Biotech, Business Ethics & Human Rights

I’m blogging from the road again, this time from Claremont, California, where I’ll be part of a symposium tomorrow called, provocatively, “Biotechnology and Human Rights: Industry’s Responsibility?” at the Keck Graduate Institute. (Here’s the symposium website.)

My talk tomorrow is going to cover a range of material, from the nature of rights, through an introduction to Business Ethics, to rights-claims in biotech, ending with a bit on how to evaluate rights claims.

I’ll be presenting (or maybe just implying) two main conclusions:

1) The website for the conference asks whether biotech companies should undertake a reorientation from thinking in terms of bioethics to thinking in terms of human rights. I’m going to suggest that while thinking in terms of bioethics is certainly problematic (after all, bioethics is also know as healthcare ethics, and not all biotech is health-related), switching to a human rights framework would be a bad idea. Basically, I think that all sensible people ought to applaud the proliferation & spread of human rights across the globe, but I think a commitment to human rights would be a very incomplete description of any firms actual responsibilities, and one that’s not very useful beyond a narrow range of questions.

2) While businesses ought to be committed to respecting a handful of basic human rights, such as freedom of association (for workers), we should be hesitant to encourage businesses to shoulder, as some have suggested, the burdens associated with things like the right to healthcare. We ought to be very careful about imposing additional duties on business that go beyond the role we really want them to play in a free market (roughly to produce useful goods & services, while behaving honestly and cleaning up any messes they make).

(Related to that last point, I strongly recommend Joseph Heath’s wonderfully instructive paper “Business Ethics Without Stakeholders,” Business Ethics Quarterly, 2006, Vol 16 Iss 3. It’s the best business ethics paper I’ve read in the last year.)

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