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Dr Chris Groves ESRC 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 typically distinguish from two other senses in which one could use the word. For example, you might be concerned with the right way to act. meaning something like “what is the best 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 way is 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 judgement on the means one should use to reach a given end, not on the value of the ends themselves. Alternatively, one might think about how to act in relation to what “feels” right in a given situation. Here, “r ightness” refers to the force of an emotional motivation to do one thing rather than another – like donate to a charity that works in developing countries rather than go for a meal in a restaurant. Here, there is no reflection on the value of ends either – the goal of action is simply to act in accord with one’s inclinations. Ethics, on the other hand, typically understands “right” actions as ones which would be judged to such by anyone who is rationa l. 1 In other words, it refers to a standard of action that is independent of criteria like efficiency and effectiveness, and is independent of how we feel about some goal. There can be actions which are effective – like ethnic cleansing as a means of secur ing resources for a community – and purposes 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 also expect that when moral philosophers disagree over an ethical issue, they disagree for very specific reasons. Ethical disagreements are not about factual concerns, in the sense of facts about how the external world works which can be established with reasonable certainty by conducting experiments, making observations and formulating theories. On the contrary, they are about basic principles and values which people rely on in assessing whether they should act in a particular way. Many apparently ethical disagreements actually concern facts about the external world, 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…
genuinely ethical in nature, they will typically concern issues like the relative priority of 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 debates will often concern which of these principles might be the most important in a particular case, or in any given case. They might also concern to whom a given principle applies. For example, we might ask who has rights: all humans, all nonfoetal 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? Future people? 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 and wrong in the sense specified above, then we can identify certain kinds of actions associated with technology which might raise ethical questions, and which could be treated as forming a subfield of ethics, namely technological ethics. Questions like, for example, whether a given technological innovation – like a genetically modified food, a contraceptive drug, a bioweapon, or a device which enhances standard human cognitive abilities – raises novel ethical problems and therefore should be made the subject of special regulatory attention. Or: whether a given 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 or fails to fulfil the needs of deprived social classes or developed countries. Looking at the journalistic interest in nanotechnology over the last few years, the ever-growing ethics literature 2 and the debates among regulators, there are two
See for example http://www.nanoethics.org/.
notable cases of new ethical issues which have been associated with nanotechnology, along with a number of examples of how specific potential nanotech innovations may change 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 tiny robotic systems utilizing nanoscience which are capable not only of self- movement and some degree of artificial intelligence, but of self-replication based on the consumption of some form of widely available feedstock (e.g. carbon). Some have argued that, should this technology be developed, there is therefore a remote possibility of nano-engineered robots replicating out of control and consuming the 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 scientific techniques to achieve precise enough control over chemical reactions to build complex macroscale structures “from the bottom up”, from the atomic level. Given that this outcome is a possible outgrowth of nanoscale science, then – some have suggested – it is morally impermissible to continue with nanoscale science. Does this make sense as an ethical argument? We have here a case of an apparently ethical disagreement which is actually not ethical at all, because it is in reality an argument over a certain set of facts concerning what 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 all probably familiar: basically, it states that if we allow A (which may be relatively innocuous), then this will lead to B, and then this to C – and will inevitably lead all the way to Z, which is so horrible none of us want to even contemplate it. An argument of this kind isn’t really about principle s or values. If it were, then it would be all about whether Z is really bad and if so, on what grounds. If you had very extreme views about suffering being bad, for example, you might decide it would be better that all living things perished rather than continuing to live and suffer, and might quite welcome the idea of global ecophagy... The slippery slope is a question of facts, not values: it only exists if each of its premises and their relationships A > B > C > …Z can be factually established. Taken independently, these steps may be unlikely; taken together, their total probability may be vanishingly remote. If this is the case, then we have little reason to conclude that there is a slippery slope. In the case of grey goo, there are very many intermediate steps that must be realised before it could even be a possibility: before you can build runaway, self-replicating, nanomachines, you first have to build any nanomachine at all, and then have to build nanomachines that can self- replicate under carefully controlled conditions, and so on. Most nanoscience now is arguably a continuation and refinement of forms of chemistry which have been around for a long time – it is a
