Chris Toumey reflects on the inhomogeneity of the concept of ethics applied to nanoscience and nanotechnology.


Many publications about nanotechnology remind us that ethics must be a part of research and applications in this field. We see this in articles from the natural sciences, the humanities and the social sciences. That is reassuring, but there is a recurring problem: ‘ethics’ means different things to different people.


I have collected approximately 200 publications on ethics in nanotechnology, and there are probably dozens more. I had hoped to find a common sense of the word which united them, or at least most of them. In this I have been frustrated, and I conclude that there are two principal reasons for this disunity. One is that professional ethicists speak a specialized language.

They can tell us that Aristotle, Kant and Bentham created three distinct frameworks for ethics, and what it means when a person chooses one over the other two. But at the same time, there have been multiple venues in which anyone can express his or her own understanding of ethics in nanotech. Scientists, engineers, historians, policy makers and more have offered their views, and the views of these populations tend not to be grounded in the language of the professional ethicists.


I would not want to deny any non-ethicists the prerogative to express themselves regarding right and wrong in nanotechnology. I believe that some non-ethicists have helpful things to say. And as a non-ethicist myself, I cannot do justice to the contributions of the professional ethicists. Even so, I regret that there is no consensus about ethics in nanotech among the 200 papers on my bookshelf. I think of this compendium as many stand-alone opinions that have little or nothing to do with the opinions of others who have written about the same problem.


I could be wrong, but I imagine that it would be good for nanotechnology if all this work, and all those words, could have arrived at a common understanding of what is ethical in nanotechnology: a consensus, perhaps, or at least a synthesis which describes the principal themes of the many statements on ethics. I would not want to have to go before a funding agency, whether in the United States, the European Union or elsewhere, and be asked what became of all the funds that were spent on ethics and related topics. I would have to say that there are more than 100 stand-alone statements, but no common agreement.


For an academic, it has been wonderful to have the funding to think and write whatever I want about nanotechnology. A funding agency might want to see a different result — namely, that its generous investment in the topic of ethics has produced a clear understanding of ethics in nanotechnology which will be helpful to the scientists and engineers who make nanotechnology happen, and also to scholars in the humanities and social sciences, not to mention the lay public. Probably not a good idea to report that much generous funding has generated so many isolated opinions.


The second problem I notice is a fault-line in thinking about future applications which will affect us. Some writers concentrate on far-future possibilities like molecular assemblers, or nanobots reproducing out of control (so-called ‘grey goo’). Others concentrate on near-future possibilities: more modest expectations, to be sure, but possibilities that demand our attention now. Without concluding whether molecular assemblers or grey goo will be realized many decades from now, one can say that they are not as urgent as near-future applications when it comes to describing what will be ethical.


The far-future applications, whether realistic or not, are usually derived from the visions of Eric Drexler. This means that those who concentrate on far-future possibilities have probably limited their understanding of nanotech to Drexler’s work, and have little appreciation of the views of Drexler’s critics.


Because it bothers me that all this work on ethics in nanotech is so scatter-shot, I recently began to do something about which I had previously and successfully procrastinated. I began to read my articles on ethics more carefully than before. Here I report on ten of the earliest statements I found, from 2001 to 2004, so that I can describe the problem of the statements that initiated considerations of ethics in nanotechnology1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10.


I have a two-part expectation of what these statements ought to include: first, a sense of the issues that are most likely to arise with nanotechnology, regardless whether these issues are unique to nanotech or shared with other powerful technologies; and second, some clear guidelines that tell us how we should behave ethically for each of those issues. For one issue, we should do this, and not do that; for another issue, we need to know that this is right, and that is wrong.


In other words, these position papers on ethics in nanotech should alert us to matters on which we will have to make some choices about what we are going to do, and they will then steer us away from unethical choices. In my ideal world, that is how a paper on ethics should serve us.


For the first part of my desideratum, there is no shortage of issues that might arise in the case of nanotechnology. The most salient ones, by my reading, are socio-economic equity ( that is, the question of whether nanotech will make some populations richer while making others poorer); the potential for environmental harm; and a worry about who controls nanotech. Also important is whether nanotechnology will change relationships among three sources of scientific knowledge — academia, government, and industry. Advice about learning from recent cases of technology, for example genetically modified organisms, appears often in these early papers.


Other topics include: the consequences of extending the average human life-span; out-of-control nanobots; the potential for nanotech to threaten our privacy; metaphysical questions of human–machine interactions; problems of intellectual property such as patenting; terrorists weaponizing nanotech; and more. Thus the catalogue of potential ethical issues is rich.


Alas, I am disappointed that most of the first ten papers fail to present the logic or the standards by which those issues will be resolved. Lists of issues are necessary, but it is equally essential to guide the reader toward the ethical choices that we will need to make for those issues. Some of these writers may have an intuitive sense of what is right and wrong for a particular issue, based on their own education or experience. But their intuition is not obvious to the rest of us if they fail to present clear guidelines that tell us how we should behave ethically for the issues they care about.


Some do, so I would like to draw attention to those parts of their articles. One theme addresses the ways in which the nanotech community should – and should not – interact with the lay public. Vivian Weil says that scientists and engineers ought not to depict the public as ‘the other’: that is, a mirror image of the scientific community that lacks all the knowledge and wisdom that scientists have. On the contrary, she strongly suggests that they should include a diversity of viewpoints, and “avoid taking it for granted that there is wide agreement on the desirable consequences of various nanotechnology options”. These related themes appear in both of her papers on ethics in nanotech1,4.


Einsiedel and Goldenberg amplify Weil’s suggestions: those who disagree with one’s views should not be described as anti-scientific; also, the purpose of nanotech science education is not to pacify a supposedly hostile public. They also discuss the potential for publicly funded research to be available to all on an open-source basis7. This is provocative in the best sense: if the public is financing the research of an academic or government institution, then why should the results of that research be denied to those who financed it?


Two more good points come from Sweeney, Seal and Vaidyanathan2. First, they tell us to make good use of earlier critical theories of technology, for example those of Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul in the mid-twentieth century. I see that this idea is otherwise absent from the other early voices on ethics in nanotech, but with the benefit of hindsight it should be obvious.

Their second point is an observation worth thinking about: in a seminar on ethics in nanotech which they conducted at Central Florida University, the authors saw that the female students were more willing than the male students “to consider the political/social repercussions of advances in” nanotech2. I have seen ideas like this elsewhere in considerations of science and technology, and I wonder how we can make good use of them.


I finish with one last constructive criticism regarding ethics in nanotech. Berne tells us that we need to make room for imagination when we aspire to craft the best possible ethical thinking about nanotech. Professional codes of conduct are good, and are necessary, but “they are not a moral guidepost”. Similarly, supposed universal moral principles have their limits if they prevent us from appreciating alternative viewpoints (which reminds us of what Weil advocated). The role of imagination includes metaphors and art forms, e.g., science fiction. It also serves us by illuminating the “beliefs, values and aspirations” of all the potential stakeholders who have reason to care about nanotechnology, and who care that we prevent unethical choices8.


It is not obvious exactly how we get from imagination to ethical behaviour, but Berne is right to say that this is one way to learn and appreciate an important lesson: we need to realize that the multiple kinds of stakeholders have multiple points of view. What I think or what you think may not be the total content of ethics for nanotech.


I had originally hoped to deliver to you a clear and simple consensus about ethics in nanotech. Here you see how I learned that this was not possible, at least not in these ten early position papers. In my next Thesis, I will review a group of papers from the chronological end of my 200 statements, and we can see what has changed over ten years.



(원문: 여기를 클릭하세요~)




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *