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Project on Emerging
Woodrow Wilson International
The Social and Ethical Issues
Center for Scholars
One Woodrow Wilson Plaza
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by The Pew ChariTable TrusTs
WoodroW Wilson international Center for sCholars
Lee H. Hamilton, President and Director
Board of TrusTees
Joseph B. Gildenhorn, Chair
David A. Metzner, Vice Chair
James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress; G. Wayne Clough, Secretary, Smithsonian Institution;
Bruce Cole, Chair, National Endowment for the Humanities; Mark R. Dybul, designated
appointee within the federal government; Michael O. Leavitt, Secretary, U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services; Condoleezza Rice, Secretary, U.S. Department of State; Margaret
Spellings, Secretary, U.S. Department of Education; Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
PrivaTe ciTizen MeMBers
Robin B. Cook, Donald E. Garcia, Bruce S. Gelb, Sander Gerber,
Charles L. Glazer, Susan Hutchison, Ignacio E. Sanchez
The ProjecT on eMerging nanoTechnologies was launched in 2005 by the Wilson Center and
The Pew Charitable Trusts. It is dedicated to helping business, governments, and the public anticipate
and manage the possible human and environmental implications of nanotechnology.
The Pew chariTaBle TrusTs serves the public interest by providing information, advancing policy
solutions and supporting civic life. Based in Philadelphia, with an office in Washington, D.C., the
Trusts will invest $248 million in fiscal year 2007 to provide organizations and citizens with fact-
based research and practical solutions for challenging issues.
The woodrow wilson inTernaTional cenTer for scholars is the living, national memorial to
President Wilson established by Congress in 1968 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. The
Center establishes and maintains a neutral forum for free, open and informed dialogue. It is a
nonpartisan institution, supported by public and private funds and engaged in the study of national
and international affairs.
The Social and Ethical Issues
Pen 16 january 2009
The opinions expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect views
of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars or The Pew Charitable Trusts.
9 i. introduction: tEchnology, EthicS and govErnmEnt
Technology and Society
Ethics and the Functions of Government
The National Nanotechnology Initiative and the “Other” Social and Ethical Issues
About this Report
13 ii. EthicS and EmErging nanotEchnologiES
Ethics as Restraint and Aspiration
Roles of Ethics in Responsible Development
Ethical Issues vs. Ethical Implications
16 iii. thrEE miSconcEptionS about thE Social and Ethical iSSuES
Too Soon to Tell
The Inevitable Goodness of the Nanotechnology Revolution
The Point Is to Secure Public Acceptance
21 iv. typology of thE iSSuES
Social Context Issues
Contested Moral Issues
Form of Life Issues
25 v. Social contExt iSSuES
Scenario: Manufacturing Nanotechnology
The Issue: Environmental Justice and Nanotechnology
Addressing Environmental Injustice
Beyond Environmental Justice
Comments on Social Context Issues
31 vi. contEStEd moral iSSuES
Scenario: Research at the Boundaries of Life Forms
Research on Novel Life Forms
The Issue: The Sanctity of Life Forms?
Beyond the Sanctity of Life Forms
Comments on Contested Moral Issues
37 vii. tEchnoculturE iSSuES
Scenario: Nanotechnology, Genomics and Asthma in Upper Manhattan
The Issue: Nanotechnology as Techno-Fix?
Beyond the Techno-Fix
Comments on Technoculture Issues
43 viii. form of lifE iSSuES
Scenario: Virtual Socialization
The Issue: Virtual Reality and Sociability
Beyond Virtual Reality and Sociability
Comments on Form of Life Issues
48 ix. tranSformational iSSuES
Scenario: Cognitive Enhancement
On the Threshold of (Radical) Human Enhancement?
Social and Ethical Dimensions of Radical Human Enhancement
The Issue: Transformational Dimensions of Radical Human Enhancement
Beyond Radical Human Enhancement
Comments on Transformational Issues
55 x. concluSion: thE opportunity
Too often, discussions about the social and ethical issues surrounding new technologies are
treated as afterthoughts, or worse still, as potential roadblocks to innovation. The ethical
discussions are relegated to the end of scientific conferences, outsourced to social scientists,
or generally marginalized in the policymaking process.
