Nanotechnology has tremendous potential to contribute to human flourishing in socially just and environmentally sustainable ways. However, nanotechnology is unlikely to realize its full potential unless its associated social and ethical issues are adequately attended.
Too often, discussions about the social and ethical issues surrounding new technologies are treated as afterthoughts, or worse still, as potential roadblocks to innovation. The ethical discussions are relegated to the end of scientific conferences, outsourced to social scientists, or generally marginalized in the policymaking process.
The goal of this paper by Ron Sandler of Northeastern University is to clearly place social and ethical issues within ongoing debates on the responsible development of nanotechnologies. The paper presents a broad framework to structure the analysis and discussion of ethical issues, which builds on improving our understanding of the social, cultural, and moral context of emerging technologies and assessing the status of these issues as the technologies evolve.
The author takes on some of the common misconceptions that undermine our ability to address social and ethical issues early and effectively, such as the “it's too early to discuss ethics” excuse and the tendency to frame new technologies in terms of their inevitability (and inevitable good). The paper highlights, through theory and research linked to case studies, a wide variety of possible social and ethical issues linked to emerging nanotechnologies, ranging from environmental justice to human enhancement and the myth of the techno-fix—our tendency to favor technological fixes to problems rather than behavioral changes or other major shifts. Indeed, the framework outlined in this paper can be applied to a wide variety of emerging technologies.
Every emerging technology offers us a new opportunity to engage stakeholders in a social and ethical debate. The nanotech revolution is still beginning and we still have time for an open and public discussion of its consequences, both intended and unintended. Hopefully, this paper will provide a framework for thinking through some of those impacts.
Director, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies
Technology and Society
Technology is a thoroughly social phenomenon. Technologies emerge from society. They are made possible and encouraged by society—e.g., through social valuing, public funding and intellectual property policies. They are implemented in and disseminated through society; they are also sometimes prohibited, resisted or rejected by society. They alter society. Indeed, without technology it is difficult to conceive of society at all or, at least, to conceive of a society such as ours with complex and evolving cultures constituted by accumulated knowledge, traditions, practices, institutions and organizations. Technology shapes every aspect of our lives—the places we inhabit, the ways we interact, how we do our work (and the work that we do), our forms of recreation, our institutional arrangements and how we organize our days and our lives.
This understanding of the relationship between technology and society militates against the naïve view of technology as simply what we create to solve problems and overcome barriers i.e., that we find a need for it, create it, use it and control it (except, of course, for the occasional unanticipated side effects, which are best handled by further technological inventiveness). Not only is technology inseparable from society, it shapes us as much as we shape it. Thus, the relationship between technology and society is deeply value laden.
Ethics and the Functions of Government
Ethics, in its most basic sense, concerns how we ought and ought not) to lead our lives. Because technology structures our experiences and shapes how we live, it has enormous ethical significance. The functions of government intersect with the ethical and value dimensions of technology in several ways:
Although social and ethical issues associated with science and technology do not begin and end with government, government is not a neutral observer. Government functions and actors, from the local to the federal level and across all branches of government, respond to, engage with and act upon values and ethical issues associated with science and technology. This can be done effectively (as some have argued is the case with the Human Genome Project and embryonic stem cell research) or not (as some have argued is the case with genetically modified crops and nuclear power). How government engages these issues has substantial ethical, social, economic and technological implications.
Read Full Section: Technology, Ethics and Government (PDF)
Ethics, particularly as it relates to technology, is usually associated with prohibitions and restraints. This is unfortunate. Although part of its purview is proscription, ethics is also aspirational. It involves identifying how to make our way in the world well, what to strive for and the ideals that we set before ourselves, as individuals and as societies, and that we attempt to live up to and measure ourselves against. So while the ethics of nanotechnology does involve prohibitions and restraints, that is not nearly the whole, or even the most important part, of it. Nor is it where ethical reflection on nanotechnology is best begun. It should begin by reflecting on what we, as a society, should want from emerging nanotechnologies, namely, that they contribute to human flourishing in socially just and environmentally sustainable ways.
Read Full Section: Ethics and Emerging Nanotechnologies (PDF)
There are several common misconceptions regarding the social and ethical issues associated with emerging nanotechnologies that obscure their significance to responsible development. This section discusses three of the most influential and widespread of these issues.
Read Full Section: Three Misconceptions about Social and Ethical Issues (PDF)
Typologies divide and organize conceptual terrain. Most typologies are conventional and programmatic. This one is no different. It is a typology, not the typology, of the social and ethical issues.3 The considerations that have guided its development are that it illuminate the full range of issues (inclusiveness), that the types are clear and distinguished by significant features (e.g., time line, familiarity, determinacy or regulatory relevance), that the types are neither too gross (and too few) nor too fine (and too many) to be helpful in organizing discourse on them and that it reflect ongoing discussions on the issues. The types are not mutually exclusive—a particular issue might fall within more than one type—and some aspects cut across all the types—e.g., evaluations of risks, power relations and societal (governmental, social and ethical) capacity.
