Ethics, Culture and Biotechnology

Leiden University | 2017-2018 Academic Year, 2nd Quarter | Prof. Dr. Robert Zwijnenberg
Leiden University catalog number: 5000MRI14

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Course Description

Contemporary biotechnological practices (such as genetic modification) that involve manipulation of living beings present a challenge to traditional notions of nature and the human body. This is particularly true of synthetic biology, a form of bioengineering which includes both the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems and the re-designing of existing natural biological systems. These developments pose pressing and urgent questions. Firstly, who has the right to re-design life? This is ultimately a question of legal and moral ownership and of the commodification of life and nature. Secondly, do we, as a society, think it is necessary to re-design life, and if so, how do we want to re-design nature and the human body? What limits do we wish to impose on biotechnological innovation involving nature and the human body? And what notion of 'being human' or human dignity and of nature are these limits based on?

The opportunities and possibilities of biotechnology challenge us to seek new approaches to the ethical, cultural, juridical and economic issues relating to biotechnological practices. The starting point of this course is that biotechnology is testing accepted ethical and aesthetic values concerning the human body and nature to such an extent that we need multiple perspectives in our search for a theoretical and practical position on new biotechnological challenges and developments. In particular, we will consider the contribution of art in this debate. We will discuss how artworks that engage with biotechnological practices enable the artist and the beholder to actively experiment with new ways of being, behaving and constituting subjectivities in relation to biotechnological developments. 

Learning objectives

  • Describe key ethical issues in biotechnology and its products;
  • Describe key historical and cultural issues in biotechnology and its products;
  • Identify individual and social barriers that play a role in the application of biotechnological innovations;
  • Identify various perspectives and values in the public debate surrounding biotechnology;
  • Reflect upon the role of the industry and the entrepreneur in addressing ethical issues regarding a biotechnological product;
  • Develop debating skills and critical reading skills.

During our course, we will be contacting 3 debate sessions on contemporary bioethical issues. All students will be assigned in groups, you will stay in the same group throughout the course. However, we will be rotating debate panels and jury panels across sessions.
At the end of the course you also will need to hand in an individual written paper (2000 words).

Final grade: 40% group assignment + 60% written paper

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