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His argument is partly developed in unpublished article “Ignorance at the Heart of Science?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:
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.