Ethics, Culture and Biotechnology

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.

Course Description

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. This is at the core of Responsible Innovation. 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
  • 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
  • Develop debating skills and critical reading skills


  • 30% of the grade: be present and engage in all sessions; publish your research on collaborative research platform in an accessible manner for other students and external stakeholders; and give a presentation of your work for a larger audience.
  • 50% of the grade: Individual Essay
  • 20% of the grade: Group Work

Re-sit: to be discussed with individual students in line with examination regulations. The re-sit assignment has to be done within a month after completion of the assignment it is a re-sit for.

The group work consists of 2-3 debate presentations on the basis of assigned literature, including a 1-page group report per presentation. The essay counts 2000 words (bibliography excluded).


Group presentations are graded by both examiners right after each corresponding session. Essays are distributed between the two examiners for grading.

Grading Criteria

The debate presentations are graded on:

  • Comprehension of the author’s arguments
  • Capacity to use these arguments convincingly
  • Presentation skills

The essay is graded on:

  • Content: Does the student demonstrate a good understanding and coverage of the topic? Does the student raise a clear point / argument?
  • Structure: Does the student present their arguments effectively and convincingly? Does the student integrate references, artworks and course material appropriately?
  • Presentation: Formal aspects including proper use of references and appropriate academic writing style

The Debate Assignment-- In detail

Before:  Two panels of students will address the debate question by defending the point of view of their assigned text. While preparing your defence, focus on identifying the author’s line of reasoning and on analysing the relevant arguments and counter arguments; this assignment is about critical reading and analysis, not about the use of rhetoric devices. Both panels are kindly requested to email their plea (1-page outline/overview) to us the evening before the class.

During: Your panel will be given a dedicated time slot during which you should present the point of view of your text and convince us and the jury about the rightfulness of your point. In your defence, you must also refer to artworks. You are free to use PowerPoint and any other instructive supports for the defence of your text. In class, a review panel of another group of students will evaluate the defence of both panels. The jury is asked to produce a first opinion or ‘verdict’ and announce it during class.

After: The jury panel should submit their written evaluation (1-2 pages) to us by the end of each corresponding week

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