Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series on the topic of nanotechnology. These unpublished articles were gathered by Chris Toumey, University of South Carolina NanoCenter, and are published here with permission. Dr. Sandler here takes us on a guided tour of the landscape of ethical issues in nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology enables technologies in areas ranging from textiles and agriculture to medicine and computing. As a result, nanotechnology is implicated in a diverse array of ethical issues, involving everything from privacy and environmental justice to synthetic organisms and human enhancement. Different nanotechnology fields, research programs, and applications have different ethical profiles. For this reason, case-by-case ethical assessment for nanotechnology is crucial.
A frequent argument against the notion of nanoethics is that there is nothing novel about ethics as it relates to nanoscale science and engineering. On this view, the issues, concepts, basic principles, and critical perspectives involved are those from bioethics, environmental ethics, medical ethics, and other established areas of applied ethics (e.g., Andersen & Ebbesen 2006). Thus, nanoethics is indistinct from or reducible to these other areas.
In response, proponents of nanoethics argue that what is crucial to it is not that it constitutes a distinct field, but that there are significant ethical issues associated with nanoscale science and engineering, and that the extent to which nanotechnology promotes human, environmental, and social goods depends in part on whether these issues are identified and addressed.
In addition, it may be that nanotechnology, due to its distinctive features, what those features enable, the ways in which it is being promoted or disseminated, or the sheer rate and volume of innovation, raises familiar ethical issue in particular compelling, complex, urgent or novel forms. Moreover, just as nanoscale science and engineering is enhanced rather than diminished by being situated at the confluence of multiple disciplines (e.g. physics, genetics, chemistry, and engineering), since it can draw upon their various perspectives and resources, so too might nanoethics be enhanced in virtue of bringing together the perspectives and resources of various applied ethics disciplines. For all of these reasons, even if nanotechnology does not raise unique or novel ethical issues, nanoethics appears to be a legitimate and significant enterprise.
A Typology of Ethical Issues
This typology is one way of organizing the social and ethical issues that have been raised regarding nanotechnology. The types of issues include:
- Social context issues;
- Contested moral issues;
- Technoculture issues;
- Form-of-life issues;
- Transformational issues
Social Context Issues
Social context issues arise from the interaction of nanotechnologies with problematic features of the social or institutional contexts into which they are emerging. Nanoscale science and technology is not the cause of the problematic features of the social contexts. Nevertheless, when introduced into those contexts it becomes implicated in the issues. Moreover, in many cases it can be reasonably expected that nanotechnology will exacerbate the problem due to the distinctive properties of nanoscale materials, the functionalities and products that nanoscale science and technology enable, or the rate and volume of innovation associated with accelerating nanoscale science and engineering efforts. However, the problematic features sometimes also provide opportunities, insofar as nanotechnologies may contribute to addressing them.
Because nanotechnology is a general use, enabling technology, and there are so many problematic features of the social contexts into which it is emerging, the social context issues are legion and their range expansive. They include, for example, unequal access to medical care, inequalities in education, unequal access to technology, inadequate information security, protection of privacy, inefficiencies in intellectual property systems, inadequate protections of individual autonomy (in domains such as labeling and human subjects research), inadequate incentives and resources to develop pro-poor technologies, inadequate consumer safety protection, conflicts of interests among regulators and researchers, inadequate research oversight, externalization of pollution and health costs, unequal exposure to environmental burdens, lack of transparency and accountability in military research, and diminishing public trust in industry and governmental institutions. These are social and ethical issues for nanotechnology because they are relevant to the extent to which nanotechnology will contribute to human flourishing in just and sustainable ways.
Contested Moral Issues
Contested moral issues arise from nanotechnology’s interaction with or instantiation of morally controversial practices or activities—i.e. those that a substantial number of citizens believe should be prohibited. Contested moral issues can involve research and engineering practice (e.g. nanoscale science and engineering tools and techniques) or what nanoscale technologies enable in application (e.g. products and uses). Examples of contested moral practices and activities in which nanoscale science and technology are (or are likely to be) implicated include genetic modification of living organisms, the use of embryonic stem cells and chimeras in research, synthetic biology, constructing artificial organisms, weapons development (e.g. chemical and biological), gene patenting (and bio-prospecting), and modification of human nature (e.g. genetically or pharmacologically). As with social context issues, contested moral issues often are not unique to nanotechnology, although in some cases nanotechnology might enable realizing particularly compelling or controversial instantiations of them.
