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Michele Goodwin: Whose Values and Principles in a New Biopolitics? - Tarrytown 2011

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Published on May 3, 2012

Michele Goodwin, Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota, delivers the opening plenary on the topic of values and their relation to biopolitical action at the 2011 Tarrytown Meeting.

The Tarrytown Meetings bring together people working to ensure that human biotechnologies and related emerging technologies support rather than undermine social justice, equality, human rights, ecological integrity and the common good.

Find out more about the Tarrytown Meetings here:
http://www.geneticsandsociety.org/art...

To find more videos, check out the Tarrytown YouTube channel:
http://www.youtube.com/user/Tarrytown...

Presentation Excerpt:
This plenary is entitled "reflections on values and principles for a new biopolitics," and I have been asked to lead this session. When first approached about this topic, I thought what could be better? This is an exciting, if not urgent time in biotechnology and global politics. Increasingly, the two merge in ways that, at times, lack transparency, but demand legal, ethical, and medical considerations. Thus, understanding the new biopolitics presents predictable challenges, including unpacking definitions and frameworks.
To explain, whenever groups or societies commence the process of thinking about values and principles, we must ask whose values and principles are under consideration. In other words, whose values and principles are we talking about? Whose values are on the table or the agenda? My goal here is to lay the foundation, in some ways for my co-panelists and for the next two days, by asking what I consider foundational questions. My comments are a three part framework.

First: Definitions and Identity

One of the implied, if not explicit goals of this, the second Tarrytown Meeting, is to drill down to comprehensive agendas and to articulate "our" values across a range of biotechnological issues. But first, before we begin with prescriptions, there are definitional matters we should attend to. For example, what are the differences between principles and values and what do the terms mean to us? Webster's dictionary defines principles as truths which are accepted and general, a law of conduct or rule of action, or a law of nature. But which, or all, or none fit our agenda? Do we have truths yet?

Or which of these map adequately on what we think the world should be thinking about? A similar query could be taken up for values, and depending upon what philosophy or social science discipline you consider, the ideas that govern what a principle "is" synonymously defines values. But there are two working definitions which are briefly offered here:

Principle: Rules of conduct and action—we can imagine these as the actions that we commit ourselves to, based upon our values—our version of primum non nocere—first do no harm.

Values: Foundational and enduring beliefs shared by members of a community about what is good, harmonious, and desirable. And coming up with values and principles is a tricky enterprise as I will continue to describe, because it means navigating the spaces of primary and secondary, the actor and the object, and the difficulty of working within the collective, which leads me to the second part of my framework for today.

Second: Territoriality and Caution

Before we announce or place on the table the values most essential for an enlightened and sustainable new biopolitic, we must consider whether the territory on which we stand is new or only new to us. By this, I mean to suggest that in the West, from time to time, we come to international forums for policy debate and discussions with the notion that we arrived first, and from that vantage point, articulating novel, original, inventive, and/or innovative ideas. We are in such an era now with climate change, bioprospecting (or biopiracy), farming, and the development of crops, to name a few.

This notion of first place-or first "placeness "presents an obvious danger—and that is blindness, symbolized by our inability to see or perceive others that we claim or purport to help, because underlying what brings us here and what we seek to do is the fact that we recognize a problem or we wish to ward off a problem.

The West has a legacy of prescribing "Western thought solutions" to 1) situations where there may not be a problem; 2) if there is a problem, the locals may be addressing it; and 3) conditions that were caused by the West, followed by applying Western solutions that primarily inure benefit to the West. There is a complex negotiation between paternalism and self-actualization or governance. So perhaps one of the first values to place into discussion is that of humility. After that, I would place accountability, integrity, dignity, and perseverance on the table.

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