Social Justice

The emerging technologies raise social justice dilemmas on three different axes.  These are the intergenerational, the international, and the intra-national axes.   Their impact has already been enormous.  Vaccinations have improved health outcomes the world over, though some communities still do not have access to them.  More controversially, GM crops are increasing harvests not only in parts of the developed world but the developing world too.  However the debate rages as to whether GM crops assist or harm the interests of developing countries, or whether they may build up unknown risks for future generations.

This page focuses on the impact of the new and converging technologies as applied to human reproduction and enhancement.  The dilemmas are not entirely new, with some echoing earlier controversies in health care and biotechnologies.  However the potential influence of the emerging technologies is such that it poses new challenges for intergenerational, international and intra-national justice.

“Enhanced humans will manifest and reinforce their philosophy
in their biology.”

1) Intergenerational Justice

Each generation has the power to influence the next generation.  In particular parents have the opportunity to shape the lives of their children.  Some insist that their children study hard, many seek to ensure that their children have a range of sporting, musical or artistic opportunities.  In most cases parents want to give their children the best possible start in life and the highest chance of happiness and success.  Although Western liberal political philosophy values the freedom of individuals to make their own choices in life, it is a rare for a critic to argue that parenting violates freedom.  Instead, we recognise that a good parent seeks to give their children the widest possible range of life chances and opportunities, and to prepare them to choose their own way in live as they mature.

The emerging technologies, especially through genetic engineering and pharmaceutical drugs administered in childhood, greatly enhance the power of influence that parents have over their children.  In time however, it could make the parent’s ability to shape a child’s life increasingly irresistible.  The relationship between parent and child could shift subtly towards a more controlling one; whereas a child today can abandon her parent’s values and choose her own way of life once she is of sufficient age, a child engineered to be compliant for example, could never escape the mould in which her biochemistry as well as formative years were shaped.  As the US President’s Council on Bioethics noted, “in as much as the consequences of genetic screening are imposed before birth and are carried as the child’s permanent biological destiny, the inegalitarian effect of the new technology is unprecedented and irreversible.” 2

With the new power that parents could yield over their young, would come new risks of exploitation of the children concerned.  Whereas the ‘genetic lottery’ of conventional sexual reproduction leaves parents guessing as to the balance of aptitudes and characteristics that their child will inherit from them, and ultimately unable to choose the child’s distinctive skills or interests, genetic and pharmaceutical enhancement could change this.  In the cliché, parents often attempt to live their frustrated aspirations out through their children, some enhancement technologies could give them the power to do this as never before.  The ability to choose the characteristics of children risks violating the Kantian maxim that human beings should never be treated as means to ends.  At the very same time that children could become more vulnerable to such exploitation, their ability to resist would be reduced: “Eugenic programming of desirable traits and dispositions…gives rise to moral misgivings as soon as it commits the person concerned to a specific life-project or…puts specific restrictions on his freedom to choose a life of his own.” 3 Moreover, it is notable that the most well meaning parental choices may be made at unforeseen cost to the child; for example research indicates that intelligence – a trait one can imagine being widely selected – is linked to increased disposition to suicide.4

In addition to a disruption in the power relationship between parent and child, the power relationship between wider groups of old and young could also be disrupted by the emerging technologies.  Some environmentalists argue that when we exploit the environment now, we do so at the expense of future generations who will have to manage the waste, pollution and depleted resources we leave.  Similarly, some applications of emerging technologies to the human species similar may bequeath problems, known and unknown to our descendents.  This is particularly concerning because we do not entirely know or understand the functioning of the human body, either genetically, or the way in which drugs administered to one generation may impact its offspring.  ‘Enhancement’ decisions based on contingent cultural choices (such as favouring slimness) may have unforeseen consequences for future generations, who could suffer the loss of the health benefits of conditions we filter out of the population.

It has been seen that the emerging technologies could enable injustices to be perpetrated by one generation on other through the misuse of its powers.  However, if we have responsibilities to future generations at all then they are not simply to prevent certain abuses, but also to see how best we can use our capacities for the greater good.  The challenge to this generation is to develop our science and philosophy such that human beings are empowered to flourish freely, and to avoid any pursuit of “the power to make its descendants what it pleases,” and finding that as C.S. Lewis feared, “all men who live after it are the patients of that power.”