long way from the kind of precise atomic control and manipulation that people such as Drexler had in mind. So, the grey goo argument is really about what nanotechnology can factually accomplish, not about whether pursuing one path of innovation is morally right or not. But does this mean there are no ethical issue s implicated within the grey goo scenario? As I said, if a possible (but highly unlikely) future scenario for the use of nanotechnology were ethically troubling, this would have to be because it has implications for ethical principles. We saw that grey goo is really about a set of facts, which have to do with the present and future of nanotechnology. But we could reformulate the argument tha t we shouldn’t pursue advanced nanotechnology research in case it leads to grey goo in more general terms, which do relate to principles. If a given path of technological innovation carries great risks, including risks so great that if they come to pass they entail the destruction of the world, should we pursue this path at all? Here the argument becomes: if doing A risks Z, and Z is serious enough to infringe fundamental moral principles (such as your right not to be consumed by my nanobots), then it doesn’t matter about the intervening steps – taking the risk is itself bad enough. This is the root of what has been called the precautionary principle, a regulatory standard for judging right and wrong actions which has been incorporated in European Union la w. Basically, this states that scientific uncertainty about the outcomes of an action does not give us an excuse for going ahead and doing it, should there be “reasonable suspicion” that it may have very serious consequences. This means that no proof of present risk should not be taken as proof of no risk, and that there is therefore a burden of proof on those who want to use a particular technology to show that it can be developed without leading to serious negative outcomes. 2. Nanopollution This concept of precautionary development gets us to the second of the new ethical problems which some have associated with nanotech – that of nanopollution. This differs from grey goo in that it doesn’t concern some postulated future technology which may or may not evolve. Rather, it concerns scientific uncertainties which surround nanomaterials that are being developed and commercialized now. Many nanomaterials (for example, nanoscale silica used in the electronics industry for polishing circuit boards) are generally considered to be essentially no different in terms of their properties to their larger scale equivalents, and are safe or at least easily controlled. However, some nanoscale materials (particularly metal oxides, carbon nanotubes, fullerenes and so on) have unusual size-related properties which raise the suspicion that they may have serious effects on human health or on the natural environment, should there be any chance of uncontrolled exposure at some point in their lifecycle. For example, recent studies by toxicologists at Edinburgh University (Donaldson, Poland et al. 2008) have suggested that some kinds of carbon nanotubes may, if inhaled or ingested, cause damage comparable to the mesothilioma caused by asbestos fibres. Similarly, there have been suspicions that nanoscale silver particles incorporated in clothing such as socks and other textiles for their antimicrobial properties may, through repeated washing, pollute water sources and eventually cause harm to essential aquatic microbes (Luoma 2008).
If such effects are a possibility, they may take a long time to appear, maybe after a long cumulative series of exposures or pollution incidents. The need to consider chronic exposure is hard to fulfil in practice: how do we test for its effects? So given these possibilities, would it be morally wrong to avoid taking special precautionary measures to avoid exposing people (especially workers in labs and factories) to carbon nanotubes? Would it be morally wrong to keep adding nanosilver to socks just to stop them getting smelly?
Existing Issues: The Impact of Nanotechnology
We now turn to consider existing ethical issues on which na notechnology may have an impact, some of which concern nanotech as it is currently being developed, while others are more speculative. 1. Surveillance, Data and Privacy The ethical consequences of nanotechnology applications in surveillance equipment are potentially significant, and will probably intensify debates about the “surveillance society”. As nanotechnology makes computing devices smaller and more powerful, collecting, storing, sharing and processing large amounts of information will become easier and cheaper. Surveillance devices will probably become smaller, thus making it harder to detect them. With more powerful and smaller computing will come more ubiquitous networking of information- gathering systems, which will make it difficult to control who has access to information and how secure data is. Here, the relevant ethical principles to consider might be individual rights – the right to consent to having data collected about me, the right to access this data (by the person whose data it is and by others), and the right to limit how it is used. But it is not just surveillance technology that has to be considered – improved medical diagnostics might mean that it is easier to detect dispositions to certain genetic disorders by checking DNA, or to monitor chronic health conditions. Once such data is available, however, who owns it and who can access it is once again of supreme importance. Certainly, we might imagine wanting one’s doctor to have access to this information, but what if health insurance companies want access? These issues are established ones which are already being discussed with respect to biotechnology. 2. Military Applications When it comes to uses of nanotechnology in the military, there are some relatively innocuous possibilities. It may well lead (as in civilian applications) to new advanced materials which can be incorporated in body armour, vehicle armour and so on, as well as new electronic devices for use on the battlefield But nanotech may also make it easier to design biological weaponry, as a result of enhanced control of chemical and biological processes at the nanoscale. Microorganisms with specialised characteristics could be easily produced – such as the capacity to overcome immune systems, produce selective reactions with specific genetic patterns, the capacity to enter the body and cross tissues such as the bloodbrain barrier more easily, and so on.
