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          SEPTEMBER 17, 2007

In the Spring 2007 issue of The New Atlantis, editor Adam Keiper wrote an article "Nanoethics as a Discipline?" that was critical and skeptical about the study of nanotechnology's ethical and social implications.  The following is our reply to that article, an abridged version of which is published in the Summer 2007 issue of The New Atlantis.

In Defense of Nanoethics: A Reply to Adam Keiper

By Patrick Lin, Ph.D.

In the previous issue, editor Adam Keiper presented a highly critical view of nanoethics, or the study of nanotechnology’s societal and ethical implications (“Nanoethics as a Discipline?”, The New Atlantis, Number 16, Spring 2007, pp. 55-67).  As the director of The Nanoethics Group—one of the organizations mentioned—I would like to respond to a few points in that article. 

First, I would agree with many of Keiper’s observations.  Yes, there are important meta-issues in nanoethics, which cast an uneasy shadow over the entire enterprise of nanoethics itself, e.g., how it is proceeding, how it should proceed, the motivation of the players, and other issues I shall discuss shortly. 

But the point of his article—or the “takeaway” or what we are supposed to be next—is unclear.  From my subsequent discussions with Keiper, his conclusion is that nanoethics is not a coherent discipline, to answer his own title question, and pursuing it is not in the public interest. 

The following is my attempt to briefly address some of his criticisms, in the order in which they appear.  (I would like to thank my colleagues Fritz Allhoff, John Weckert, and James Moor for their review and contributions here, though none is to blame for what follows.)

1. Bioethics and Nanoethics: Apples and Oranges?

Keiper compares bioethics to nanoethics at the start and finish of his article (e.g., pp. 55, 67).  He is correct in identifying several major differences between the two; for instance, where bioethics deals with familiar problems in medicine and science, nanoethics is about a new, emerging area that is speculative and more forward-looking.

However, it is unclear that these and other differences reveal any failings in nanoethics, as if bioethics were the standard for applied ethics to follow.  These differences, especially if they are as significant as they appear, could suggest that the two are incommensurable, like comparing apples and oranges.  That is, the circumstances surrounding the two are different enough, as Keiper shows, that perhaps the two cannot be accurately compared. 

Though the same comparison has been made in other literature, we have yet to hear why it is a fair or appropriate one, other than that both bioethics and nanoethics ostensibly deal with science and ethics.  (Though both grow on trees and are fruits, a comparison of apples to oranges holds limited value given their intrinsic differences.)  In the same breath, those authors continue to note how the two are exactly not the same, which is usually evidence that the comparison makes for a poor analogy. 

For instance, consider that bioethics so clearly deals with issues in medicine and life sciences, two fairly well-defined fields; in contrast, nanoethics is about nanotechnology, which is highly horizontal, cutting across numerous industries from manufacturing to cosmetics to medicine to electronics to food/agriculture to transportation and much more.  Following Keiper, these facts might show that nanoethics does not match the model that bioethics had established and therefore (somehow) is not a discipline.  Or from another reasonable perspective, the same facts could simply show that that the two do not make for a very informative comparison.

Further, the implied argument in comparing the two has yet to be convincingly articulated, which seems to be something like: if X (e.g., bioethics) is a coherent discipline and has (or because it has) properties A, B, and C, then Y (e.g., nanoethics) is not a coherent discipline if it does not share some or all of the same properties.  In order for this argument to work, it needs to be shown properties A, B, and C are essential to make X a coherent discipline, even if nanoethics lacks A, B, and/or C.  (This section is a minor point in my reply, though perhaps still worth voicing here.)

2. What’s in a Name?

Keiper also points out that nanoethics is “plagued by a persistent confusion about exactly what nanotechnology is” (p.56).  This is a familiar charge, but does it help to reach Keiper’s conclusion that nanoethics is not a true discipline?  His argument seems to be that if nanotechnology is a confused and overly-broad field, then studying any ethics of the matter will be equally confused and scattered; therefore, nanoethics is not a meaningful or productive area of study.

