, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp 31-46
Date: 20 Apr 2007

If and Then: A Critique of Speculative NanoEthics

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


Most known technology serves to ingeniously adapt the world to the physical and mental limitations of human beings. Humankind has acquired awesome power with its rather limited means. Nanotechnological capabilities further this power. On some accounts, however, nanotechnological research will contribute to a rather different kind of technological development, namely one that changes human beings so as to remove or reduce their physical and mental limitations. The prospect of this technological development has inspired a fair amount of ethical debate. Here, proponents and opponents of such visions of human enhancement are criticized alike for engaging in speculative ethics. This critique exposes a general pattern that extends to other nano-, bio-, or neuroethical debates. While it does not apply to all discussions of “enhancement technologies” it does apply to all ethical discourse that constructs and validates an incredible future which it only then proceeds to endorse or critique. This discourse violates conditions of intelligibility, squanders the scarce and valuable resource of ethical concern, and misleads by casting remote possibilities or philosophical thought-experiments as foresight about likely technical developments. In effect, it deflects consideration from the transformative technologies of the present.

The following critique of much nanoethical discourse is offered by a philosopher and historian of science, that is, by a reluctant ethicist who is operating under “conditions of incredibility” [29]. Insufficiently informed by ethical theory (or meta-ethical reflection) it testifies to the conviction that a socio-historical and philosophical understanding of the phenomenon “nanotechnology” is a precondition for a responsible discourse on societal and ethical aspects. As it draws on two sketches of related arguments [29, 30], this paper aims to suggest a more systematic critique. The origin of all three papers was a contribution to the James Martin Institute’s World Forum on Science and Civilization on the topic of “Tomorrow’s People: The Challenges of Technologies for Life Extension and Enhancement” (Oxford, March 2006). It has since benefited from comments by Christopher Coenen, Reinhard Heil, Ineke Malsch, John Weckert, and others.