[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Skip to Main Content


March 31, 2008
Volume 86, Number 13
pp. 42-43

Deciphering Nanoethics

Book is a guide to the future even if the ethical questions have not yet matured

Reviewed by Arthur L. Caplan

Nanoethics is a "wanna-be" subfield of ethics that is having serious birth pangs. It is by no means certain that nanoethics will be born alive. The challenge facing proponents of nanoethics is that it is not at all clear that a subset of distinctive ethical problems exists that merits or requires the creation of a new area of ethics specialization.

The editors of "Nanoethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Nanotechnology" give the case for its birth their best shot. They argue that nanotechnology will create special moral problems, such as the way personal privacy would be challenged by the creation of difficult-to-detect electronic nanomonitoring technology, for example. And even if nanotechnology does not create unique ethical problems, they argue that the emergence of a broad push in science under the banner of nanotechnology is sufficient reason for a band of moral camp followers to trail along, picking up and mulling over the ethical problems the scientists leave behind.

Nanoethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Nanotechnology, edited by Fritz Allhoff, Patrick Lin, James Moor, and John Weckert. John Wiley & Sons, 2007, 385 pages, $39.95 paperback (ISBN: 978-0-470-08417-5)

To some extent, the challenge that nanoethics faces is its subject matter. A good number of scientists do not think there is any need to talk about nanotechnology. They argue that physics, chemistry, and engineering have always grappled with understanding the exceedingly small elements of the external world.

But many other engineers, physicists, and chemists believe that the ability to manipulate materials one atom or one molecule at a time produces a novel world of applied science. Materials in extremely tiny sizes show different properties from what they exhibit at larger scale. And the capacity to manipulate at the molecular scale opens the possibility of integrating biological and inorganic matter.

So a case can be made that a new field of science—nanotechnology—describes the emergence of new forms of synthetic chemistry and molecular engineering. And indeed, since the 1980s, many engineers, chemists, physicists, and science popularizers have been climbing on the nanotechnology bandwagon.

All of this is well and good for encouraging research at a never before attainable scale of manipulation of the material world. But would entering the world of the exceedingly small create ethical puzzles that require a special field of moral inquiry to govern those who would explore, shape, and commercialize that world?

The articles in the book, some of which are original and many of which are reprinted from other sources, are well chosen. The editors have done a laudatory job of organizing the material and including succinct section introductions. The book reviews the rise of nanotechnology and the early debate over its societal and ethical implications. Then it moves to the possible implications of nanotechnology for human health and the environment, the ways in which public policy might try to shape the evolution of nanotechnology, and the military application of nanotechnology. It concludes with a section on the distant future when nanotechnology radically extends our lives and allows us to redesign our bodies. This organization is not so much a reflection of the state of the art in nanoethics as a prescription for what the field ought to look like.

I am not persuaded yet that nanoethics' time has come. I went through the entire book with an eerie feeling that the contributors were straining hard to sound convincing that nanotechnogy is generating or will generate technologies that, in order for us to cope, will require us to dig deep into our best ethical thinking.

The problem nanoethics faces is that many of the technologies it wants to address and respond to are so far in the future that it will be hard to get many people excited enough to care. The time may come when nanobots swarm through our bodies, cleaning out gunk and installing an odd memory or two here or there in our brains. The day may come when nanofactories create so much product that the traditional economies of developed nations are threatened with failure. But given the current state of nanotechnology, those times are not coming soon enough to precede the science and technology concerns that need to occupy our attention now. At present, it is a major achievement in nanotechnology to see a synthetic molecular motor move a filament 1 Å. If nanobots are going to be escaping and turning the world to goo, it is highly likely that we will notice before they get too far.

And much of nanoethics reeks of being derivative. Should the much discussed "precautionary principle"—if a technology may do humanity some harm, then those who would advance it must first mitigate that harm—be applied to nanotechnology? Europeans, who have been invoking this principle to hang up genetically modified foods for years, may think so. Others in the U.S., Asia, and Australia are far less likely to think so. Whatever the answer, debates about the precautionary principle and the proper ways to regulate nanotechnology will sound familiar to anyone who has been following the biotechnology or agricultural revolutions.

Indeed, having seen the fate that has befallen genetically modified foods, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, gene therapy, and nuclear power generation, physical scientists who see the value of nanotechnology have joined the vocal ranks of those singing the praises of proactive ethical reflection about it. Some of nanoethics' strongest boosters are proponents of nanotechnology. The editors themselves can barely contain their enthusiasm for a future in which nanotechnology plays a key role. Although critical voices appear in "Nanoethics," a reader is more likely to encounter the sirenlike call of the benefits to come if only we can manage the technology wisely.

Government and industry, for various reasons, are also pushing nanoethics forward. Among their reasons is that nanoethics deflects fear and anxiety about the nano world. This attitude is not entirely bad, but it means that some of the strongest proponents of nanoethics have a message that ends simply with the injunction to think hard about the ethics of what is being done. This is not a sufficient basis to produce a new subfield of ethics. The fact that there may be public anxiety or even panic at the prospect of tiny machines creeping out of sewer outlets and manholes does not a new domain of ethics make.

Nanoethics may well be a field whose time has not yet come. It may also be a field that, when the time does come, finds its ethical compass by drawing on earlier battles from the realms of computer science, biotechnology, medicine, and agriculture. No one who reads the articles collected in "Nanoethics" will be disappointed. But those waiting to see what this anthology spawns may well be.

Arthur L. Caplan is Emanuel & Robert Hart Professor of Bioethics and director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society