Against nanoethics

I spent a day the week before last in the decaying splendour of a small castle outside Edinburgh, in the first meeting of a working group considering the ethics of human enhancement. This is part of a European project on the ethics of nanotechnology and related technologies – Nanobioraise. It was a particular pleasure to meet Alfred Nordmann, of the Technical University of Darmstadt – a philosopher and historian of science who has written some thought provoking things about nanotechnology and the debates surrounding it.

Nordmann’s somewhat surprising opening gambit was to say that he wasn’t really in favour of studying the ethics of human enhancement at all. To be more precise, he was very suspicious of efforts to spend a lot of time thinking about the ethics of putative long-term developments in science and technology, such as the transcendence of human limitations by human enhancement technologies, or an age of global abundance brought about by molecular nanotechnology. Among the reasons for his suspicion is a simple consideration of the opportunity cost of worrying about something that may never happen – “ethical concern is a scarce resource and must not be squandered on incredible futures, especially where on-going developments demand our attention.” But Nordmann also identifies some more fundamental problems with this way of thinking.

He identifies the central rhetorical trick of speculative ethics as being an elision between “if” and “then”: we start out identifying some futuristic possibility along the lines of “if MNT is possible “, then we identify some ethical consequence from it “then we need to prepare for an age of global abundance, and adjust our economies accordingly”, which we take as a mandate for action now, foreshortening the conditional. In this way, the demand for early ethical consideration lends credence to possible futures whose likelihood hasn’t yet been tested rigorously. This gives a false impression of inevitability, which shuts off the possibility that we can steer or choose the path that technology takes, and it distracts us from more pressing issues. It’s also notable that some of those who are most prone to this form of argument are those with a strong intellectual or emotional stake in the outcome in question.

His argument is partly developed in unpublished article “Ignorance at the Heart of Science? Incredible Narratives on Brain-Machine Interfaces”, which is well worth reading. It closes with a set of recommendations, referring back to an earlier EU report coordinated by Nordman, Converging Technologies – Shaping the Future of European Societies, which recommends that:

  • “science policy attends also to the limits of technical feasibility, suggesting for example that one should scientifically scrutinize the all too naive assumptions, if not (citing Dan Sarewitz) “conceptual cluenessness” about thought and cognition that underwrites the US-report on NBIC convergence.
  • Along the same lines, a committee of historians and statisticians should produce a critical assessment of Ray Kurzweil’s thesis about exponential growth.
  • Also, as Jürgen Altmann has urged, we need an Academy report about the Drexlerian vision of nanotechnology – is molecular manufacturing a real possibility or not?
  • Finally and most generally, we need scientists and engineers who have the courage to publically distinguish between what is physically possible and what is technically feasible.
  • As a citizen, I am overtaxed if I am to believe and even to prepare for the fact that humans will soon engineer everything that does not contradict outright a few laws of nature.”

    In short, Nordmann believes that nanoethics needs to be done more ethically.

    6 thoughts on “Against nanoethics”

    1. HHmm, I suppose I broadly agree with him.
      BY the way, would you mind telling me which castle it was? I can think of one or two possibilities, but I wouldnt expect either of them to be open to international working groups on nanoethics.

    2. Carberry Tower, near Musselburgh (not that near, in fact, as I found out by walking there from Musselburgh train station on a wet evening).

    3. *Slaps forehead*
      The Cof S must be renting it out willy nilly then. I had forgotten about that one.
      Pauses to look up Carberry tower. HHmmm, it seems to have been transferred to a different trust. That would explain why its being used as an out and out conference centre. My how things have changed since they had a large scout camp there in roughly 1992, I forget why.
      You walked from Muselborough? Thats brave of you, the route is not exactly direct, and IIRC there are few pavements out that way.

    4. Well, one of the working group, Donald Bruce, works for the Church of Scotland, which may be the explanation you are looking for. Although the CoS have transferred ownership to a trust, that still seems fairly church-oriented. The walk was ok, though wet, but I could have done with a pint of beer at the end, which was not to be.

    5. When viewing a city map, the distance to a location from where you presently are isn’t the distance on the actual paper map. There is a *legend* that translates say, one cm on the map to 300 real metres on foot.
      For me it is the opposite. I get how to read a map but I have trouble understanding how polymer chains are arranged and function.

    6. Just to clarify for you, Carberry Tower now belongs to Gartmore House, a registered charity which runs both conference Centres. We are open to all groups and run on Christian principles, hoping to go the extra mile for all our guests.
      I hope that you had a good experience with us.

      The main house will be reopened soon having undergone a major refurbishment this winter.
      Sorry you had such a walk from the station, uphill all the way.


    Comments are closed.