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Ethics and Nanotechnology Lecture Notes

Ethics and Nanotechnology Lecture Notes

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Published by Chris Groves
Notes for a lecture delivered at Cardiff University on 11 November 2009 as part of the 3rd year BSc Chemistry Nanoscience module. Covers the nature of technological ethics, ethical disagreement and some key ethical issues surrounding developments in nanotechnology for non-specialists in ethics.
Notes for a lecture delivered at Cardiff University on 11 November 2009 as part of the 3rd year BSc Chemistry Nanoscience module. Covers the nature of technological ethics, ethical disagreement and some key ethical issues surrounding developments in nanotechnology for non-specialists in ethics.

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Published by: Chris Groves on Nov 11, 2009
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Ethics and Nanotechnology
Dr Chris GrovesESRC Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability,Sustainability and Society (BRASS)
Email:grovesc1@cf.ac.uk  
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
efficacious
,
efficient 
, 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.
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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
 factual
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 
1
What “rational” should be taken to mean here is, of course, debatable too…
 
 2genuinely ethical in nature, they will typically concern issues like the relative priorityof different values or principles.
Figure 1: Examples of ethical principles or values
Among these principles and values might be the following: human rights,responsibilities or duties, the common good, utility, harm and justice. Ethical debateswill often concern which of these principles might be the most important in aparticular case, or in any given case. They might also concern to whom a givenprinciple applies. For example, we might ask who has rights: all humans, all non-foetal humans, humans and primates, all animals, all living creatures, and so on? Or:who can be harmed by our actions? Only living people – or also dead people? Futurepeople? Only creatures which can feel pain?
Technology and ethics
So, if ethics is a field of inquiry which looks at what kinds of actions are right andwrong in the sense specified above, then we can identify certain kinds of actionsassociated with technology which might raise ethical questions, and which could betreated as forming a subfield of ethics, namely technological ethics.Questions like, for example, whether a given technological innovation – like agenetically modified food, a contraceptive drug, a bioweapon, or a device whichenhances standard human cognitive abilities – raises novel ethical problems andtherefore should be made the subject of special regulatory attention. Or: whether agiven innovation will affect how we deal with familiar ethical questions, because of the ways in which it extends or impairs the capabilities of individuals, or fulfils orfails to fulfil the needs of deprived social classes or developed countries.Looking at the journalistic interest in nanotechnology over the last few years, theever-growing ethics literature
2
and the debates among regulators, there are two
2
See for examplehttp://www.nanoethics.org/ .
 
 3notable cases of new ethical issues which have been associated with nanotechnology,along with a number of examples of how specific potential nanotech innovations maychange the way we think about existing ethical problems.
Nanotechnology: Novel Issues?
1. Global Ecophagy
The first of these new issues is the prospect of what has been called “grey goo”, i.e.the results of out-of-control advanced nanotechnology. This scenario is a result of speculation based on the assumption that it may one day be possible to engineer tinyrobotic systems utilizing nanoscience which are capable not only of self-movementand some degree of artificial intelligence, but of self-replication based on theconsumption of some form of widely available feedstock (e.g. carbon).Some have argued that, should this technology be developed, there is therefore aremote possibility of nano-engineered robots replicating out of control and consumingthe biosphere in the process as their numbers grow exponentially – global ecophagy.This scenario originated with K. Eric Drexler, one of the originators of the concept of molecular nanotechnology (MNT), the (still hypothetical) use of nanoscale scientifictechniques to achieve precise enough control over chemical reactions to buildcomplex macroscale structures “from the bottom up”, from the atomic level.Given that this outcome is a possible outgrowth of nanoscale science, then – somehave suggested – it is morally impermissible to continue with nanoscale science. Doesthis make sense as an ethical argument?We have here a case of an apparently ethical disagreement which is actually notethical at all, because it is in reality an argument over a certain set of facts concerningwhat nanotechnology is and might be in the future. As such, it is a classic example of a
slippery slope argument 
. A slippery slope is something with which we’re allprobably familiar: basically, it states that if we allow A (which may be relativelyinnocuous), then this will lead to B, and then this to C – and will inevitably lead allthe way to Z, which is so horrible none of us want to even contemplate it.An argument of this kind isn’t really about principles or values. If it were, then itwould be all about whether Z is really bad and if so, on what grounds. If you had veryextreme views about suffering being bad, for example, you might decide it would bebetter that all living things perished rather than continuing to live and suffer, andmight quite welcome the idea of global ecophagy...The slippery slope is a question of facts, not values: it only exists if each of itspremises and their relationships A > B > C > …Z can be factually established. Takenindependently, these steps may be unlikely; taken together, their total probability maybe vanishingly remote. If this is the case, then we have little reason to conclude thatthere is a slippery slope. In the case of grey goo, there are very many intermediatesteps that must be realised before it could even be a possibility: before you can buildrunaway, self-replicating, nanomachines, you first have to build any nanomachine atall, and then have to build nanomachines that can self-replicate under carefullycontrolled conditions, and so on. Most nanoscience now is arguably a continuationand refinement of forms of chemistry which have been around for a long time – it is a

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