Technoculture issues arise from what are perceived to be problematic aspects of the role of technology within the social systems and structures from which, and into which, nanotechnologies are emerging. Technology is not separable from society. Nevertheless, robust critiques of particular aspects of the relationship and particular roles afforded technology within modern industrialized society have been developed. These include, for example, over-reliance on technological fixes to manage problematic effects (rather than addressing underlying causes of those effects), over-estimation of our capacity to predict and control technologies (particularly within complex and dynamic biological systems), the tendency to favor control-oriented approaches to problems over less technologically sophisticated and accommodation alternatives, technological mediation of our relationship with and experience of nature (and associated marginalization of natural values), privileging elite-controlled quantitative risk assessment over more inclusive and precautionary approaches to determining responsiveness to uncertainties associated with emerging technologies, and over-confidence that technology will provide solutions to any problematic side-effects associated with technological innovation. As with social context and contested moral issues, technoculture issues are not unique to nanotechnology. However, what is distinctive of nanoscale science and technology is that it involves the capacity to precisely characterize, design, and control matter at its atomic and molecular levels. As a result, nanotechnology may be particularly susceptible to many technoculture issues.
Form of Life Issues
Form-of-life issues arise from nanotechnology’s impacts on social standards, practices, and institutions—e.g. family structures, social networks, and life trajectories. Social norms often are predicated on facts about, or particular understandings of, the human situation—i.e. the human person, our relationships with each other, and our relationships to the natural environment. Emerging nanotechnologies are likely to alter that situation.
Past technological innovation and dissemination has changed what reasonably can be considered a long, healthy, comfortable life. If nanotechnology (and nanomedicine, in particular) is able to deliver close to what has been promised, these norms associated with human flourishing will see further modification. Moreover, as in the past, increased longevity and expectations for health will have significant impacts on family norms and structures (e.g. care responsibilities), life plans or trajectories (e.g. when people get married), and social and political institutions (e.g., medicine and Social Security).
Nanotechnology might also significantly impact sociability. Information technologies already have altered forms and conceptions of social interaction. New types of forums have been created (e.g. on-line), and physical proximity has become less crucial than it used to be. As nanoscale technologies increase memory and processing power and enable new modes of information exchange and interfacing, these trends are likely to continue and new possibilities are likely to emerge.
Form-of-life issues are likely to arise in environmental domains as well. Material sciences already have developed artificial alternatives (or artificial sources) for many resources and goods previously extracted from natural systems and organisms. This trend, too, is likely to accelerate given the capacity of nanoscale science and engineering to characterize materials and design and construct them at the atomic, molecular, and macro-molecular level.
As the case of human health and longevity demonstrates, the disruption and reconfiguring of social norms can be beneficial. Nevertheless, they require adaptation and response, which can be accomplished more or less smoothly and successfully. As with the previous issue types, form of life issues are not new with nanotechnology, but nanotechnology is likely to realize novel and compelling versions of them.
Transformational issues arise from nanotechnology’s potential (particularly in combination with other emerging technologies, such as biotechnology, information technology, computer science, cognitive science, and robotics) to transform aspects of the human situation (not merely, as with form-of-life issues, modify some parameters). This might be accomplished by significantly altering the kind of creatures that we are, reconstituting our relationship to the natural environment, creating self-aware and autonomous artificial intelligences, or developing robust alternative environments (e.g. virtual worlds as experientially rich, immersive, and socially complex as the physical world).
In such cases, novel ethical terrain would be introduced or some prominent aspect of our ethical landscape would need to be reconfigured or reconceived – e.g., what it means to be human; personal identity (psychological and metaphysical); the moral status of (some) artifacts; what constitutes embodiment and emplacement; and, the constituents of our flourishing (e.g., what is valuable or meaningful in life).
