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What Questions Might a Nano-Ethicist Ask?

Moral issues ride technology like a rider does a horse. Wherever technology goes, ethical questions go right along. A technological horse that tries to run away to avoid its ethical rider will not be able to stray long.

Even though the nano horse is hardly out of the barn, we can already foresee ethical questions for consideration and deliberation. By ‘ethical’ here I do not mean moral pronouncements, let alone moral dogmas. The field of ethics, like other scholarly domains, is a field of analysis, study, and evaluation. We will begin here with ethical questions, pointing to possible directions for tentative answers.

  1. Personal Safety. When it comes to placing nanobots within the human body, will they influence larger biosystems in unpredictable ways? Might neurocognitive enhancement measures disturb the far more complex neural systems which are yet poorly undersood? Might a high degree of caution be called for here?

  2. Environmental Safety. Nanoparticles can be taken up by other cells. What will be their effect? It has already been shown that nano particles have been absorbed into the livers of research animals; and they have caused brain damage in fish. Is there a risk nanoparticles could enter the food chain, then be eaten by animals and people? Might caution be advised here as well?

  3. Coercion to Enhance. We can imagine a scenario where neurocognitive enhancement has been standardized. What will be the impact on employment or other institutional relations? We could easily anticipate employers insisting that their employees obtain intelligence augmentation to perform their jobs. Do we need now to consider legal protections against discrimination against the unenhanced?

  4. Distributive Justice. It is likely that nanotech therapies and neurocognitive enhancers may not be distributed fairly. Present economic inequities might be exacerbated when some persons are enhanced while others cannot afford to be. Does this call for alert attention to matters of economic justice? Does it call for governmental scrutiny instead of throwing nanotechnology into the winds of the free market?

  5. Cultural Values. When enhancement shines on the horizon beckoning us to come forward, how will we value what previously has been normal for us human beings? Are we at risk for medicalizing normal human behavior, judging it to be inferior? Could we end up pathologizing the normal human attention span or our normal capacity to remember things? Could nano enhancement undermine classic values attributed to self-discipline and hard work? Revulsion against professional athletes whose steroid enhancement enables them to break records of previous more mortal heroes indicates widespread fear of unfairness. Athletes of all kinds deserve a level playing field. Could testing for nano enhancers along with steroids provide that level playing field?

  6. Neurocognitive Liberty. What will happen to us once we receive nano sized brain implants? Could they, like existing electronic devices, make what is inside our heads knowable to those outside? Could wireless broadcasting make it possible that our minds would be subject to external monitoring and perhaps even manipulation? Might enhanced persons find themselves subject to a new electronic tyranny? Should legislators begin now to prepare protections for privacy of mind?

  7. Playing God. Ethical concern over “playing God” was hot during the period of the Human Genome Project. It may become hot again during the nanotech revolution. Will implantation of nanobots or other modifications of the human body and brain so alter human nature that we will give birth to a new species, the post-human or trans-human? If so, does this amount to a desirable or undesirable future?

  8. Why? What good might result from the advance of nanotech and nanobiotech? This is not a rhetorical rejection. It only asks for ethical justification.

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Ted Peters

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