Ethical Dilemmas – Nanotech or a Smoke?

The hyperactive boffins at the Project for Emerging nanotechnologies have a new report out written by Ronald Sandler looking at the Social and Ethical issues, which always caused me a problem. Half of me instinctively goes “oh no, not another report looking at the ethical issues of stuff that hasn’t been invented or has little to do with nanotechnology (i.e. Radical Human Enhancement), but the inner scientist usually forces me to take a look anyway.

It’s heavy going for non ethicists and philosophers, and you cannot expect philosophers to get the science spot on all the time but worth taking a look at for the broader pointers it gives to dealing with emerging technologies in general. What I find particularly fascinating is the way that social scientists tend to see the world from a quite different perspective to those of us in business or in the lab and this is reflected in the breakdown of issues addressed in the report (see below).

Some good questions are asked, and here is my ethical poser.

In a world where pension black holes are popping up like mushrooms, should governments spend money on (nano)technologies with the potential to dramatically lengthen human lifespans, or should they be encouraging people to eat, drink and smoke more in order to fill the public coffers?

1. Social Context Issues: Social context issues arise from the interaction of nanotechnologies with problematic features of the social or institutional contexts into which the nanotechnologies are emerging. Examples of social context issues include unequal access to health care, inequalities in education, unequal access to technology, inadequate information security/privacy protection, inefficiencies in intellectual property systems, unequal exposure to environmental hazards and inadequate consumer safety protection.

2. 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. Examples of contested moral practices and activities in which nanoscale science and technology are, or are likely to be, involved include synthetic biology, construction of artificial organisms, biological weapons development, stem cell research and genetic modification of human beings.

3. Technoculture Issues: Technoculture issues arise from problematic aspects of the role of technology within the social systems and structures from which, and into which, nanotechnologies are emerging. Examples of technoculture issues include an overreliance on technological fixes to manage problematic effects (rather than addressing underlying causes of those effects), overestimation of our capacity to predict and control technologies (particularly within complex and dynamic biological systems) and technological mediation of our relationship with and experience of nature (and associated marginalization of natural values).

4. Form of Life Issues: Form of life issues arise from nanotechnology’s synergistic impacts on aspects of the human situation on which social standards, practices and institutions are predicated. For example, if nanomedicine helps extend the average human life span even five or ten healthful years, norms of human flourishing will need to be reconsidered and there are likely to be significant impacts on family norms and structures (e.g., care responsibilities), life plans or trajectories (e.g., when people marry) and social and political institutions (e.g., Medicare).

5. Transformational Issues: 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. This might be accomplished by significantly altering the kind of creatures that we are, reconstituting our relationship to the natural environment or creating self-aware and autonomous artificial intelligences (i.e., artifactual persons). In such cases, some prominent aspect of our ethical landscape would need to be reconfigured—for example, what it means to be human, personal identity or the moral status of some artifacts.

Of course no report would be complete without the obligatory conclusion that this represents a great opportunity for the Government to spend more money looking at social and ethical issues.

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