I always enjoy and benefit from reading the reports of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Its latest on Emerging Biotechnologies is no exception. I hope to have more to say about the substance of this report in future posts, but for now I want to single out one of its features for questioning. The report makes a great point of the importance of thinking about emerging biotechnologies from what it calls a "public ethics" perspective. The public, the Council urges, has various important interests at stake in the regulation of emerging biotechnologies: the impact they'll have "on a public scale;" the public resources invested in them; the "significance attached to living things;" and their potential to change our lives, and to benefit some at the expense of others. We need to hold these public interests in mind when doing our ethical analyses. We can't leave private or scientific interests in charge. The Council articulates three "values" of public ethics (equity, solidarity and sustainability) and five "procedural virtues" of public ethics (Openness and inclusion,Accountability, Public reasoning, Candour, Enablement, and Caution).
When I first saw this, I thought immediately of Rawls's "Idea of Public Reason." But it turns out there's nothing so subtle or interesting here. Where Rawls was thinking about the kinds of reasons that could properly be mobilized in a public debate (general principles of equity, for example, rather than private religious convictions), the Council's talk of "public ethics" seems to be asserting the claims of public and collective interests against those of private interests. Their insistence on public ethics is not an insistence on a way to conduct ethical debate in public, but rather an insistence that ethical debate should be dominated by public rather than private interests. Normally, regulation is bargained for by those with focused interests in that regulation's structure. Those who would benefit or be burdened by a proposed regulation organize themselves politically in order to shape it. Folks tend not to mobilize and organize to shape regulations that will benefit them or burden them only in a diffuse, small way. (That's why the US Clean Air Act poses a classic mystery for Poli Sci. Its burdens--costs of compliance--were concentrated on a highly-motivated few, while its benefits--slightly cleaner air--were diffuse and uncertain. Yet it passed.) The Council here seems to be arguing, "Don't let the focused interests of industry run away with nanotech or synthetic biology; regulatory framing should instead be dominated by consideration of the admittedly diffuse and disorganized interests of the general public--because, diffuse as they may be, they weigh more in the end than the focused and organized interests of the small numbers of people concerned with developing new biotech."
On this reading, the Nuffield Council's promotion of "public ethics" is a quiet sort of attack on the normative Interest Group Theory of Politics.