Bioethics and Sustainable Development

Journal: pp. 112-114 in World Development: Aid and Foreign Direct Investment 1999/2000 , AJ. Fairclough, ed., (London: Kensington Publications 1999).
Author: Darryl R. J. Macer
The gift that we receive when we are born into this world is love. While it is a gift that few are deprived of, a deprivation that is in itself an insult to the humanity that our flesh embodies, it is a norm for all forms of life for the new life to be given a good start. How will human beings continue to provide the food, shelter and community that is the demands of love? This is the subject for bioethics.

Bioethics is both a word and a concept. The word comes to us only from 1970 (2), yet the concept comes from human heritage thousands of years old (3). It is the concept of love, balancing benefits and risks of choices and decisions. The balancing of principles, self-love (autonomy), love of others (justice), loving life (do no harm) and loving good (beneficence) can provide us with a vehicle to express our values according to the desire to love life. This heritage can be seen in all cultures, religions, and in ancient writings from around the world. We in fact cannot trace the origin of bioethics back to their beginning, as the relationships between human beings within their society, within the biological community, and with nature and God, are formed at an earlier stage then our history would tell us.

In my book, Bioethics is Love of Life (1) I argue that "love of life" is the simplest and most all encompassing definition of bioethics, and it is universal among all peoples of the world. The need for bioethics is being re-emphasized internationally, in UN Declarations, in statements of scientists and teachers, in the views of ordinary people, and as a response to the decay in the environment and moral fabric of societies as seemingly distant as Eskimos and Tamils.

To begin with we need to think of what we mean as "bioethics". I think there are at least three ways to view bioethics.

1. Descriptive bioethics is the way people view life, their moral interactions and responsibilities with living organisms in their life.

2. Prescriptive bioethics is to tell others what is ethically good or bad, or what principles are most important in making such decisions. It may also be to say something or someone has rights, and others have duties to them.

3. Interactive bioethics is discussion and debate between people, groups within society, and communities about 1 and 2 above.

Developing and clarifying prescriptive bioethics allows us to make better choices, and choices that we can live with, improving our life and society. In order to inform our prescriptive bioethics we need to describe the bioethics that people have been following, and the bioethic that they have today, which was largely the focus of the earlier book, Bioethics for the People by the People (3). Prescriptive bioethics demands some actions that we need to promote more sustainable development.

We can find various definitions of bioethics, the simplest would be consideration of the ethical issues raised by questions involving life ("bio"). I would include all of the above issues of medical ethics, as well as questions I face each day, like "What food should I eat?", "How is the food grown?", "Where should I live and how much disturbance of nature should I make?", "What relationships should I have with fellow organisms including human beings?", "How do I balance the quality of my life with development of love of my life, other's lives and the community?", and so many more you can think of.

All living organisms are biological beings, and share a common and intertwined biological heritage. The process or time scale over which all life was made is not so remarkable as the species and ecosystems that we have today, or those that we can see from the fossils. The inter-relatedness of all living organisms can be readily seen in most ecosystems. All organisms need water, all organisms have the same genetic code and share similar genes. All creatures appear, at first sight at least, to be temporal, they live and they die. This relatedness is expressed by the idea that they are all alive. They share something - life. There is also a continuity between inorganic and organic, ecology refers to the relationship of every organism with the environment.

In the 1930s Aldo Leopold proposed a land ethic, to protect the land from further degradation, focusing on the degarded land although 70% of the world is covered by water and some have suggested aqua ethics may be a better term. Leopold (4) proposed land ethic "as a mode of guidance for meeting ecological situations so new or intricate, or involving such deferred reactions, that the path of social expediency is not discernible to the average individual". Despite the nice words and sentiments, from the lack of practical concern shown for the environment it appears that environmental protection is not a dominating motivation in peoples lives.