In other words, the same criticism—that there is a persistent confusion about exactly what nanotechnology is—has served to argue (by others) that nanotechnology itself is not a discrete area of research in the first place.  If that is the case, then there can be no ethics based upon it; for ethics to be coherent pursuit, its subject matter must first be coherent, or so this argument seems to proceed.  

There seems to be some truth to the claim that “nanotechnology” is really just a dressed-up amalgamation of old sciences like chemistry, biology, engineering, and so on.  However, there is also a sense that nanotechnology now has life of its own, even if it were artificially or politically created, and it should or can be treated as a distinct field of its own.  Nanotechnology research is clearly making much progress and working its way from academic labs to the commercial marketplace; so nanotechnology is a productive and intelligible area of investigation, despite academic debate about its ontological status.  This “thing”—whether you want to call it “nanotechnology” or a mash-up of familiar sciences—nevertheless is costing money, making money, and enabling new products; it is not just a figment of our imaginations.

Therefore, it is unclear that this “persistent confusion” has any or much weight against nanoethics as a discipline of its own, if it has no impact on nanotechnology itself.  Whether you want to call it “nanotechnology” or not, there is still something there to be studied.  Further, Keiper is able to delineate four broad categories of questions in nanoethics (pp. 64-65) so any confusion or imprecision in nomenclature does not seem to hinder the progress of nanoethics as well; there are clear and specific questions to be addressed.

To the claim that nanoethics is incoherent because it is overly broad, perhaps the same charge can be (unreasonably) levied on ethics itself: because ethics seeks to address an incredibly broad spectrum of issues, cutting across all facets of life and the world around us, is ethics an incoherent discipline too?  (No.)  Regardless, broad is not necessarily bad.  If some systematic investigation covers a broad domain, then that seems to weigh in favor of the discourse, not against it.  Physics, for example, is very broad, yet nobody thinks that its breadth is a reason not to study it.

What other alleged disciplines, in ethics or otherwise, have been criticized as being overly broad and confused, especially in a field that has as much momentum as nanoethics has today—or is this the first time in history?  If it is the first time, then it seems that either there is something special about nanotechnology and nanoethics that gives them a different character than previous disciplines, or that the new criticism against nanoethics needs to be better defended.

3. A Clouded Crystal Ball: Get Ready for Anything.

Related to the confusion over what nanotechnology is, Keiper points out that some scientists have radically different visions of nanotechnology and how it might unfold.  As a result, “one of the difficulties facing aspiring ‘nanoethicists’ becomes clear right off the bat: our ability to anticipate the societal and ethical consequences of nanotechnology will plainly be conditioned on what actually turns out to be possible” (pp. 57).  And because it is hotly disputed what will be possible, nanoethics runs the risk of being grounded in false assumptions about the future, or so Keiper’s argument goes.

This is true; we must take care that ethics here, as much as possible, is informed by real science, not just mere speculation or science fiction.  And since anticipating the future usually means we really do not know what will happen in the future, studying the ethical and social impacts of any emerging technology will be risky business; some assumptions or predictions will be on the mark, others will be obviously wrong in hindsight. 

But the solution should not be to avoid these forward-looking activities for the sake of getting everything we do perfectly right.  Rather, it seems to make sense to think through many different contingencies or scenarios, to be overprepared instead of underprepared.  (I will continue discussion on this criticism in the conclusion.)

Imagine if Keiper’s criticism were made against national efforts to anticipate various “terrorist” scenarios: just because we do not know exactly how we will be attacked by terrorists should not lead us to conclude that there is no use in planning.  If we wait until we know exactly how we will be attacked, it will be much too late by then.  If the criticism is not convincing here, then it should lack the same force when applied elsewhere, i.e., to nanoethics.

