Nano and the E-word

Nanoethics – what is it? Adam Keiper described nanoethics as a “fledgling” discipline modeled on bioethics “to think through the societal, moral, and broader human implications of advances in nanotechnology”. In his article “Nanoethics as a Discipline?”, Keiper takes a critical look at the topic and brings valuable insight into the emergence of this field. Keiper raises a probing question: Based on the current state of knowledge of nanoscience and nanotechnology do we need nanoethics as a discipline?

The scrutiny that nanotechnology is receiving is a good sign; let us not forget the bitter lessons learned in the past from the unquestioning pursuit of novel and promising technological solutions. Nanoethics invites humanities to the otherwise science and engineering dominated arena of nano. As per Keiper, its purpose and ‘validity’ as a discipline that fills a void, however, seem uncertain. Keiper says:

“Bioethics involved the application of longstanding methods of ethics to longstanding problems of medicine and science, and to the way those problems might extend themselves into the future. Nanoethics, on the other hand, takes as its subject a science still aborning; many of the ethical and social ills it seeks to address are mere speculations about the hypothetical ramifications of theoretical technologies that may prove technically impossible.”

OK. So, nanoethics scrutinizes a discipline that is “still aborning”. I think that’s a good thing – let’s look at developing ethics and science simultaneously, feeding off each other from a self-reinforcing feedback loop. I’m not advocating a strict “ethics-first” model that may stifle innovation. Even the supporters of nanoethics wouldn’t want that. Patrick Lin, the Director of The Nanoethics Group, has identified the problem with an ethics-first model to be that “ethical assessment depends in large part on a factual determination of the harms and benefits of implementing the technology.” (Click here for the full article.) And we, in the scientific community, are still seeking answers to establish the facts about the harms and benefits of nano. Until then, however, we need interim measures for the responsible stewardship of nanotechnology. Perhaps a more robust nanoethics discipline may be the answer to that?


Keiper also says that bioethics serves as an adequate template for analyzing nano. Bioethics itself, however, is not perfect. While bioethics does provide a template to start with, is it really a gold standard that nanoethics should be held to? Bioethics is still struggling to come up with answers for ethical dilemmas and challenges (abortion, euthanasia, genetic research), and has has its share of criticisms (see here and here).

Keiper argues that nanoethics, at present, lacks a “sense of humility”. He presents three intrinsic problems that will “bedevil the emerging field of nanoethics in the coming years”:

  1. Facts: The mere feasibility of a technology does not guarantee the path it is going to take in the future. Arguing that the outcomes of a technology may be utopian or apocalyptic, simply based on speculation and anticipation is foolish. Given the current state of knowledge of nanotechnology, much if the present nanoethics literature not only tries anticipate, but to “direct[,] even govern the consequences of nanotechnology”.
  2. Politics: Nanotechnology is, as the name suggests, a technology. Technologies are developed, polished and marketed by organizations (public or private). Regardless of how widespread a technology might be in the future, its control and dissemination will never rest in the hands of the people. There will always be a divide between the haves and the have nots when it comes to the use and control of a technology (think medicine, television, telecommunication, the internet…). This divide is inherent in the marriage between technology and business. Nanoethics futilely cautions against a “nano-divide” – two classes – one with and the other without – access to nanotechnology. But when has that not been the case? Keiper rightly points out that that today’s nanoethics is detached from practical politics. (In his book Nanoethics: Big Ethical Issues with Small Technology, Donald O’Mathuna discussed the nano-divide, cautioning: “Many developing countries have mineral resources that will become more valuable as nanotechnology develops. Pursuing nanotechnology developments based on these resources will benefit local economies than pursuing those nanotechnologies that require expensive imports.” O’Mathuna also urged that, “The needs of people in the developing nations should rank high in setting priorities for nanotechnology research agenda.”)
  3. Values: Currently nanoethics does not engage effectively with the deeper questions that ethics must grapple with (e.g., “What are the great social goods we seek to preserve? What are the high human goods we wish to defend?). Keiper says, “ 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.”

These are valid points – nanoethics must evolve and mature quickly to meet the unforeseen ethical challenges that the pursuit, implementation and proliferation of nanotechnology could present. But hasn’t that always been the expectation from ethics? Does this mean that we should completely do away with nanoethics and wait till we have all that facts about the implications of nanotechnology? No. Every emerging technology need ethics, just as biotechnology needed bioethics. We fumbled the ball with bioethics – we were slow. Let’s not make the same mistake with nano.

Fragmenting the thought process behind ethics into sub-disciplines (e.g., bioethics or nanoethics) may seem unnecessary. But the discipline-specific subtle differences in the ethical dilemmas and the the urgent need to tackle them require focus. And fragmenting ethics into sub-disciplines does exactly that – narrows the field of focus. So, until we have an overarching ethics umbrella for emerging technologies, I say, let’s give nanoethics a chance.

At the inception of every technology (and the industries spawned from it), we have an opportunity to responsibly direct its development, access, implementation and commercialization. Today we have a window of opportunity to do that with nanotechnology. Let us act today, before the window closes. As Ross Douthat said, “Tomorrow, they always say — tomorrow, we’ll draw the line. But tomorrow never comes.” I second the idea posted here: “… we’d far rather that nano studies be the kind of field that keeps asking who the relevant constituencies are, rather than waiting fifty years to discover that our analysis is meaningless because we forgot to include some crucial perspectives.”

If you have any doubts about whether emerging technologies such as nanotechnology need ethics to guide them into the future, remember these prophetic words of Freeman Dyson: “Progress of science is destined to bring enormous confusion and misery to mankind unless it is accompanied by progress in ethics.”


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3 thoughts on “Nano and the E-word

  1. Interesting thoughts on nanoethics. I think it’s definitely a much needed discpline because no matter how you look at it, we must ask ourselves: is it a good idea to let a technology which can influence things on the smallest scales we can imagine grow/be explored without any regulation? I mean, in the wrong hands it could change everything, literally. At the same time, a gloom and doom attitude can prevent scientific progress so it’s a balancing act. In my opinion, nanoethics should be the art of (as) objectively (as possible) determining what the right balance between progress and doom is at certain times.

    • Thanks, for your comments, Aaron. Yes, a “right balance between progress and doom” is definitely called for. But I am more interested in seeing nanotechnology being studied through the lenses of ethics hoping that it will foster some discussion on the social aspects of this new technology. For example: Gold is a limited resource. We could use gold nanoparticles in nanomedicine as well as for cosmetics (e.g., anti-aging creams). Who gets to decide where gold-based nanotechnologies should be used?

  2. Ahhh I see what you mean. That’s a good question to ask indeed. Since gold IS a limited resource and the price will go up because the demand for it will increase because of gold nanoparticles, we could very well end up with a situation where the majority won’t be able to afford treatments with gold nanoparticles even if they’re life or death situations. So, a good question would also be: who gets to decide on/for who the gold-based nanotechnologies will be used?

    Interesting tidbit: I read this book years ago (before nanotechnology was a thing) which stated that the unique composition/shape of precious metals (gold, silver, platinum, etc.) could work wonders in medicine and that it, in fact, has been done (in a very crude form) in ancient times. It has nothing to do with ethics, I know, but it’s amazing how much knowledge of ancient times has been lost.

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