Questioning nanotechnology ethics
Donald Bruce of the Society, Religion and Technology Project has written an outstanding synopsis of the ethical issues in nanotechnology which appears in today's issue of Nanotoday. Here are a few excerpts:
The gap between research and rhetoric makes nanotechnologies vulnerable to exaggerated claims, both about potential benefits and potential harms.
It is a common misconception that technology is neutral. On the contrary, a technology reflects the values and goals of the society within which it emerges and, in turn, it may alter the values and aspirations of that society.
Whose values will nanomedicine express? Are its novel ideas a product of widely shared values, or only of a powerful elite?
Is nanomedicine to make humans better, or should we use it to make 'better' humans, by manipulating our capacities beyond medical conditions?
A useful distinction exists between medical and nonmedical interventions in the human person. Nanotechnology devices implanted in the body to monitor and adjust blood sugar levels in diabetics are more problematical if used for the surveillance of citizens or military applications.
Lab-on-a-chip analysis may mean that my routine visit to the doctor as a result of a cough may also tell me that I have a susceptibility to colon cancer with little prospect of cure. Knowing all the information that nanomedicine could provide is not necessarily a good thing.
Bottom-up construction from the molecular level, based either on mimicking biology or on incorporating components from living systems, raises issues about hybrid devices that interface human and machine, and also about priorities. What should we choose to build?
Notions of 'improvement' are likely to be socially divisive, with benefits for a wealthy few, and carry the attendant danger of notions of ideal or master humans that stigmatize the disabled or anything that is now perceived as defective. To me, this discourse misses the point about our humanity. Beyond a certain basic point of physical survival and necessity, what matters most to humans are not functional and material things but the relational, aesthetic, and creative. Our deepest problems reside less in physical limitations than our moral, relational, or spiritual failings.