Read Full Section: Typology of the Issues (PDF)
Many of the social and ethical issues associated with emerging nanotechnologies are determinate, immediate, distinct, significant and actionable. Consideration of and responsiveness to them are needed now in order to anticipate and proactively address, as far as possible, potential negative aspects of emerging nanotechnologies, as well as to identify and promote opportunities for nanotechnology to contribute to human flourishing in just and sustainable ways. This is precisely the justification for including responsible development as an objective within the NNI.
However, the anticipatory model for responsible development sought by the NNI does not yet fully exist. As with nanoscale science and technology, there are some pieces in place, some resources from which to draw (e.g., experiences with previous emerging technologies and expertise in relevant areas), dedicated and capable researchers (in academia, government, non-governmental organizations and elsewhere) and ambitious and laudable goals. This is true of all aspects of responsible development—education and outreach, EHS and other social, ethical and legal issues—and it is a reason why nanotechnology is as exciting and challenging from a humanities and social science perspective as it is from a science and engineering perspective. Thus far, the effort to develop effective responses to social and ethical issues associated with emerging nanotechnologies has been inadequate—stymied by misconception of what the issues are, why they are crucial to responsible development and how to proactively address them.
It is possible to do better, and the NNI affords as good an opportunity to address many of the issues as is likely to present itself. First, within the NNI there is a substantial and apparently genuine commitment to promoting nanotechnology as a social good, as well as recognition that considerable efforts in support of responsible development are necessary to do so. Second, there is some recognition within the NNI that there are significant social and ethical issues above and beyond public outreach, infrastructure and workforce development and EHS that need to be addressed. Social and ethical issues do at least find mention in core NNI documents, and there has been some effort within the NNI to identify them (Roco and Bainbridge 2001, 2005). Third, there is recognition within the NNI that significant policy and regulatory changes may be needed to build adequate government capacity for achieving responsible development. It is not often that the federal government openly encourages and supports rethinking the organization, authority, resources, mandates and approaches of its frontline regulatory and policy agencies, many of which intersect with or are implicated in social and ethical issues. Fourth, the NNI is a comprehensive research program along several dimensions—e.g., the number of government agencies involved, the number of disciplines involved and the types of research (basic, applied, social, scientific) being pursued. The NNI has already developed intra- and interagency coordination (e.g., the Interagency Working Group on Nanotechnology Environmental and Health Implications) and coordinators (e.g., the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office) to help avoid redundancy, define research needs and share data, for example.
Taken together, these factors suggest that the NNI affords a unique opportunity to take a broad, critical and constructive perspective on the relationship between technology, government, environment and society; while emerging nanotechnologies offer a unique opportunity to make social (not just technological) progress through broad, innovative, forward-looking responsible development. These are opportunities not to be missed.
Nanotechnology has tremendous potential to contribute to human flourishing in socially just and environmentally sustainable ways. However, nanotechnology is unlikely to realize its full potential unless its associated social and ethical issues are adequately attended. The purpose of this report is to raise the salience of social and ethical issues within ongoing responsible development discourses and efforts by:
Government and Ethics
Among the functions of government that intersect with the ethical and value dimensions of technology are the following:
Roles of Ethics in the Responsible Development of Technology
The goal for any emerging technology is to contribute to human flourishing in socially just and environmentally sustainable ways. Given this, the roles of ethics within responsible development of nanotechnology include:
Three Misconceptions about Ethics and Emerging Nanotechnologies
Several common misconceptions about the social and ethical issues associated with emerging nanotechnologies have obscured their significance to responsible development and thereby hampered our responsiveness to them. Three of the most important of these misconceptions are as follows:
A Typology of Ethical Issues
This typology is intended to organize the social and ethical issues associated with emerging nanotechnologies in ways that are illuminating and productive.
The Status of the Social and Ethical Issues within Responsible Development
With the misconceptions resolved and the full range of issues elucidated, it is clear that the social and ethical issues associated with emerging nanotechnologies are:
• Determinate: It is possible to identify many of the social and ethical issues.
• Immediate: It is not too soon to begin considering many of the issues.
• Distinct: The issues are not reducible to other aspects of responsible development.
• Significant: Addressing the issues is crucial to the responsible development of emerging nanotechnologies.
• Actionable: In many cases, there are steps that can be taken now by actors, including those in government, to address the issues.
Consideration of and responsiveness to social and ethical issues are needed now in order to anticipate and proactively address, as far as possible, potential negative aspects of emerging nanotechnologies, as well as to identify and promote opportunities for nanotechnology to contribute to human flourishing in just and sustainable ways. The National Nanotechnology Initiative affords a unique opportunity to promote a broad, critical and constructive perspective on the relationships between technology, government, environment and society at the same time that emerging nanotechnologies offer enormous possibilities for making social (not just technological) progress through comprehensive, innovative, and forwardlooking responsible development.
Ronald Sandler is an associate professor of philosophy in the Department of Philosophy and Religion, a researcher in the Nanotechnology and Society Research Group and Center for High-rate Nanomanufacturing, and a research associate in the Environmental Justice Research Collaborative at Northeastern University.- See more at: http://www.pewhealth.org/reports-analysis/reports/nanotechnology-85899368676/2#sthash.c0ZjAK8l.dpuf