The goal of this paper by Ron Sandler of Northeastern University is to clearly place
social and ethical issues within ongoing debates on the responsible development of nano-
technologies. The paper presents a broad framework to structure the analysis and discussion
of ethical issues, which builds on improving our understanding of the social, cultural, and
moral context of emerging technologies and assessing the status of these issues as the tech-
The author takes on some of the common misconceptions that undermine our ability
to address social and ethical issues early and effectively, such as the “it’s too early to discuss
ethics” excuse and the tendency to frame new technologies in terms of their inevitability
(and inevitable good). The paper highlights, through theory and research linked to case
studies, a wide variety of possible social and ethical issues linked to emerging nanotech-
nologies, ranging from environmental justice to human enhancement and the myth of the
techno-fix—our tendency to favor technological fixes to problems rather than behavioral
changes or other major shifts. Indeed, the framework outlined in this paper can be applied
to a wide variety of emerging technologies.
Every emerging technology offers us a new opportunity to engage stakeholders in a social
and ethical debate. The nanotech revolution is still beginning and we still have time for an
open and public discussion of its consequences, both intended and unintended. Hopefully,
this paper will provide a framework for thinking through some of those impacts.
Director, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies
Nanotechnology has tremendous potential to contribute to human flourishing in socially
just and environmentally sustainable ways. However, nanotechnology is unlikely to realize
its full potential unless its associated social and ethical issues are adequately attended. The
purpose of this report is to raise the salience of social and ethical issues within ongoing re-
sponsible development discourses and efforts by:
• identifying the crucial roles of ethics in the responsible development of technology;
• dispelling common misconceptions about the social and ethical issues associated with
• providing a typology of the social and ethical issues associated with emerging nano-
technologies and identifying several specific issues within each type; and
• emphasizing how social and ethical issues intersect with governmental functions and
Government and Ethics
Among the functions of government that intersect with the ethical and value dimensions of
technology are the following:
• Science and technology policy and funding involve decisions about what ends should re-
ceive priority and about how resources should be allocated in pursuit of those ends.
Justification of these decisions requires that some goals be valued more highly than
others—i.e., it rests on comparative value judgments.
• Regulation of science and technology is intended to accomplish something that is thought
to be worthwhile and that justifies any associated costs. Regulation also has power,
control, oversight and responsibility dimensions, and often involves allocating bur-
dens and benefits. All of these are characteristic of ethical issues and decisions.
• Government can support research on, raise awareness of and promote responsiveness to social
and ethical issues associated with technology (as many believe to be the case with the
Human Genome Project). It can also obscure social and ethical issues associated with
technology (as many believe to be the case with genetically modified crops).
Ronald Sandler is an associate professor of philosophy in the Department of Philosophy and
Religion, a researcher in the Nanotechnology and Society Research Group and Center for High-rate
Nanomanufacturing, and a research associate in the Environmental Justice Research Collaborative at
Roles of Ethics in the Responsible
Development of Technology
The goal for any emerging technology is to contribute to human flourishing in socially
just and environmentally sustainable ways. Given this, the roles of ethics within responsible
development of nanotechnology include:
• elucidating what constitutes justice, human flourishing and sustainability;
• identifying opportunities for nanotechnology to accomplish the goal and anticipat-
ing impediments to its doing so;
• developing standards for assessing prospective nanotechnologies;
• providing ethical capacity (i.e., tools and resources that assist individuals and organi-
zations to make ethically informed decisions) to enable society to adapt effectively to
emerging nanotechnologies; and
• identifying limits on how the goal ought to be pursued.
Three Misconceptions about Ethics and
Several common misconceptions about the social and ethical issues associated with emerg-
ing nanotechnologies have obscured their significance to responsible development and
thereby hampered our responsiveness to them. Three of the most important of these mis-
conceptions are as follows:
• It is too soon to tell what the social and ethical issues are. This misconception is fostered by a
narrow focus on the technology itself when trying to identify social and ethical issues.
When broader contextual factors, such as unequal access to technology, information
insecurity and inadequate biodefense research oversight are considered, it becomes
clear that it is not too early to identify and to begin to respond to social and ethical
issues associated with emerging nanotechnologies.
