peers.

• Members of the synthetic biology community should show a special concern for one another. This concern should extends past beyond the professional relationships. All participants in the research, development, distribution and consumption of goods developed by synthetic biology should be considered part of the synthetic biological community. Also, all members of the community should bear in mind that their actions reflect on the community as well as on themselves.

• Every member of the community has a personal stake in the community and should bear some responsibility for the ensring that it continues to flourish. flourishing of the community. Every member of the community should also share in the fruits of the community’s endeavours. An individual should bear responsibilty for the community to the extent that he or she is involved in the community.

• An individual’s contribution to the community does not have to be equal to the benefits that they receive the community. Some members may be more reliant on the community that others and some may be expected to contribute more. This can be in the form of goods and resources not necessarily linked to work in the field of synthetic biologyical work. For example, some members may rely on the community to provide them with housing or food etc.

• Members of the community have access to the resources and infomation of the community to the extent that they contribute towards the community. Ethically sensitive materials and infomation that the community possesses may be withheld from those outside the community and from those who do not contribute adequately. Mmembers of the community may also generate a profit by utilising the resources and knowledge of the community, - provided that part of the the profit is , in part, goes intouse to supporting the community.

And here's the end result... enjoy the read File:Anticipating moral problems of Lactoguard in a South African context2.pdf


Our resident philosopher, Liam, stops to ponder ethical theory