4. Much Ado about Nothing?

Keiper charges that much of nanoethics today is based on “the largely unexamined assumption that nanotechnology will transform the world and will have profound ethical and social consequences” (p. 60).  Or in other words, nanoethics could be just fun but pointless musings or a purely academic exercise, if nanotechnology does not live up to its apparent promise to be so important that it might be disruptive to society and ethics.

Even if the fantastic, Drexlerian visions of nanotechnology are ultimately not realized, we would be hard pressed to cite a credible, informed source who does not believe nanotechnology will transform the world in some way or another.  Even the US government—which typically underestimates technology rather than overestimates it—has called nanotechnology “The Next Industrial Revolution”, and nations worldwide have similar sentiments and are pouring unprecedented amount of funding into the area.  Perhaps we have all been swept up by an irrational exuberance, but a more likely explanation is that there really is something to this nanotechnology business, as leading scientists and Nobel Prize winners believe.

At any rate, a good deal of nanoethics at this early stage of nanotechnology is to explore whether or not there might be any profound ethical and social impacts in the first place; and if so, what we should do about them.  Again, it seems we should err on the side of being overprepared, especially if potentially-serious issues may arise, such as related to health, environment, privacy, education, economics, global security, and more. 

And if history is any guide, we can expect any significant new technology to have some unintended but very real impacts on our world—creating new or enhanced ethical dilemmas.  For instance, despite its great benefits, Gutenberg’s printing press and our subsequent reliance on writing has caused human memories to suffer as well as society’s oral tradition of storytelling; automobiles have created pollution and facilitated urban sprawl; plastics have created an ecological crisis; the Internet is changing the way we think about and protect privacy and copyrights; among many other examples.  These are impacts that would have been helpful to anticipate and address as much as possible in advance, so let us not lose that lesson with nanotechnology and other emerging areas of science.

5. Don’t Shoot the Messenger.

Questioning the role and motivations of nanoethicists, Keiper notes the “social scientists’ sense of self-importance” (p. 62) and that some are motivated by “careerist opportunism” (in a personal communication), casting doubt on the enterprise of nanoethics itself.  Presumably, the argument here is that if pioneering a certain area of study advances an individual’s career goals, then there is the possibility that the person is exaggerating or creating controversy where there is none in order to prop up the area of study or alleged discipline, thereby advancing his or her career.

Whether or not this is true, it nevertheless seems forgivable for social scientists and humanities scholars—who largely have been marginalized in our society today—to jump at the chance to apply their expertise to real-world concerns that may turn out to be very important.  As Keiper states, “it is also an opportunity to test the many theories and techniques they have created in recent decades” (p. 63), which is exactly right and indeed a rare opportunity; so who can blame social science and humanities scholars for showcasing their strengths and relevance? 

And even if we can assume career-advancing motivations for all nanoethicists, the alternative that nanoethics is not an area that would be relevant to one’s career at all appears worse.  (Who would this person even be, that we would accept as a credible expert in nanoethics but at the same time has no link to nanotechnology or ethics in his or her work?)  In other words, it seems better to have a researcher passionate about, even with a vested interest in, the subject matter in order to ensure it receives full consideration, especially given that there will likely be those on the other side of any given debate who will vigorously oppose the particular researcher’s work or conclusions, e.g., commercial interests denying the possibility of environmental, health, or safety risks from nanomaterials they create or use. 

Further, industry stakeholders and politicians who comment on the ethical and social impacts of nanotechnology (or lack of impact) also could be seen as furthering their own agenda with their statements; so Keiper’s criticism is not exclusive to ethicists and could be applied to virtually any interlocutor.  If so, then the criticism seems to suffer from being overly broad to the point of lacking real force.

But most importantly, it really does not matter what motivates these researchers; it is an ad hominem argument to impugn nanoethics on those grounds.  To answer the question whether nanoethics is a true discipline or not, nanoethics should be judged by its goals and content, not by the intentions of those promoting it, no matter how self-serving.