One of the aspects of nature which people seem to love is a diversity of living organisms. People put high value on biodiversity. The United Nations World Charter for Nature (1982) declared "Every form of life is unique, warranting respect regardless of its worth to man". This type of valuation is extrinsic. We need to ask whether there is intrinsic value to nature and life? We could reconsider the term selfishness as the conservation of intrinsic value, but we left with a fact that "The planet loves life and so do we" (5). Many want to protect nature, not because of its value or property, but simply because it is there. As Mary Midgley (6) wrote about the duty of care and responsibility in the use of the terms "motherland" and "fatherland", "To insist that it is really only a duty to the exploiting human beings is not consistent with the emphasis often given to reverence for the actual trees, mountains, lakes, rivers and the life which are found there. A decision to inhibit this rich area of human love is a special maneuver for which reasons would need to be given, not a dispassionate analysis of existing duties and feelings."

This widespread respect for nature and life was seen in the results of the International Bioethics Survey and the comments and pictures have been reproduced in the book Bioethics for the People by the People (3). By more research into the way people look at nature, we can find shared universal ideas about the relationship of humans to the earth and human responsibility to nature. We should emphasize the value of being alive and the principles of do no harm and environmental stewardship common to the roots of all people's beliefs. If we consider a complete bioethics we must include the duties we have to human beings as well as to nature. In the midst of growing awareness of environmental change and damage we should be aware of the need for sustainable living (1). We not only have to view the environment in its role as essential to human existence, but we should value the environment itself.

We can argue for conservation from human dependence upon the environment, an anthropocentric environmental ethic. Preservation has socio-economic benefits, and in some countries nature tourism is one of the major, or the main, income earner. Reduced diversity also eliminates the options to use untapped resources for agriculture, medicine and industry. More value could be obtained by harvesting the renewable resources from tropical forests than deforestation. In agriculture the use of wild crops in breeding crop plants has accounted for half the production increases, and is estimated to account for US$1 billion annually, in U.S. agriculture. Future gains in production will also depend on the use of genetic diversity as well as genetic manipulation. Nature provides the raw materials, the genes. There are indirect benefits of wild species such as the role in pollination, pest control, storing flood waters, and detoxifying many pollutants to name a few.

Food concerns are a basic need to humans, and there is also a strong case to make a right to food a basic human right, as argued by the Food and Agricultural Organization at the World Food Summit in 1996. Agriculture has been more than the supply of food, it has been credited with the birth of "civilisation" and cultures, when humans changed from hunter gatherers to planting crops and having domestic animals. The food supply is sufficient now, if distributed properly, however, we cannot trust people to give food to the hungry. Improvements are still necessary, especially given the increasing areas of the world which have salty ground and unpredictable rainfall. Stewardship also leaves room for the genes of organisms to be altered if it presents a better alternative to the other options available for providing food for other members of the human race. There is no inherent "sanctity of the genes" in this approach, however, we may value to maintenance of existing species and "natural" nature beyond our agricultural use, as the survey results show world-wide.

Some agricultural issues are transnational, for example ocean resources. Only about 30% of the world's fish catch is from cultured areas, whereas fish like tuna are almost entirely from the use of international ocean resources. Most maritime nations have declared 200 mile limits within which they claim prior rights to exploit marine resources, including fish. Therefore international fishing strategies are necessary, and we can see many examples of over-fished species. The form that such fishery protection takes is often to enact quotas, a given number of fish of each species that should be caught. This raises issues of global bioethics, justice and tolerance.

Sustainable living involves not just efficient agriculture, but also minimizing our energy use and pollution. The spirit of love is to minimize consumption and disturbance of others. It involves changing public policy and the very way people think. We must realize how important the use of new technology is when it aids this process, and work towards this goal. The type of research that is required for a transition to a lasting earth is of three broad types (3). One is the use of science to discover the workings of nature, such as elemental cycles, and developing technology for energy and resource conservation. Another is economic systems that are consistent with sustainable living. In the long term the most important approach is a lasting change of human attitudes to those that are compatible with sustainable life. We need lifestyle change. We cannot isolate any environmental problem from the whole crisis of modern life. The environment is influenced mainly by human behaviour, national and international development, economics and politics. Changing the way human beings behave towards each other is a supernatural task, that can be aided by all of us changing our attitudes.