2) International

Biotechnology has already had an enormous impact on the international environment.  Millions of lives in both the developed and developing world have been saved, and continue to be saved by vaccination and remedial health care.  Looking ahead, the emerging technologies have the potential to help feed a growing global population and assist with associated problems such as pollution and waste disposal.  For example, Asian land suitable for rice cultivation is in serious decline.  Genes that encode for salt tolerance can be transgenically transferred from mangrove plants into rice.  In this way, salt tolerant crops could be cultivated for farming on soils which would otherwise be unproductive.  GM organisms can also be designed to remove toxic substances from ground and surface waters, and to convert industrial waste into ecological benign materials; in south India a distillery has used such a process to convert its biological waste into fuel, fish food, and organic fertilisers.5

However, the bio and emerging technologies have also been subject to ethical criticism on the grounds that the developed world experiences most of their benefits, whereas the developing world frequently bears some of their less palatable burdens.

The structure of the bio and emerging technology industries is such that research and development into the health problems of developing nations is not financially lucrative.  This leads to the 90/10 divide, whereby less than 10% of the world's biomedical research funds are dedicated to addressing problems that are responsible for 90% of the world's burden of disease; some argue that justice requires that governments should fund such research.6

Moreover, many argue that the developing world is positively exploited in the course of biotech research: "One particular feature of North-South transactions which is noted is precisely the fact that it now happens that genetic material is taken from Third World countries, developed and modified in first world countries, and then made available for use in Third World countries, under patent protection, of course, and at much higher prices. This is seen as peculiarly problematic since what really belongs to the Third World is being appropriated by the first world and then only made available to poorer countries on terms dictated by richer countries. Thus, it might be suggested, though at every stage there may be legal justice, the overall effect is social injustice."7

The international justice aspects of biotechnology have been raised in several international declarations.

In 1997 the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights led the way with its article 19, which aspires towards a framework of international co-operation with developing countries, with measures to reduce research abuse in this area, to enhance the capacity of developing countries to research in the fields of human biology and genetics, and to promote the distribution of the benefits of research in all nations, to the benefit of all.

The International Declaration on Human Genetic Data (2003) has articles relating to the circulation of research data and international cooperation (article 18), and to the sharing of benefits (article 19).

The Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (2005) recognises in its preamble that "unethical scientific and technological conduct has had particular impact on indigenous and local communities", and stresses that there is a need to ensure "international cooperation in the field of bioethics, taking into account in particular the special needs of developing countries, indigenous communities and vulnerable populations."  Transnational health research, it states, should be responsive to the needs of host countries, and the importance of research to contribute to the alleviation of urgent global health problems should be recognized.  Moreover, states should take appropriate measures, both at the national and the international level, to combat bioterrorism, illicit traffic in organs, tissues and samples, genetic resources and genetic-related materials.

The UN Declaration on Human Cloning (2005) reaffirms, in its preamble, that "the applications of the life sciences should seek to offer relief from suffering and improve the health of individuals and humankind as a whole."

3) Community Justice

a) A biotech underclass?

Some commentators have suggested that the emerging technologies could cause humans to be divided into separate species, like the Eloi and Morlocks in H.G. Wells' sci-fi classic The Time Machine.  Wells' idea may seem improbable, however it anticipates Lee Silver's distinction between the "GenRich" and the "naturals"8.  These new ‘classes' refer to concerns that a social divide might emerge between the enhanced and the unenhanced in communities.

The poor may be disadvantaged if technology develops so that individuals and parents are able to purchase its benefits for themselves and their offspring,  In the words of the President's Council on Bioethics, "we may face severe aggravations of existing ‘unfairnesses' in the ‘game of life'.  Just as today elective surgery is more accessible to the well endowed, so also in the future new elective treatments will likely be exploited more by the rich.  This will be especially concerning in the context of treatments which perpetuate the differences in life chances between rich and poor.  For example, if a social elite were able to sustain its social position and that of its offspring through enhanced intelligence that was prohibitively expensive for the poor, then a new, particularly resilient social stratification could emerge.

Some suppose that the problem would be temporary, and that the beneficially effects would gradually drip down from the elite, through to the whole of society.  Most of the warnings about the dangers, alleges Gregory Stock, "will come from the people with the most to lose - the well-endowed elite.  Surely theirs are the children who would ultimately suffer from the arrival of a genetic bazaar where all parents can obtain equivalent talents and potentials for their children."9 However others claim that, even if the cost of treatments falls, (as Stock assumes), new, better and more expensive treatments would continue to be discovered and the rich will continue to have better access to the best advantages technology can bring.  It seems that some of the classic arguments between the left and right of the political spectrum in the 20th century may be rehearsed over again in the 21st century in the context of access to emerging technologies.

b) Vulnerable BioConsumers?

Concerns have been raised that the power of marketing may be used to exploit consumers of new technologies.  One branch of received wisdom holds that, provided consumers have free and informed choice, expanding the choices available to them can only be good.

