Business Ethics & Genomics: Interview

I was recently interviewed for the newsletter of Genome Atlantic, about my work at the intersection of Business Ethics & biotechnology / genomics. (I sit on a Genome Atlantic advisory body known as the “GE3LS Forum”. “GE3LS” stands for “Genomics-related, Ethical, Environmental, Economic, Legal, and Social Implications.”)

Here’s the interview.


GA: How would you define ‘business ethics’?

CM: Business ethics is many things to many people. For some, it’s a set of behaviours. For others, it’s a set of rules. For others, like me, it’s a field of study, though hopefully one with practical applications. As a field of study, business ethics can be defined as “the structured, critical examination of questions of right and wrong in the world of commerce.” It’s about looking in a critical way at the choices businesses make, and helping them find the best, most defensible, ways of doing what they do.

GA: You have a special interest in biotech ethics – what’s the appeal for you?

CM: I think the biotech industry is just obviously the most exciting industry on the planet today. People in bioethics have been interested in it and writing about it for years. But I think that now that biotech is increasingly moving from the lab into the marketplace, the business ethics issues are going to start coming to the fore.

GA: What kinds of ethical issues do you find in genomics?

CM: There are so many it would be impossible to name them all. But the ones that currently interest me the most are ones where genomic technologies touch individual consumers. So, questions about the usefulness of non-clinical uses of genetic testing, and the appropriateness of selling such tests direct-to-consumer. Or questions about the labelling of genetically-modified foods: I don’t think GM foods themselves ought to be terribly controversial, but there are interesting questions that arise when the public wants information about their food, and companies refuse to provide it.

GA: GE3LS covers so many areas – is it realistic to think that we can really address all of the issues related to genomics research?

CM: I think there will always be gaps, things we haven’t thought about until they sneak up and bite us. But I think generally, yes, we can hope to address all the key issues, as long as the “we” here is sufficiently broad. It’s not just for university professors like me to think about this stuff. We need an educated public, just as much as we need attention paid to ethical issues by companies, industry associations, and funding agencies.

GA: Personalized genomics seems to be of high interest to you – what issues do you think people really need to be aware of?

CM: I think the first issue is whether the kinds of tests offered by personal genomics companies are truly useful or not. There’s plenty of doubt about whether those kinds of tests can be helpful, or whether they’re more likely to be misleading. But from a business ethics point of view, there’s nothing automatically unethical about selling a product that’s only marginally useful, as long as people know what they’re getting. So that’s the other key issue: do consumers understand how useful (or not) personal genomics services are at this point. And given our best guess about that, what’s the best way for responsible companies to conduct their businesses.

GA: What about other, non-human genomics?

CM: I think the non-human stuff (including agricultural genomics and industrial genomics) is incredibly important, likely increasingly so. Human genomics stuff gets a lot of attention, because it’s easier to relate to. But it seems to me that the ethical issues that arise from both the risks and the benefits of, for example, industrial uses of genetically modified microbes are ones we should be paying more attention to.

GA: Do you think the general public should become more aware of ethical issues in genomics, or should we feel secure knowing that people like you are making this an essential part of your work?

CM: Absolutely, the public needs to be more aware. If, as they say ‘war is too important to leave to the generals,’ ethical issues in genomics are far too important to leave to the philosophers. I do what I can to help companies and the general public frame the relevant questions clearly, but answering them is definitely not something I want to do on my own.


About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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