, Volume 32, Issue 4, pp 355-379

Nanoethics: Old Wine, New Bottles?

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Abstract

This paper reviews the question of whether “nanoethics” should be treated as a special essay in ethics, quite different to bioethics, cyberethics, or neuroethics. Whilst some believe that a fundamental rethinking of our ethics is needed, others conclude that ethics as applied to nanoproducts or to nanomedicine will prove to be largely a case of business as usual. The paper is in four principal parts. In the first part, the basic pattern of ethical argument is set out, a pattern that holds no matter which of the emerging technologies is under debate. In the second part, a sketch is offered of the way in which precautionary reasoning plays relative to three key ethical constituencies (utilitarian, rights-led, and dignitarian), including some reflections on how these constituencies would view the so-called precautionary principle (as a guide to regulators). In the third part, the essential features of a particular kind of ethical community, (a “community of rights”) are outlined, such a community being put forward as the appropriate setting for debating matters of nanorisk and regulation. In such a community, the protection of rights is focal, ethics and regulation are viewed as deeply connected discourses, and the aspiration is to develop regimes of control and compensation that are fully integrated and coherent. Finally, there is a discussion of the way in which this kind of community, with its rights-led approach to precaution, would address questions concerning liability for nanoproducts and nanomedical services in a context of profound uncertainty.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at a conference on “Nanotechnologies and the Consumer” held at the EUI, Florence, on December 5–6, 2008. I am grateful to participants at the conference for their many helpful remarks. But, of course, the usual disclaimers apply.