• The nanotechnology revolution is inevitably good. This misconception results from a preoc-
cupation with the crucial contributions that technology makes to the comfort, secu-
rity, healthfulness and longevity of people’s lives in industrialized nations. If one takes
a more encompassing historical, global and ecological view of technology’s develop-
ment and impacts, it is clear that emerging technologies (including emerging nano-
technologies) are not inevitably good.
• The point of the social and ethical issues is to secure public acceptance. This misconception
arises from the desire for smooth commercialization of emerging nanotechnologies
coupled with the view that public opposition to them is primarily the result of mis-
understandings or baseless concerns regarding them. In fact, people’s concerns re-
garding emerging technologies are often neither the result of ignorance nor baseless.
Moreover, as indicated above, there are robust roles for ethics in responsible develop-
ment of nanotechnology other than securing public acceptance.
A Typology of Ethical Issues
This typology is intended to organize the social and ethical issues associated with emerging
nanotechnologies in ways that are illuminating and productive.
1. Social Context Issues: Social context issues arise from the interaction of nanotechnolo-
gies with problematic features of the social or institutional contexts into which the
nanotechnologies are emerging. Examples of social context issues include unequal
access to health care, inequalities in education, unequal access to technology, inad-
equate information security/privacy protection, inefficiencies in intellectual prop-
erty systems, unequal exposure to environmental hazards and inadequate consumer
2. Contested Moral Issues: Contested moral issues arise from nanotechnology’s interac-
tion with or instantiation of morally controversial practices or activities—i.e., those
that a substantial number of citizens believe should be prohibited. Examples of con-
tested moral practices and activities in which nanoscale science and technology are,
or are likely to be, involved include synthetic biology, construction of artificial or-
ganisms, biological weapons development, stem cell research and genetic modifica-
tion of human beings.
3. Technoculture Issues: Technoculture issues arise from problematic aspects of the role
of technology within the social systems and structures from which, and into which,
nanotechnologies are emerging. Examples of technoculture issues include an over-
reliance on technological fixes to manage problematic effects (rather than addressing
underlying causes of those effects), overestimation of our capacity to predict and
control technologies (particularly within complex and dynamic biological systems)
and technological mediation of our relationship with and experience of nature (and
associated marginalization of natural values).
4. Form of Life Issues: Form of life issues arise from nanotechnology’s synergistic impacts
on aspects of the human situation on which social standards, practices and institu-
tions are predicated. For example, if nanomedicine helps extend the average human
life span even five or ten healthful years, norms of human flourishing will need to
be reconsidered and there are likely to be significant impacts on family norms and
structures (e.g., care responsibilities), life plans or trajectories (e.g., when people
marry) and social and political institutions (e.g., Medicare).
5. Transformational Issues: Transformational issues arise from nanotechnology’s potential
(particularly in combination with other emerging technologies, such as biotechnol-
ogy, information technology, computer science, cognitive science and robotics) to
transform aspects of the human situation. This might be accomplished by signifi-
cantly altering the kind of creatures that we are, reconstituting our relationship to
the natural environment or creating self-aware and autonomous artificial intelli-
gences (i.e., artifactual persons). In such cases, some prominent aspect of our ethical
landscape would need to be reconfigured—for example, what it means to be human,
personal identity or the moral status of some artifacts.
The Status of the Social and Ethical Issues
within Responsible Development
With the misconceptions resolved and the full range of issues elucidated, it is clear that the
social and ethical issues associated with emerging nanotechnologies are:
• Determinate: It is possible to identify many of the social and ethical issues.
• Immediate: It is not too soon to begin considering many of the issues.
• Distinct: The issues are not reducible to other aspects of responsible development.
• Significant: Addressing the issues is crucial to the responsible development of emerg-
• Actionable: In many cases, there are steps that can be taken now by actors, including
those in government, to address the issues.
Consideration of and responsiveness to social and ethical issues are needed now in order
to anticipate and proactively address, as far as possible, potential negative aspects of emerging
nanotechnologies, as well as to identify and promote opportunities for nanotechnology to
contribute to human flourishing in just and sustainable ways. The National Nanotechnology
Initiative affords a unique opportunity to promote a broad, critical and constructive per-
spective on the relationships between technology, government, environment and society
at the same time that emerging nanotechnologies offer enormous possibilities for making
social (not just technological) progress through comprehensive, innovative, and forward-
looking responsible development.