Nanotechnology: The Social and Ethical Issues

Publication Date : 2009
1,142 Visited Entry Date : 2013/04/15


Document type Report
Subject Ethics ; Social Aspect
The goal of this paper by Ron Sandler of Northeastern University is to clearly place social and ethical issues within ongoing debates on the responsible development of nanotechnologies. The paper presents a broad framework to structure the analysis and discussion of ethical issues, which builds on improving our understanding of the social, cultural, and moral context of emerging technologies and assessing the status of these issues as the technologies evolve.
The author takes on some of the common misconceptions that undermine our ability to address social and ethical issues early and effectively, such as the “it’s too early to discuss ethics” excuse and the tendency to frame new technologies in terms of their inevitability (and inevitable good). The paper highlights, through theory and research linked to case studies, a wide variety of possible social and ethical issues linked to emerging nanotechnologies, ranging from environmental justice to human enhancement and the myth of the techno-fix—our tendency to favor technological fixes to problems rather than behavioral changes or other major shifts. Indeed, the framework outlined in this paper can be applied to a wide variety of emerging technologies. this paper will provide a framework for thinking through some of those impacts.
The purpose of this report is to describe the salience of these issues and to draw attention to them by articulating what they are, why they matter and what is involved in addressing them. To this end, the report:
- identifies the crucial roles of ethics in responsible development of technology;
- dispels common misconceptions about the social and ethical issues associated with emerging nanotechnologies;
- provides a typology of the social and ethical issues associated with emerging nanotechnologies and identifies several issues within each type;
- discusses in detail one paradigmatic issue of each type to illustrate significant features of the issues within the type; and
- emphasizes how social and ethical issues intersect with government functions and responsibilities.
This is a report on the ethical issues associated with emerging nanotechnologies, broadly construed to include goals, opportunities, complications, barriers and limits. It is not a report on the ethical implications of nanotechnology (the preferred NNI terminology), which are not yet determined.
this is not a report on the ethical challenges of nanotechnology, since emerging nanotechnologies present as much in social and ethical opportunities as in potential social and ethical problems, and ethics is as much aspirational as proscriptive.
Executive Summary

I. Introduction: Technology, Ethics and Government
Technology and Society    
Ethics and the Functions of Government    
The National Nanotechnology Initiative and the “Other” Social and Ethical Issues    
About this Report    

II. Ethics and Emerging Nanotechnologies
Ethics as Restraint and Aspiration    
Roles of Ethics in Responsible Development    
Ethical Issues vs. Ethical Implications    

III. Three Misconceptions about the Social and Ethical Issues
Too Soon to Tell    
The Inevitable Goodness of the Nanotechnology Revolution    
The Point Is to Secure Public Acceptance    

IV. Typology of the Issues
Social Context Issues    
Contested Moral Issues    
Technoculture Issues    
Form of Life Issues    
Transformational Issues    

V. Social Context Issues
Scenario: Manufacturing Nanotechnology    
Environmental Justice    
The Issue: Environmental Justice and Nanotechnology    
Addressing Environmental Injustice    
Beyond Environmental Justice    
Comments on Social Context Issues    

VI. Contested Moral Issues
Scenario: Research at the Boundaries of Life Forms
Research on Novel Life Forms    
The Issue: The Sanctity of Life Forms?    
Beyond the Sanctity of Life Forms    
Comments on Contested Moral Issues    

VII. Technoculture Issues
Scenario: Nanotechnology, Genomics and Asthma in Upper Manhattan    
The Techno-Fix    
The Issue: Nanotechnology as Techno-Fix?    
Beyond the Techno-Fix    
Comments on Technoculture Issues    

VIII. Form of Life Issues
Scenario: Virtual Socialization    
Virtual Reality    
The Issue: Virtual Reality and Sociability    
Beyond Virtual Reality and Sociability    
Comments on Form of Life Issues    

IX. Transformational Issues
Scenario: Cognitive Enhancement    
On the Threshold of (Radical) Human Enhancement?    
Social and Ethical Dimensions of Radical Human Enhancement    
The Issue: Transformational Dimensions of Radical Human Enhancement    
Beyond Radical Human Enhancement    
Comments on Transformational Issues    

X. Conclusion: The Opportunity



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