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Science, Ethics, and the “Problems” of Governing Nanotechnologies

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2021

Extract

That cacophony you hear is coming from the growing number of commentators addressing ethical, social, and policy issues raised by nanotechnology. Like many novel technologies that disturb the status quo, nanotechnologies raise questions about the adequacy of oversight systems; the extent to which the technologies push legal, moral, and political boundaries; and ultimately, the implications for human health and well-being. Because nanoscale techniques and products challenge our ways of thinking about biology, physics, and chemistry, nanotechnology forces us to reconsider accepted wisdom on toxicity, mutagenicity, contamination, biocompatibility, and other interactions among humans, the environment, and technologies. The sheer scale and reach of nanotechnologies demands institutions, collaborations, and conventions that can cross-link knowledge across organizations, disciplines, and locales. If ever there was an occasion to rethink the limits of disciplinary-specific knowledge, norms about regulatory processes, and societal implications of new technologies, nanotechnologies provide the opportunity.

Type
Symposium
Copyright
Copyright © American Society of Law, Medicine and Ethics 2009

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References

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Privacy (can sensing/tracking tools also be used for unwarranted surveillance of individuals?), and enhancement (do nanoenabled muscle fibers provide an unfair advantage to the elite?) are two items at the top of the nano worry list for many ethicists, but these properties characterize many old and new technologies, not just nanotechnologies. In an era of electronic financial transactions and data transfers, national security regimes that trump rights of private citizens, radio frequency identification (RFID) tracking devices on cell phones and ID cards, and electronic medical records, the meaning of privacy has changed. In American culture, authorities must be seen as protecting the privacy of individuals, so there is a theater of legislative activity, but privacy, in the sense of having control and choice over information dissemination as some philosophers seem to imagine it, no longer exists in law or social life. There is also a plethora of literature on enhancement technologies that has arisen in the past decade, attempting to distinguish enhancements from therapies and “normal” from post-human capabilities. I would argue that the reason for attention to these areas lies in underlying cultural concerns about control and fairness. Some commentators question whether there is anything ethically unique to nanotechnology at all. See, e.g., Grunwald, A., “Nanotechnology: A New Field of Ethical Inquiry?” Science and Engineering Ethics 11, no. 2 (2005): 197201; Godman, M., “But Is It Unique to Nanotechnology?” Science and Engineering Ethics 14, no. 3 (2008): 391-403.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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Rosenberg, C., Our Present Complaint: American Medicine, Then and Now (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).Google Scholar
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