The question of the ethics of risk arises here too – what if such micro-oganisms were released from a research environment? How could this be guarded against? How could they be tested in an ethical manner? Moreover, there is a long tradition of philosophical thinking about what constitutes the morally right way to fight a war. “Just war” theory, for example, has sought to establish distinctions between moral and immoral ways of fighting based on the distinction between combatants and noncombatants. It is held to be inherently immoral to target non-combatants. Just as it is often argued that nuclear, chemical and existing biological weapons are inherently less moral than conventional weaponry because of the way they make it harder to honour this distinction, so it could be argued that nanotech weaponry may lead us further down this route of indiscriminate killing. 3. Implications for Global Development In considering the ethical significance of a technology, it’s important to understand that we have to look further than just the direct effects of the applications it produces. Technologies are always developed in a social context, and can have indirect effects which ripple out across the globe. Having been developed for consumers in the developed world, mobile phones have spread across the developing world, their relative cheapness allowing people who have hitherto been unable to access communications technology to “get connected”. Some research suggests that there is a small but significant link between the greater availability of communications technology in these countries and economic growth. The multitude of environmental, medical and energy production and storage applications for nanoscience is widely expected to have an enormous effect on the global economy. But how the gains from investment in nanotech will be distributed is another question. The gap between standards of living within the developed and developing world remains deep and rooted in structural factors. It is often pointed out that around two thirds of the human race lives on less than US$2 per day; or that the healthy life expectancy of adults in countries like Zimbabwe or Zambia is less than half that in European countries or in Japan. Should we therefore ensure that development of new technologies like nanotech is geared to achieve the most benefits for the poorest in the world, rather than exacerbating current inequalities (the prospect of a “nanodivide” exercises some commentators)? This kind of argument has to do with the ethical principles of justice, or of the common good. These state that one should always act so as to maximise the justice or fairness of the outcomes of what you do (in this context, avoid reinforcing existing economic inequalities or creating new ones). Or, act so as to promote a certain positive idea of the good life, in which essential human needs and all aspects of human life that are most conducive to well-being are enhanced. Promoting health, access to adequate shelter, a non-polluted and biodiverse environment, access to education, political freedom, creativity – all these might be elements of such a vision. It’s evident that, without explicit efforts to reflect on the ethical significance of our technological priorities and to do something with the results of our reflections, development will continue to – so to speak- “follow the money”. The Woodrow Wilson Institute in the US maintains an online directory of consumer products which
are based on (or are claimed to be based on) nanotechnology. 3 The majority of these fall into the category of luxury goods, aimed at consumers in well-off countries, with sports goods, cosmetics and consumer electronics being particularly well represented. Similarly, when it comes to health issues and medical applications, a lot of resources are being poured into developing new treatments for cancer which rely on advances in nanoscience, including new forms of targeted drug delivery. But cancers tend to afflict well-off populations more than poor ones. Greater profits come with fulfilling consumer preferences and needs which are located in the developed world, and among elites in the developing world. The potential of nanotechnology as a means of for example, developing new forms of solar power generation or cheap means of filtering drinking water to prevent the water-borne diseases which kill so many people in developing countries may ultimately develop into commercial applications much more slowly. This may, however, change over time – countries like India and China are investing heavily in nanotechnology research. 4. Human Enhancement Human enhancement refers to the use of technologies to change, adapt or improve the basic capacities of human beings. Biotechnology and nanotechnology have been seen by some as a means of overcoming what some see as the “limitations” of human minds and bodies – from limits on speed and accuracy of human cognition, right through to the ageing process, and dying. Like grey goo, much speculation about the human enhancement possibilities of nanotechnology stems from a particular vision of what nanotech could be in the future (rather than facts about what it is in the present). Advanced manufacturing capabilities at the atomic and molecular level may (it is postulated) lead to the construction of (for example) artificially intelligent microscopic robots which are capable of repairing cell and tissue damage, thus extending the human lifespan. Nano-enabled electronics may make possible implants which could be introduced to the brain to improve memory, reasoning capability and access to information. Nano-enhanced bionics may improve physical performance to superhero levels. We could argue about whether any of this is or might be possible – which, if we remember the distinction