Genetic engineering and humanist morals




By Gordon MacRae

How do we, as a society, address the moral challenges that modern scientific advancement pose?

This was the focus of the recent Science, Faith and Society event organised by the Just Festival in Edinburgh that I was privileged to speak at. Chaired by Dr Mike Fuller (University of Edinburgh), I joined a panel of speakers from across the fields of science, and religion.

Dr Douglas Vernimmen (The Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh) provided an overview on the latest advances in the field of human genetics. Dr Vernimmen set the scene for the scope and speed of change in the field and the new moral and ethical questions raised by these advancements; while Dr Murdo Macdonald of the Church of Scotland’s Society, Religion and Technology project offered the Christian perspective of genetic engineering, outlining the significance of the Church’s perspective as to when life begins.

I, of course, voiced the humanist perspective.

If we accept that there is no evidence of God, and that therefore there is no higher power to guide our moral and ethical choices, then how do we, as individuals and as a collective society, arrive at an objective moral standard?

In my view we can, based on the sum of knowledge available to us at anytime, arrive at the best possible solution to any given problem. That should be the absolute standard.

What we should not do is start with the absolute answer, as some faith communities would have us do, and then make every problem fit a predetermined outcome.

It is also no more fitting to expect the moral standard of 2016 to apply in 2116 than it would be to accept a standard determined in 1016.

As our knowledge changes so too will out ability to arrive at the best possible solution.

Like many of these events just as the discussion got interesting it was time to finish. Let’s hope there are futher opportunities to develop an ongoing dialogue between the faith and humanist communities so that we can find progressive approaches to the big challenges our society faces.

The Just Festival takes place in Edinburgh throughout August. To see their programme of events, visit


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