We also need to ask what type of world is sustainable? Current economics do not consider the environment and its value, and this needs to change. By taking into account the value of the environment, we are thinking of long term interests, something that is not considered in most modern economic policies. Sustainability may occur only in a more human-constructed and designed world than that of today. Nature which contains less diversity and complexity may be the norm for many. To retain a major proportion of the original biodiversity is only possible if people decide to leave some of the areas of nature undisturbed, and some for nature to reestablish.

Already the social and cultural religions of many cultures do attempt to control human lifestyle for the benefit of the environment. The concept of harmony with nature is found in many cultures. The problem is that selfish behaviour of people, combined with the preeminence given to modern economic policy which does not value the environment, means the environment is destroyed and exploited. Ethically, one guiding principle is to try to pursue the greatest happiness for the greatest number. However, happiness is not necessarily related to the consumption of energy and goods, and creation of pollution. Generally, the real quality of life will not be decreased by decreased energy and resource consumption. It is symbolic that in the pictures of life in the International Bioethics Surveys, a picture from Thailand had someone riding a bicycle in the countryside, whereas in Australia or Singapore, for example, they were driving a car! (3).

How can we change these values? Respecting autonomy encourages free lifestyle choice, and suitable environmental-"friendly" options could be promoted as "trendy" pursuits, however, these are likely to be insufficient. One ethical possibility is personal environmental quotas as an incentive to lifestyle change, which I suggested in 1991 (7). These would be possible if people of the world believe that the environmental crisis is important, and are prepared to change their lifestyles. These quotas would give every person an equal quota of environmental currency. We could modify so that people could trade these quotas with others for a regulated set cash price if they wanted to do so. Quotas would provide encouragement, and some penalties for those who can abuse the system. We could impose environmental sales taxes on luxury products in money terms, but this would still allow the rich to purchase them and continue their pursuits, while the middle class could not. This would be inconsistent with our ethical principle of distributive justice. The consumption of all goods could be given an environmental points value, and this could be summed for each person. The consumption would be monitored, rather than the production (which would be subject to government pollution emissions control). If a production facility uses a more polluting method it would result in high demerit points, whereas if it was very clean and energy efficient it would be given a low demerit point score. This would allow consumer pressure to result in a change in production efficiency, and also would limit excessive consumerism. The consumption would be assigned to the country of consumption, rather than the country of production. There should also be production efficiency limits. This would still allow free international trade, but would encourage the adoption of more environmentally sustainable processes.

The main objection to this approach comes from the group who claim that the pursuit of individual freedom is the most important ethical principle. If people cannot pursue their freedom to consume as much as they wish, they call it a violation of individual liberty. However, we also recognize limitations on individual liberty when activity prevents others from pursuing the same amount of liberty. Love points us to face others, we are not isolated individuals but one family of life. At least we can conclude that we should all try a little harder to reach the common ideal, and the world would be a better place. Let us try.


1. Darryl Macer, Bioethics is Love of Life, Christchurch: Eubios Ethics Institute, 1998.

2. Potter,V.R. Bioethics, Bridge to the Future , Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1971.

3. Macer, D.R.J. Bioethics for the People by the People, Christchurch: Eubios Ethics Institute, 1998.

4. Leopold, Aldo. "The land ethic" in A Sand Country Almanac and Sketches Here and There, New York: Oxford University Press, 1949.

5. Rolston, Holmes III. Conserving Natural Value, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

6. Midgley, Mary. "Duties concerning Islands", Encounter 60 (1983), 36-44.

7. Macer, D. Eubios Ethics Institute Newsletter 1 (1991), 43.

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