As rapid development in nanotech applications becomes more and more apparent, discussions of nano ethics and values are becoming more common -- as they should.
A new "international magazine" called Nano Today has popped up, promising to bring "the latest nanoscience research and policy news to researchers in academia, industry, and government organizations."
From the inaugural issue, available online, we find an opinion piece by Donald Bruce on "The question of ethics."
Mr. Bruce, on behalf of the Church of Scotland's Society, Religion and Technology Project, writes:
A common view in scientific and political circles is a belief in ‘progress’ through technology to improve the human condition in its widest sense. This belief is confident of human skill and ingenuity to overcome any problem.
The current dominant economic model frames nanotechnologies in terms of their capacity for wealth generation. But another widely held view sees intervention explicitly balanced by care for our fellow human beings and attention to the impacts of our innovations on the environment. Interventions are made that respect certain limits defined by the human condition and our finite environment.
Technology is not the sole engine of progress but a tool that remains at the service of humanity, not vice versa. [emphasis his] Lastly, there are those for whom progress is entirely personal and not for the state to dictate.
He also says...
[I]t 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. . .
The convergence of nanotechnologies with info-, bio-, and cognitive technologies provokes a possible conflict between holistic and functional views, and between what is considered fixed and what is changeable.
Traditional presuppositions hold that there are moral or societal bounds that restrain what may be technically feasible in intervening in the human condition. These limits are drawn from insights into our religious and cultural traditions, philosophy and theology, the arts and humanities, and the social sciences.
Much of Mr. Bruce's opinion piece deals with medical ethics, a field that will -- and should -- receive a great deal of attention in policy discussions. However, the conclusion he arrives at in the paragraph below is questionable:
Nanomedicine may enable rapid readouts of our whole genome or of our body's levels of everything imaginable, but what does all that information mean? ... 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.
Personally, I disagree with that. I believe more knowledge is always a good thing. What we choose to do with that knowledge is another question, and that's where value judgments should take place. But no one should be allowed to decide for me what information I can have.
Finally, he wraps up with:
This brief survey has mapped some of the ethical and social topography of the uncharted lands that nanotechnologies may offer to medicine, and posed many questions for debate. How, as societies, we seek answers as these technologies emerge will be of crucial importance. Scientists and clinicians in nanomedicine owe it to themselves and to the wider society to reflect on them, so that the right benefits may be achieved with justice, while retaining our humanity in all its rich diversity.
But who will decide what the "right" benefits are? These are indeed questions of crucial importance.
I'm pleased to see these issues being raised. Now is the time to debate them openly and to look for solutions that provide maximum access to information and personal choice, while preserving the classic Four Freedoms:
- Freedom of speech
- Freedom of belief
- Freedom from want
- Freedom from fear