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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Nanoethics > Making "Nanoethics" A Real Word

Summer Johnson
Executive Managing Editor
The American Journal of Bioethics

A significant amount of theoretical debate has occurred regarding whether "nanoethics" is a real discipline, a sub-dicipline of bioethics, applied ethics, or ethics generally. However, the really important question is not this one but a far more simple one: what does nanoethics do for us in the "real world" anyway? My argument is that it is the work of bioethicists, applied ethicists and others to make nanoethics a real word that does actual work and has meaning for the scientists, policymakers, and consumers of nanotechnology--otherwise the term is as abstract as the thereoretical debates regarding its academic home.

January 15th, 2009

Making "Nanoethics" A Real Word

Enough ink has been spilt over the question of whether "nanoethics", as a discipline unto itself, or a sub-discpline of ethics, or as a sub-discipline of bioethics (which is questioned as to whether it is a discipline in its own right) by bioethicists, applied ethicists, and opponents of the "nanoethics" idea itself, that the time has come to dispense with the question altogether in favor of a more practical discussion about what "nanoethics" can really do for the scientists, policy-makers, and consumers of nanotechnology.

In fact, it makes no real difference whether "nanoethics" (which hereafter will stop being used in scare quotes) is a discipline, sub-discipline, or simply a useful phrase used to categorize a set of issues we all easily understand to exist surrounding nanotechnologies. The fact is that with the emergence of new technologies come new ethical questions. This has been true since the Industrial Revolution and will continue be true for time immemorial. There is nothing special about the nanotechnological revolution that suggests that it would be exempt from ethical quandaries, and in fact, numerous scholars have already begun to enumerate them.

But this is not the point. In order for nanoethics to be a meaningful term for nanotechnology, it must in fact do real work for the scientists, engineers, and consumers of these technologies. It cannot be an abstract, ethereal thing that philosophers ponder about in their ivory towers. It is, in fact, this debate over whether there is a real nanoethics and what it constitutes that I criticize.

It is obvious for anyone to see that there are real moral questions at stake from nanotechnology. Questions about environmental and workplace safety, the appropriateness of human clinical trials, and the long-term changes that nanotechnologies will have on the environment, humans and society at large are all open for discussion. But more important than the content of these questions and the others that will certainly follow them are how we, as human beings, choose to approach them and eventually resolve them.

There are too many of these questions to explore in any single column, of course. Depending on whether one is discussing those environmental technologies that promise to clean up oil spills with tissues that hate water but love oil , or nano-sized gold particles that will obliterate tumors, there are countless issues to explore.

The key function of any nanoethics is first to allow for issue detection. Researchers, policy-makers, and consumers must know that there are issues to be aware of and to have their "ethical antennae" up. Once an issue is identified, then the creativity and hard work must follow to find solutions for these difficult, and sometimes unsolvable problems. This kind of nanoethics, therefore, is not just the work of a few ethicists in a room, or even just a few scientists or policy makers on boards and committees. It is the work of society to be aware, to raise and promote their own and other's awareness about nanotechnology, and to speak out about which technologies they do (and do not) want.

It is this nanoethics that will create the kind of world where nanotechnology enhances human life. It is a nanoethics that does real work to promote new technologies, to ensure their safe and responsible introduction into society. It requires participation from all sectors of society, public education, and transparency.

But then, and only then, will nanoethics be a real word.

Summer Johnson, PhD
Executive Managing Editor, The American Journal of Bioethics

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