Keiper is correct, however, in warning that “the professional tenor of these efforts...is likely to yield groups of intelligent and well-intentioned people who end up largely talking to each other in the specialized language they create to define the boundaries of their field” (p. 63).  Though this too has no real bearing on nanoethics as its own discipline, it is a fair complaint to make about most areas of academia; and this is the reason that we—The Nanoethics Group—aim to publish our findings and insights in a range of media, from scholarly journals to trade books to popular magazines to podcasts and more.

6. An Old Criticism: What’s New About Nanoethics?

Speaking of books, the introduction to our new anthology, Nanoethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Nanotechnology, addresses Keiper’s next criticism: “Some [critics] have argued that the issues raised by nanotechnology are not recognizably different from those raised by other areas of emerging science and technology” (p. 63), which then becomes a basis for rejecting nanoethics as a discipline of its own.

Briefly, we do not see a reason why it should be a litmus test for a new branch of ethics research, such as nanoethics, that it should raise new questions.  It would still be useful if a new branch of ethics simply just bundled a set of familiar but apparently-disparate issues, framing them now under the umbrella of some new development such as nanoscience.  In any event, nanoethics arguably raises new issues anyway; or at the very least, it adds a new dimension or urgency to ongoing debates, such as privacy concerns from near-invisible surveillance devices as might be enabled by nanotechnology in the near future.

Many of the issues raised in bioethics, for instance, echo familiar, old debates: abortion is still about the definition and value of human life as well as autonomy—euthanasia is redolent of similar issues—and even the newer debate over genetically-modified foods is at its core about environmental and health issues.  Yet we rarely, if ever, hear calls to strip bioethics of its status as a distinct discipline.  Nor do we see movements to fold university chemistry departments, for instance, under the physics department, if you believe that chemistry (as well as biology and other sciences) can be reduced to simply physics as many do. 

For a full defense of nanoethics against this charge as well as the broad and new issues that nanotechnology raises, please see our aforementioned anthology.

7. Nanoethics: Ahead of Its Time?

A more serious charge levied by Keiper is that, in nanoethics, “there is not first some basic agreement about the facts at issue” (p. 65), again pointing out that no one knows how nanotechnology will ultimately play out.  (Presumably, nanoethics could not possibly be intelligible if the very thing it seeks to explore is itself contentious or ill-defined.)  Further, “there is a sloppy and lazy tendency to slip from today’s cutting-edge science to the most far-out imaginings of futurists...[t]his ignores the chain of uncertainties that makes the future unknowable” (p. 65).

Both points appear accurate.  Yes, there is a disagreement, even among scientists, on what capabilities nanotechnology will provide us in the future.  But where this does not, and indeed should not, stop nanotechnology from moving forward, it is not entirely clear why that should now prevent nanoethics from progressing as well, if the two are so closely linked. 

Keiper says, “Nanoethics...bears all the signs of prematurity.  Its time may come someday, but it is too soon to say just when and how” (p. 67).  The thought seems to be that we are wasting efforts and real money on nanoethics, because it is still speculative and will result in off-target predictions as well as moot discussions about the same; therefore, nanoethics should wait until we have a better idea of what issues will in fact arise before we spend time on them. 

While this seems pragmatic and perhaps applicable to less consequential matters, being premature seems to be a much better alternative than being too late in nanoethics.  And the odds of being “right on time” are virtually nil, given how long it takes to make any headway in ethics, especially compared to the speed at which technology is moving.

As examples of ethics arriving on the scene too late, we can think about the genetically-modified foods backlash (particularly in Europe) that caught the biotech industry and most everyone else off-guard.  Also, think about the cloning of Dolly (the sheep) a decade ago, where there was no or very little advance scientific warning and then kneejerk “ethical” reactions from around the world with wholesales bans and moratoriums on funding and research.  Finally, Internet privacy and digital copyrights are being frantically debated now, years after the first likely privacy and copyright violations had occurred.

