Ethics and Nanotechnology
Dr Chris GrovesESRC Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability,Sustainability and Society (BRASS)
Introduction: What is Ethics?
Ethics is about trying to decide what the right thing to do is in a given situation.But “right” here has a very specific meaning, which moral philosophers typicallydistinguish from two other senses in which one could use the word. For example, youmight be concerned with the right way to act. meaning something like “what is thebest way of achieving my chosen goal here?” “Right” here means
, or just “most likely to be successful”. Thinking about how to act in this wayis nothing to do with ethics – it is about what moral philosophers like to call prudence.Ultimately, trying to figure out how best to realise a goal aims to make a judgementon the means one should use to reach a given end, not on the value of the endsthemselves.Alternatively, one might think about how to act in relation to what “feels” right in agiven situation. Here, “rightness” refers to the force of an emotional motivation to doone thing rather than another – like donate to a charity that works in developingcountries rather than go for a meal in a restaurant. Here, there is no reflection on thevalue of ends either – the goal of action is simply to act in accord with one’sinclinations.Ethics, on the other hand, typically understands “right” actions as ones which wouldbe judged to such by anyone who is rational.
In other words, it refers to a standard of action that is independent of criteria like efficiency and effectiveness, and isindependent of how we feel about some goal. There can be actions which are effective– like ethnic cleansing as a means of securing resources for a community – andpurposes that are for some people emotionally appealing – such as executing burglars– which we may argue are not morally right, for example.If ethics deals with a very specific meaning of the word “right”, then we might alsoexpect that when moral philosophers disagree over an ethical issue, they disagree forvery specific reasons. Ethical disagreements are not about
concerns, in thesense of facts about how the external world works which can be established withreasonable certainty by conducting experiments, making observations and formulatingtheories. On the contrary, they are about basic
principles and values
which peoplerely on in assessing whether they should act in a particular way.Many apparently ethical disagreements actually concern facts about the externalworld, and are thus not genuinely ethical in nature at all. Where disagreements are
What “rational” should be taken to mean here is, of course, debatable too…