between ethical and factual concerns, would take us out of the ethical realm proper and back to arguments about empirical facts. But if such measures were possible, would it be right to undertake them? Some argue that it would be wrong to use technology to make fundamental alterations to human beings because there is something inherently worthwhile about being human, with all its limitations, and that humans make their lives meaningful by striving to overcome or deal with these limitations through their own efforts. Using technology to simply remove these limitations is therefore cheating – it lessens the significance of human efforts, and treats humans as just one more technical device whose worth has to be measured in terms of how far it achieves optimal performance. This view therefore rests on the principle that humans should not be treated as mere means to an end, but rather as ends- in-themselves. Human dignity is proposed as an
ultimate value against which standards of right and wrong should be judged (de S. Cameron 2006). But one problem which defenders of this view have to deal with is that it is difficult to specify what dignity means independently of some concept of what normality is. For example, we might say that normal humans are not very good at digging ho les with their natural endowments – unlike your average mole, for example. So is a spade a form of human enhancement? Going further, is it possible to see all forms of technology as human enhancement ? Further, what about forms of technology which have a therapeutic function? Someone who develops cancer has, in a sense, lost their “normality”. But we would not say that, if a technology existed which cured their cancer, that they should not receive it out of respect for their dignity. What if someone was born blind, and a technology could restore something like 20:20 vision? We can see where this is going: if one wants to defend the “human dignity” view, one has to defend a distinction between therapy and enhancement – but to do this, one has to define what means by normality, or normal performance, which given that technology (from spades to computers) is already ubiquitous in human societies, is perhaps not easy to do.
Conclusion: Innovation and Responsibility
Perhaps the key ethical concept to focus on in thinking about all these issues might be “duty”, or “responsibility”. The way science is done in industrialized societies has changed. It used to be thought that scientists worked on basic research, and somewhere down the line, technological applications were found which exploited some of the insights they came up with, and these were developed perhaps with the assistance of government or within industry. However, since the Second World War, it has increasingly become the case that science – whether done in industry, in government labs or in academic institutions – is surrounded by external priorities which shape what research gets done, even at the level of basic science. Public funding and private capital combine within consortia of universities and private companies, with the aim of developing further technologies that private and public bodies (like the Department of Business, Industry and Skills in the UK and associated bodies like the Technology Strategy Board) expect will be important in the future for tackling major social problems. In other words, the contract between society and science has shifted: rather than simply letting scientists do basic research and then seeing what comes of the results, society now supports scientific research financially with certain priorities in mind. Even basic research is shaped by these expectations in ways that were not common even fifty years ago. Expectations about how far science should be accountable to society, and in what ways, therefore differ considerably now from in the past. As a result, we need to be careful how we approach debates concerning issues like those we have covered thus far. The extent of speculation over what nanotechnology might be able to accomplish in the future often appears irrational, based on fundamental misunderstandings of the science behind the technology and of the risks which may be implicated in its use. But as the debates over genetically modified food
in the 1990s showed, when the non-scientific public have negative feelings about a technology, it is often because they are not convinced that its benefits, either for them or for society in general, will be great enough to offset any troubling uncertainties or risks which surround it. One of the main reasons for this is that people tend to distrust the capacity of the public and private institutions which make promises on the behalf of scientific research to deliver on these assurances about future benefits, and to safeguard against risks which may emerge further down the line. This is reflected in the positions of key NGOs like Greenpeace on nanotech: rather than taking a stand against nanotech as such (as recommended by those who are worried about grey goo), they demand that its use be guided more by public discussion of social priorities, rather than what applications may generate the most profit.
de S. Cameron, N. M. (2006). "Nanotechnology and the Human Future: Policy, Ethics, and Risk." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1093: 280-300. Donaldson, K., C. A. Poland, et al. (2008). "Carbon nanotubes introduced into the abdominal cavity of mice show asbestos- like pathogenicity in a pilot study." Nature Nanotechnology(3): 423–428. Luoma, S. N. (2008). Silver nanotechnologies and the environment: old problems or new challenges? Washington, DC, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. Online at: http://pewnanotechproject.org/publications/archive/silver/
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?