If the complaint is that there is no objective matter of fact or “truth” in ethics, and therefore making “headway” is not possible, then that really is a tangential issue, albeit an important one to first resolve for those who hold that opinion.  And there are basic, long-standing and defensible arguments against ethical relativism that I will not rehash here.

At any rate, the disagreement over fundamental issues in nanotechnology and the fact that the future is unknowable to us both highlight the importance of exploring the many possible scenarios in nanoethics, to cover all our bases, while staying as scientifically grounded as possible.  The wrong conclusion would seem to be to abandon nanoethics as the easy way out of difficult work.

8. Yes, the Future Is Uncertain

Keiper criticizes that much of nanoethics seeks “not merely to anticipate [the future], but to direct and to govern these consequences of nanotechnology” (p. 66).  So there is a practical dilemma if public policy were based on speculations and uncertainties, which Keiper sees as much of the basis for nanoethics.

But what is the value of anticipating if not to prepare for that which is anticipated?  If it is a question of whether nanoethicists have a right to direct, govern, or otherwise influence the development of nanotechnology, then it may be enough to point out that scientists and engineers are shaping the world around us every day with their research and creations without anyone’s consent.  Our everyday choices, such as to recycle or not, often change the world somehow, even if it is just our little corner; we don’t need to be elected to office to have that power or responsibility. 

However, if it is a question of basing public policy on unknowns, then many would simply call that proactive (or scenario or contingency) planning, as in the case of possible terrorist attacks.  Some public policies seek to correct previous injustices, such as affirmative action; others seek to prevent future harm, such as to the environment.  While there is always a risk with contingency planning that such plans will never be needed, it seems irresponsible to not attempt to anticipate such events at all but instead simply wait for events to happen before we react (likely too late).

9. Choosing Your Battles Wisely

Finally, Keiper correctly points out that (at least some) nanoethicists “seem uninterested, unwilling, or unable to engage these deeper questions” such as what great social goods we seek or should preserve or what high human goods we wish to defend (p. 67).  This is a problem with ethics in general, including bioethics.  In fact, in bioethics, the reason we still have no consensus in the abortion debate, for instance, is the persistent disagreement over basic values or issues; so addressing these “deeper questions” does not resolve the debate but is exactly the core of it.

But is it reasonable to expect that any discussion in ethics should start on the ground floor, by first establishing some fundamental principle, such as all human life is sacred (in the case of the abortion debate)?  Compare this to requiring engineers to prove basic theorems in their work: where this would be an unnecessary recitation of high-school level work in mathematics, in ethics it may turn out to extend an unproductive stalemate over foundational issues, since there is still much disagreement over basic values and whether any are universal at all.  And nanoethicists may then never reach nanotechnology as the focus of their inquiry, then reduced to simply being garden-variety “ethicists.”

It seems to make more sense that many nanoethicists should work from the starting point of their own perspective, in case others share the same values and assumptions.  For instance, a conservative thinker would inform or speak primarily to a conservative audience and perhaps convert the occasional liberal, independent, or undecided (as is the case with most debates today); and a non-partisan thinker might try to appeal to an audience across the spectrum, though there is typically no pleasing everyone.  It does not make practical sense to attempt bridging the deep-seated ideological differences between opposing groups as a required prelude to a meaningful discussion in nanoethics (though admittedly that would be ideal, if it were possible). 

By the way, this is not to say that there is no objectivity or truth in ethics.  For instance, after centuries of such offensive activities, global society largely agrees that slavery, genocide, and torture are immoral (though they still occur); so progress can be made in ethics if not our actions or policy.  Rather, it is a merely pragmatic point that there likely will be a persistent conflict of core values in any ethical discourse, especially among a broad and diverse audience.  Ethics can help mediate this conflict where possible, but it is impractical to continue an exclusive focus on this basic conflict until it is resolved, rather than, say, to find some common ground as the starting point of discussion and moving forward from there.


