Adam Keiper's missive [see "Nanoethics as a Discipline?"] is remarkably well-written and cogent. It exemplifies what I would call alpha-level CITOKATE... a neologism that derives from my aphorism "Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error." Adam's CITOKATE appears to be helpful and wise, assisting us to focus our mission.
And yet, it is inherent to any act of criticism that it must delve into foggy areas where the critic may have only a tenuous grasp upon the thing that he or she is subjecting to a searing glare. This truth applies as much to literary criticism as to futurism and technological anticipation. That is why (1) criticism needs to flow openly and multidimensionally, with input from many sources, as in a market and (2) the partner of anticipation -- resiliency -- must always be invited to the table.
Adam is right to say that the inherent vagueness of our topic makes our rush to offer recommendations seem premature. I have long felt that we should focus less upon specific scenarios and instead emphasize endeavors that explore what future bottlenecks might stymie good advances and which basic blind spots should be opened up to civilization-wide scrutiny, so that events do not take us by surprise.
I found particularly irksome the following passage:
What are the great social goods we seek to preserve? What are the high human goods we wish to defend? Those involved in nanoethics seem uninterested, unwilling, or unable to engage these deeper questions. The oft-heard refrain—that ethics has to “keep up” or “catch up” or “evolve” with advances in technology—is a prescription for a shallow and reactive ethics, one that ignores the questions that matter most.
This is not only patronizing but deliberately misleading, creating the assumption that Adam is thoroughly well-read on this topic and qualified to cast such a sweeping judgement. But I know for a fact that he is not, since some of us have relentlessly addressed the very issues that he called "ignored."
Indeed, the ethos of peering ahead and reacting adaptively to change IS based upon a clearcut value system, that of Enlightenment Pragmatism, which is -- by the way -- the very same ethos that has proved most effective at BOTH spreading material well-being AND promoting values of ever-rising tolerance, along with the notion of essential rights. (Nothing proves an academic's stupidity more than when he or she portrays these desiderata as in-opposition, when they are demonstrably siblings, co-joined at the hip.) Since this is also the only ethos that actively promoted future-oriented literature (such as science fiction) and attitudes of curiosity (instead of loathing) toward change, it seems fair to say that Adam is dead wrong here. In fact, he does not have a clue what he is talking about.
Nevertheless, he achieves some redemption with the quotation:
Still, as Bertrand de Jouvenal has written, “forecasting would be an absurd enterprise were it not inevitable.” We must make predictions about the future in order to decide what to do now.
What I find relentlessly tedious (and, alas, ubiquitous) is the tendency to assume that the objective is actually to see ahead. It is not. The objective is to do what Einstein called gedankenexperimentation: pondering the range of possibilities in order to pick our way ahead, knowing full well that we will only reduce -- never eliminate -- the number of snakepits that we'll trip upon, along the way.