‘Big’ does not necessarily equal ‘bad’

Dislike of powerful capitalism is no reason to reject new technology

No reasonable person would agree with the slogan ‘might is right’. However, the notion that ‘weak is right’ tends to give people pause for thought. But it shouldn't, because it is equally as illogical as the first slogan. Nevertheless, left-wing analysis of conflict situations between protagonists of unequal power, including situations where scientific issues are at the core of the conflict, tends to automatically come down in favour of the weaker protagonist. While I'm not arguing that mitigating factors should be omitted when analysing such situations, we must be careful not to minimise the principle of objective right and wrong.

Consider, as an example, the recent debate about the legitimacy of the use of force by a homeowner in defence of his/her life and property in the face of an aggressive intruder. I heard the following scenario debated on numerous locations. You were awakened at home in the middle of the night by an intruder who viciously attacks you with a knife. You happen to have a gun easily to hand as you desperately defend yourself. Are you entitled to shoot the intruder, possibly killing him?

Use of force

Left-wing opinion is divided on this question. Many concede that, in such a case, defence using a gun is permissible, but some think not on the basis of disproportionate use of force. To my mind the latter argument is ridiculous. It ignores the right of the homeowner to be safe from unprovoked physical attack and to the privacy and safety of his/her home and it ignores the wrongdoing of the intruder in violating that privacy and threatening the life and limb of the owner. And it grossly distorts the concept of proportionate response by ignoring the context of the situation. The net result is to unfairly minimise the moral responsibility of the attacker, usually on the basis of sympathy for his ‘socially disadvantaged’ background, circumstances caused and maintained by an ‘unjust’ society, and to fail to sympathise adequately with the entirely innocent homeowner. 

Of course, most people in Ireland are opposed to the notion of keeping a legal firearm in the home as a defence against violent intruders. I agree with that opinion under present circumstances, i.e. when the incidence of violent break-ins is fairly low and local policing is vigilant. But, if incidence of violent break-ins rose dramatically, often causing severe injury and even death to homeowners, and swamping police resources, could one honestly fault a householder for keeping a firearm to be used only as a last resort to protect himself/herself and his/her family?

And now to an example of divisive debate between a more powerful (big business) a less powerful side (lobbyists on behalf of general public and small farmers) over a science-based technological issue – genetically modified food (GMF). The green environmental lobby is generally left-wing and is bitterly opposed to GMF. The three main arguments put forward by this lobby are that (A) GMF is produced by large capitalist corporations who are motivated only by profit and who do not act in the interest of the common good, (B) GMF poses a risk to human health, and (C) GMF is bad for the natural environment. I cannot discuss all three arguments in this short essay, so I will concentrate on argument (A). All I will say about the other two arguments is that they are not supported by scientific evidence. 

Common good

The environmental left is ideologically opposed to capitalism, and can see no good coming out of large corporations, certainly not in the longer term. However, only huge bodies like corporations have sufficient resources to invest the money and time necessary to develop products such as GMF and new modern medicines (e.g. vaccines) for the mass public market. The only alternative is for the state to undertake this work.

Corporations are necessarily driven by the profit motive and are tempted to let this distort their strategic thinking to the detriment of the common good. But this is why in a democracy we have government regulations and laws and watchdog bodies to control the activities of these corporations. The alternative is a socialist planned economy in which the state effectively runs the corporations. An all-powerful state is probably prone to more serious temptations to act counter to the common good than is the capitalist corporation, but who will police the state? Indeed, the history of communism in the 20th Century illustrates how well the state model works.

The discovery of how to genetically modify organisms was a powerful modern scientific advance that, in principle, allows us to genetically modify any animal, plant or microbe in a precise manner. This new technology has many powerful applications in agriculture and food production and in medicine. The first genetically engineered food crop was introduced in 1996. As with all new technologies, some risks are involved and genetic modification needs to be carefully monitored and controlled. However, such monitoring and control is in place and the public can rest assured that this technology is safe. The most recent overview of the safety of genetically engineered crops has just been published in Critical Reviews in Biotechnology (Vol. 134, No.1, March 2014) by Alessandra Nicolia and others, concluding that ‘no significant hazards have been detected directly connected with the use of genetically modified crops’.


Nevertheless, opponents of GMF bustle away trying to convince the public that these crops have negative health effects, even though science does not support this position. However, these opponents of GMF are influential. Nearly all the corn and soya beans grown in America are genetically modified, but four countries – the US, Canada, Brazil and Argentina – grow 90 per cent of the world’s GM crops. Very few GM crops are grown in Europe, India, China or Africa because of fears they are unsafe to eat, thereby forgoing many advantages offered by GMF. For example, Asian governments have yet to approve insect-resistant higher-yield GM rice, or Golden Rice, engineered to deliver vitamin A (rice normally has no vitamin A), despite the fact that vitamin A deficiency kills and blinds hundreds of thousands of people annually. Even famine-affected countries refuse to accept GMF.

We must distinguish between the usefulness of this new genetic modification technology and our ideological attitude towards capitalism. Dislike of big powerful capitalism is no valid reason to forego the benefits of this new technology. We must avoid throwing the technology baby out with the capitalist bathwater. I am no uncritical fan of big corporations. They can abuse their power and must be subjected to strict regulations by government in the interest of the common good. But given that such regulation is in place, I can see no better option in the real world to deliver the goods. To misquote Winston Churchill – ‘democratically regulated capitalism is the worst form of economics, except for all the other forms that have been tried’.

William Reville is an Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at UCC. http://understandingscience.ucc.ie