ETHICS & SOCIETY
Nanotechnologies are expected...
to spawn an array of societal and ethical issues, a fact that has been ignored to date. Addressing the societal and ethical aspects associated with nanotechnologies is certainly a challenging task. This technology is in its infancy and the predicted applications are immense, very diverse and highly speculative. Most of the applications are far from realisation and in some instances, the analysis of their social and ethical implications through the “if and then” pattern approach has generated credibility for far-fetched scenarios, which is misleading for the public. There is a need to be careful in engaging these aspects to ensure a responsible development of nanotechnologies.
The immediate ethical concerns from the first generation of nano-products are the relevant environmental, health and safety effects. However, some of the major areas that have raised ethical and societal concerns for the future include the following:,
Equity and nano-divide:
The potential benefits of nanotechnologies may be in the coming, but in the meantime the technology is controlled mainly by the developed countries and multinational corporations, that is, through patents and conditions in technology licenses. This is a process which primarily benefits large transnational corporations and consumers in the developed countries raising the issue of a deeper divide (nano-divide) between developed and developing countries. On the other hand, some claim that nanotechnologies will help to bridge the divide because they allegedly will be cheap enough for developing countries to invest in.
Nanotechnology applications in medicine show tremendous promise for improving medical diagnosis, treatment, and prevention, but also raise a variety of ethical concern.
Apart from the limited information on the toxicity of the nanoparticles used in medicine, these concerns include the potential for increased individual responsibilities and role changes because patients would receive information about their health status they never asked for, possible misuse of health related data by insurance companies, access to these technologies which are not likely to be inexpensive and will be accessible only to those who can afford them, etc. These technologies could also be used for genetic interventions posing other crucial questions. In the long run technologies like labs on a chip, that can monitor your bodily functions at home, could change our concept of “illness” and “health” and what we associate with “hospitals” or “doctors”.
Nanotechnologies are expected to have impacts in terms of monitoring and surveillance, thus raising questions about the relevant benefits, such as increased safety and security, costs, privacy, control over access to personal information. Concerning surveillance technology, but also on a much wider scale, nanotechnologies make it possible that technological infrastructure that surrounds us is no longer visible to us and therefore is withdrawn from our control and from our consent.
Research funding and priorities:
Huge amounts of money are being invested in nanotechnologies research and development. On the other hand funds for environmental and human health impact assessment are limited, exposing humans and the environment to potential hazards. In addition, because of this funding the entire scientific community is affected in various ways. Also, most of the nano-products present in the market which are of ‘accessory’ nature (non-sense products) and do not serve any impelling human or environmental needs, indicate that nano-research and technical application in many occasions is not driven by real societal needs and priorities based on ecological, social and sustainable development considerations.
There are concerns about potential misuse of nanotechnology applications to serve the military. For example, the development of smart robotic weapons miniaturized and intelligent, target-seeking ammunition without reliable remote off-switches, pose risks to human health and the environment.
Nanotechnologies will certainly pose challenges to existing legal and regulatory schemes. A global concern is who will regulate it and how will it be ensured that the technology is not abused. Also, what will happen to the developing countries where e.g. they might serve as potential dumping places for nano wastes or might be an ‘easy non regulated market’. A major problem of regulatory efforts is that there is such a complete lack of knowledge concerning the properties of nanoparticles, that it is impossible to set regulations in terms of prescriptive limits or legal frameworks. Whether and how to set up voluntary codes of conduct to be adopted by industries is a field of ethical inquiry.
The progressively increasing ability of humans to “build small” has caused ethical issues affecting our present and future. Rarely has a society been able to consider the importance of monitoring the development of a new technology in the early stages of its emergence. In order to ensure that this technology moves in the right direction, leading to responsible governance of nanotechnologies, it is essential to take into consideration all the ethical and societal aspects which deal with well founded predictions already at our doorstep. Otherwise, speculative nano-ethics will lend credibility to far-fetched visions, thus diverting attention from more imminent questions. A few more ethical philosophical issues can only be hinted at here: central terms of the debate, like “risk” have to be analyzed – what do we talk about when we mention “risk”? Is it the same concept as in toxicology or do we also take into account broader concepts such as risk assessment? Who takes a risk, who is exposed to danger when we talk about societal aspects?
It is also a task for philosophical analysis to analyze the metaphysical research behind the efforts in nanotechnology. Central issues such as miniaturization, the concept of mechanization and how unpredictable the properties of materials are, are dealt with in the debate. Also, the speculative nature of the nanodebate doesn’t make clear certain presuppositions that tend to make the debate shady.
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