However, others fear that irresponsible pursuit of profit might lead to the abuse of merging technologies at greater cost to consumers than the transparent price of their treatment.  As the President's Council on Bioethics noted, "[d]esires can be manufactured almost as effectively as pills, especially if the pills work more or less as promised to satisfy the newly stimulated desires."10 Ulrich Beck, the influential German sociologist of science, has argued that techno-economic action "remains shielded from the demands of democratic legitimation by its own constitution."11 Despite the apparent liberties cultivated by free capitalism, the market may develop in a direction that conflicts with the unmanipulated desires and interests of citizens.  As another commentator obverses, in a book that broadly embraces the widest potentials of bio and emerging technology: "Many parents-to-be, if they could use germinal choice technology to shape their children, would seek the very attributes that advertisers are pushing...Physical attributes will be an enticing target for potential adjustment because people, particularly women, are often judged by their appearance." 12  Therefore carefully considered regulation, and public accountability are required so that the risks of exploited technology do not contaminate its potential.

Similarly there is concern about the use of psychotropic drugs on adults.  Margaret Little, arguing from a feminist perspective, has argued that medics can be drawn into an ‘ethic of complicity' in which they reinforce destructive social stereotypes through their prescribing practises.  On a more popular level, Germaine Greer, alarmed that psychotrophic drugs are prescribed to women twice as frequently as to men, argues that drugs like anti-depressants oppress women by ameliorating their situations only enough to prevent the change in their living conditions that would facilitate fulfilling lives for those women13.

4) Many outstanding questions

Luddite rejection of change is no solution to the social justice problems that emerging technology could introduce; one might equally argue that preventing technological development, with all its economic and medical potential, would be no less a violation of social justice.  Moreover heavy-handed prohibitions open society up to the threat of unmonitored defection.14

The current consensus is that careful, democratically accountable regulation offers the best route through the social and ethical dilemmas posed by technology.  However the challenge of meaningful democratically shaped science policy remains a theoretical and logistical problem.

5) Associated Reading

Beck, U., Risk Society, (London: SAGE publications, 1992 [first published 1986])

Demos, The Slow Race (2006) [Available online:]

Dower, N., Biotechnology and the Third World, [Available online:]

Fukuyama, F., Our Posthuman Future, (London: Profile Books, 2002)

Gardner, W., "Can Human Genetic enhancement be Prohibited?" Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 20:65-84

Habermas, J., The Future of Human Nature, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003) 

Hulse, Joseph H.,  "Ethical Issues in biotechnoliges and international trade", Journal of Chemical Technolgiy and Biotechology, 77:607-615 (online: 2002)

Persaud, J, "Does Smarter mean happier", in Miller and Wilsdon (eds), Better Humans, (London: Demos, 2006) [Available online: ]

President's Council on Bioethics, Beyond Therapy, (2003), [Available online:]

Schepher-Hughes, N., (2000), ‘The global traffic in human organs', Current Anthropology, 41 (2) Silver, L., Remaking Eden, (New York: Avon books, 1997)

Stock, G., Resdesigning Humans: our inevitable genetic future, (London: Profile books, 2002)

International Declarations with reference to international biotech justice:

  1. Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights 2005
  2. UN Declaration on Human Cloning 2005
  3. Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights 1997
  4. International Declaration on Human Genetic Data 2003



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References & Links

  1. Gregory Stock, Redesigning Humans: our inevitable genetic future, (London: Profile books, 2002) p. 123
  2. President's Council on Bioethics, Beyond Therapy, (2003), [Available online: ], p. 52
  3. Jurgen Habermas, The Future of Human Nature, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003), p. 61
  4. Raj Persaud, "Does Smarter mean happier", in Miller and Wilsdon (eds), Better Humans, (London: Demos, 2006) [Available online: ], pp. 129-136
  5. Both examples: Joseph H.  Hulse, "Ethical Issues in biotechnoliges and international trade", Journal of Chemical Technolgiy and Biotechnology, 77:607-615 (online: 2002). P 610
  6. David B. Resnik, "The Distribution of BioMedical Research  Resources and International Justice", in  Developing World Bioethics, 4.1: 42-57
  7. Nigel Dower , Biotechnology and the Third World,  
  8. Lee Silver, Remaking Eden, (New York: Avon books, 1997)
  9. Gregory Stock, Redesigning Humans: our inevitable genetic future, (London: Profile books, 2002), p. 190
  10. President's Council on Bioethics, Beyond Therapy, (2003), [Available online: ], p. 304
  11. Ulrich Beck, Risk Society,(London: SAGE publications, 1992 [first published 1986]), p. 222
  12. Gregory Stock, Redesigning Humans: our inevitable genetic future, (London: Profile books, 2002), p. 118
  13. Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman,(London: Transworld, 2000), p. 217-228
  14. See: William Gardner, "Can Human Genetic enhancement be Prohibited?" Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 20:65-84