Examples of the types of technological accomplishment that would give rise to transformational issues, should they be realized, include: genetic, pharmacological, or biomachine enhancements of our physical, cognitive, and psychological capabilities significantly beyond the range attainable by technologically unassisted people; direct integration of human and machine intelligences; artificial intelligences that pass the Turing test; and nanoassemblers or nanobots that would enable rapid molecular manufacture of macroscale objects. These would also raise substantial social context issues (e.g., access to technology), form-of-life issues (e.g. effects on democratic institutions), technoculture issues (e.g. disaffection with our biological selves), and contested moral issues (e.g. the appropriateness of transcending biological “limits”).
The fields, processes, applications, and actors involved with nanotechnology are diverse. As a result, the ethical profiles of nanotechnologies vary. Compare, for example, a synthetic biology research project situated within a biological defense program sited in an urban center, versus an industry-funded research project to develop a carbon nanotube-enabled memory chip sited within a less densely populated community. These are both nanotechnology, but their ethical profiles differ substantially along the following dimensions: objectives, risks, benefits and beneficiaries, control, oversight, regulation, and, not least of all, controversial moral practice. The former research project raises sanctity of life form issues, biological weapons issues, public health and safety issues, public funding issues, and transparency/oversight issues that the latter does not. Whereas the latter might raise information security, privacy, and (other) transparency issues that the former does not.
The diversity in ethical profiles of emerging nanotechnologies is such that it is not particularly useful to reflect on the ethical dimensions of nanotechnology as such. Different nanotechnologies can have little in common, qua nanoscale science and technology, that is relevant to ethical evaluation, in comparison with all their other ethically significant features – e.g., distributions of burdens and benefits, associated risks, intended objectives, control, regulatory and oversight capacities, political implications, and relationship to individual rights and liberties. It is more productive to disambiguate particular nanotechnology practices and applications (as well as their particular social and political contexts), and evaluate them on the basis of their specific features, only one aspect of which is their taking advantage of the novel properties or functions of materials or processes at the nanoscale.
Ethical Issues and Responsible Development
The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is the U.S. federal government’s research and development program for nanotechnology. Among is strategic goals is to support responsible development of nanotechnology. As conceived by the NNI, responsible development of nanotechnology includes: promoting beneficial nanotechnologies; training researchers and a nanotechnology workforce; protecting human health and the environment; engaging in public outreach and education; and addressing other ethical and social issues.
It is a common view that the primary function of nanoethics is to help secure public acceptance of nanotechnologies and ensure nanotechnology’s integration into the national and global economies by demonstrating that ethical concerns are being addressed. However, this conception of the primary role for attentiveness to ethical issues is belied by the range of ethical issues described above. Nanoethics is crucial to identifying opportunities for nanotechnologies to contribute to human flourishing in just and environmentally sustainable ways, anticipating potential barriers to its doing so, and suggesting approaches (technological, social and institutional) for overcoming them.
Nevertheless, there are significant social and ethical dimensions to public outreach, discourse, and education. Their effectiveness depends in part upon scientists and responsible development researchers discussing nanotechnology accurately and in effectively framed ways. It is also important that they are open, accessible, inclusive, and fair. Moreover, as with environmental and human health issues, public engagement and education involve authority, responsibility, relative social influence, power, control, public policy and regulation (which always involve comparative value judgments), distributions of burdens and benefits, decision-making processes, and informed consent/voluntariness (autonomy). In these ways, ethical issues also are implicated in and inseparable from the other aspects of responsible development.
Ronald Sandler is an associate professor of philosophy in the Department of Philosophy and Religion and the Director of the Ethics Institute at Northeastern University. He is a researcher in Northeastern's Nanotechnology and Society Research Group, as well as a research associate in its Environmental Justice Research Collaborative. His primary areas of research are environmental ethics, ethics and technology, ethical theory, and Spinoza. His most recent book, The Ethics of Species (Cambridge), will appear in 2012. He may be reached at R.Sandler@neu.edu.
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