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
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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
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?
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?
Why? What good might
result from the advance of nanotech and nanobiotech? This is not a rhetorical
rejection. It only asks for ethical justification.
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| Contributed by: Ted Peters