Capitalism and Biotechnology

Writing in the Spring 2006 issue of The New Atlantis, Eric Cohen has an interesting article entitled “Biotechnology and the Spirit of Capitalism”. In it he looks at how unfettered capitalism and unbridled Big Biotech are quickly becoming a dangerous tandem.

In the first third of his article Cohen examines the relationships between religion, morality and capitalism. He looks at three versions of this relationship. Originally capitalism was strongly connected with both morality and religion. As Max Weber argued, the Protestant Reformation helped pave the way for capitalism, and the creation of wealth developed initially along the lines expressed by John Wesley: “earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can”.

Others, notably Voltaire, took a quite different view of trade and commerce, detaching it from any religious roots and putting it in the service of self and self-love. In this view, worldly pleasures replaced other-worldly ambitions.

Third, and as a mediating position, Adam Smith saw the creation of wealth as the handmaiden of the good life on earth, but with moderation and the creation of a decent society as the goal.

With this backdrop in mind, Cohen argues that modern capitalism tends to be more in the mould of Voltaire, with little concern for moral or social considerations. This is especially seen in the rise of modern biological science.

The “new commerce of the body” as Cohen describes it, is often at odds with important moral, social and human goods. While much of the new biotechnology is a force for good, there is much to be concerned about. Cohen provides five examples of how the biotech revolution, aided and abetted by capitalism, is leading us off the rails.

Take the example the practice of human egg selling. In market terms such transactions make perfect sense: a childless couple is willing to pay big money to get someone’s donated (sold) egg: and the seller is assisted in paying for a college education, or what have you. However, this comes with a cost: “But in human terms, it means finding a seller who denies the very human longing that the buyer wishes to act upon. It requires a seller who is willing to betray his or her own flesh and blood offspring – not out of desperation, but for a price.”

Or take the mushrooming trade in psychotropic drugs, be it Ritalin, Prozac or dozens of other mood-altering drugs. These drugs are being sold to everyone, from toddlers to seniors. While such drugs may have a place, they surely are being misused and over-prescribed. Cohen is rightly alarmed about the direction we are moving with this drugging of society: “I can only note here the strangeness of this new marketing of dependence, and the significance of coming to believe that life’s dilemmas are fundamentally problems of brain chemistry, only solvable by medication. Perhaps we will also come to believe the inverse: that life’s best possibilities are likewise matters of chemistry, only achievable with medication.”

Then there is the case of embryo research. The pleas by biotech for embryos with which to extract stem cells is made with ever-increasing insistency. While the promises are many, the actual cures have been few. But again the market is good at turning everything – even human life – into a mere commodity. Says Cohen,

“We should not forget that the goal of embryo commerce would be humanitarian—the pursuit of health, the very good that modern societies most desire. But the means are, arguably, a form of cannibalism of the weak by the strong—if a cannibalism not obvious to the eye because embryos look so un-human, and thus without a visceral repugnance to awaken our conscience and guide our behavior. But the violation is no less real for being unobvious, and it is only possible because we now take for granted a truly remarkable thing—the power to initiate human life outside the body, the power to see and hold what was once left shrouded.”

And this is the real danger of an unchecked capitalism and a rampant biotech industry: “And this, I think, is what we should most fear about biotechnology’s transformation of modern capitalism: that in the desire for worldly salvation – salvation of the flesh – we will profane the sacred, with the modern marketplace greasing the skids. We will come to believe that bio-capitalism can sell us everything we desire, and thus come to accept that everything is for sale.”

While Cohen is not against commerce, nor biotechnology, he is right to warn us of present dangers and even possibly worse future dangers. He is right to suggest that “the deeper problem with capitalism is that it creates many things we should not create in the first place, and may ask us to do many things we should not do at all.”

Quite right. We all need to reflect more carefully on where the new biotech revolution is taking us. This article helps us to think soberly about not just Big Biotech but about how the free market can become a master, and not a servant, of mankind.

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