Environmental Holism and Nanotechnology

  • Thomas M. Powers

The entering wedge of the ethics of nanotechnology—as with any emerging technology—might be a deceptively easy question: What should we protect? From there the matter becomes difficult. Science must tell us what the technology threatens, and how to measure the extent to which the threat is realized. Most difficult, though, is deciding what is worth protecting, and why. The answer to this latter question requires a theory of value, and most ethicists start with an anthropocentric one.2 According to most ethicists, we should protect some combination of human rights, preferences, health, future generations, and so on, because these things are morally valuable. Current research into environment, health, and safety (EHS) issues in nanotechnology is mostly anthropocentric,3 and might be better construed as research into threats to human health and safety, and to the environment insofar as it affects humans.

I want to investigate the answer to the “deceptively easy” question from a different, non-anthropocentric starting point: environmental holism. In this essay I will explain a version of environmental holism and sketch what should be protected from any harms that might be caused by nanotechnology applications on this view. I will not argue that this kind of non-anthropocentric view is superior to all anthropocentric ethics, for surely this conclusion is beyond the scope of an essay. I will argue, however, that various human interests are protected (though incidentally) by a preferred interpretation of environmental holism, one inspired by the writings of Aldo Leopold.


Critical Zone Land Community Human Interest Gold Cyanide Naturalistic Principle 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, B.V. 2009

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  • Thomas M. Powers

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