Nanoethics does not resemble the bioethics model as a discipline for good reason: nanotechnology is a new, uncharted, and extraordinarily broad area of science and technology, so it is no surprise that its ethics would also appear unfamiliar to us in its methods.  If nanotechnology started as (or is still) a confusing jumble of various other disciplines across numerous industries, then it is not unreasonable to expect nanoethics might be a bit untidy and unorthodox as well.  However, none of this necessarily leads to the conclusion that nanoethics is not a coherent discipline unto itself.

In general, Keiper makes reasonable criticisms, but many of the more serious charges seem to stem from conventional approaches to ethics that may no longer apply to nanotechnology as an emerging, unconventional field.  Traditionally, ethics is thought of as something that should be done either before or after some development; that is, the choice seems to be ethics-first or ethics-last.  We take this debate to be a false dichotomy. 

With the advent of nanotechnology, it might be thought that we have an opportunity to do it differently, to do the ethics first.  This is essentially the proposal infamously offered by Bill Joy who suggests that we place a moratorium on such frontier science until we can understand the consequences of doing it (Bill Joy, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” (2000), Wired 8.04: 238-262).  But the problem with the ethics-first model is that ethical assessment depends in large part on a factual determination of the harms and benefits of implementing the technology.  But when one asks nanotechnologists what the future of nanotechnology will be in five years or ten years, let alone 25 or 50 years, reaction varies from a blank stare to some cautious speculations about some narrow aspect of the field.

Keiper articulated this concern, that we just cannot tell right now where nanotechnology is headed and what ethical issues will definitely arise.  But as the traditional default to the ethics-first model, the ethics-last model does not fare well either.  Once an event or development has happened, much unnecessary harm may have already occurred.  Despite the great benefits, technology in particular seems to give rise to new or enhanced problems, as previously discussed.  Yet these are problems that might have been anticipated and addressed, and in the case of nanotechnology, we might do so now as it advances.

Our position is that nanoethics is not something one can complete satisfactorily either first or last, but it is something that needs be done continually as the technology develops and as its potential consequences become better understood.  Norbert Wiener outlined this approach decades ago; talking about automated machines, he writes: “To be effective in warding off disastrous consequences, our understanding of our man-made machines should in general develop pari passu with the performance of the machine” (Norbert Wiener, “Some Moral and Technical Consequences of Automation” (1960), Science 131: 1355-1358).

Further, ethics is dynamic in that the factual component on which it relies has to be continually updated.  Nobody can predict the consequences of complex technological changes (or even future medical capabilities for the ongoing study of bioethics) far in the future.  But it is not only the factual flux that forces us into a dynamic approach toward ethics; new technology often creates novel situations for which no policy with respect to ethics exists or seems immediately obvious.  In the face of policy vacuums, we need to consider how to formulate new and appropriate policies on ethical issues given the possible and probable facts (James Moor, “What is Computer Ethics?” (1985), Metaphilosophy 16: 266-275). 

Progress in ethical attitudes and policies can take much time, especially in a democracy.  Meanwhile, science and technology (e.g., Moore’s Law that computing speed doubles every 18 months) appear to be accelerating to the point where we can hardly keep up with them.  If we believe that ethics has value, and if nanotechnology is real and advancing ahead (as it seems to be), then the time to study nanoethics is now—working through any growing pains as we come across them.


Patrick Lin is the director of The Nanoethics Group—a non-partisan organization focused on the social and ethical impact of emerging technologies, especially nanotechnology.  He is a visiting assistant professor in the philosophy department at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and also holds academic appointments at Dartmouth College as well as Western Michigan University.  Dr. Lin earned his B.A. from University of California at Berkeley and his M.A. and Ph.D. from University of California at Santa Barbara.
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