We are beginning to see "ethical" challenges to products developed using nanotechnology or containing nanotechnology materials. Since nanotechnology, like biotechnology generally and especially food and agricultural biotechnology (agbiotech), is a relatively new technology that has potential for radically changing industries and life generally, it may be useful to revisit the two-decade-old ethical debates concerning agbiotech. Certainly nanotechnology and agbiotech differ in important features. Besides newness, however, they do share at least one other commonality: somebody is "against them." Even a casual observer (or Internet surfer) of food and agricultural technologies cannot help but note that ethical objections to agbiotech—genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and GM foods—abound. Nearly every individual or group that has or has had ethical concerns about agbiotech has made those concerns known, in academic publications, public forums, governmental documents and hearings, and perhaps most significantly, on the Internet. This scenario is starting to emerge with respect to nanotechnology.

So, whither nanotechnology ethics? It is perhaps too soon to tell. But in this chapter I outline arguments regarding agbiotech/GM foods in each of the four areas that are likely to be relevant to the ethics of nanotechnology. These are environmental safety, food safety, consumer choice, and "structural" issues such as corporate power and governmental oversight. Nanotechnology may face challenges in each area, though perhaps in not exactly the same terms. Nevertheless, the agbiotech ethics debates provide food for thought for reflections on nanotechnology ethics.

When we think about the ethics of agbiotech (or any other technology) we usually mean applying ethical reasoning or ethical principles to the subject at hand. The question is, is a technology ethically right (acceptable) or not, and why? This, of course, is shorthand for asking whether the development and use of the technology is ethically acceptable according to basic ethical principles. Here, I want to suggest that three points drawn from a look at agbiotech ethics in the safety, choice, and structural arenas are relevant to present and future assessments of the ethics of nanotechnol-ogy: (1) Some so-called ethical arguments about biotechnology are really more about scientific fact or methodology than they are about ethical principles. This is generally true of arguments about the environmental-ethical acceptability of GMOs and about the safety of GM foods. (2) In the realm of consumer preferences, choices, and control over GMOs, there is usually agreement about facts, but the question of acceptability differs depending on which ethical principle (s) is (are) applied. (3) A final ethical appraisal of agbiotech may mean deciding whether it is really biotechnology (and specific consequences regarding the environment, food safety, or individual choices) that should be the focus of ethical concern, or whether it is something bigger. Although rarely if ever seen in print, it is a common belief among proponents of agbiotech, especially those in business and government (and university) enterprises with significant financial stakes in agbiotech's "success," that environmental, safety, and autonomy issues are "proxy issues" for a deeper and more wide-ranging critique of modern, industrial, corporate political-economic systems. Indeed, even if some GMOs turn out to be environmentally safe and safe for human consumption, the development and/or use of GMOs necessarily violates people's rights or spawns injustice, because people do not have a choice—not about specific food products but about the "food and agbiotech agenda." Accordingly, the "ethics of agbiotech" that should really occupy our attention is the "ethics" of the political and economic institutions responsible for developing, marketing, and regulating agbiotech in the first place.

Environmental, food, and consumer issues arise because of the ethics (or lack thereof) of the major actors who control the agbiotech agenda and ultimately the global food system. The question for nanotechnology ethics in this regard is whether its economic and political structure will end up just like that of agbiotech, challenging us to think not only about ethical principles, but about the economic world wherein technology is more than just a tool for producing things, but for producing power and profit as well.

Two main ethical principles have informed the agbiotech debates. These are the utilitarian principle of "maximum social welfare" and the principle of "respect for rights" or autonomy. Utilitarianism, simply, defines ethical acceptability in terms of consequences, specifically, positive net outcomes of actions. If an action (or development or use of a technology) makes more people happy, or satisfies more of peoples' preferences, then that action is ethically acceptable. If there are some, even many, "losers"—unhappy people, dissatisfied customers—that is an unfortunate but justifiable trade-off. Utilitarianism, classically stated as "the greatest good for the greatest number" takes a decidedly "scientific," and in some people's eyes realistic, view of the kinds of calculations needed to arrive at the net-happiness or net-satisfied preference ethical objective. For every action, there are always winners and losers; the best we can do, ethically, is to make sure the balance sheet for a given society comes up positive. Frequently, utilitarianism defines the balance sheet literally: economic gains and losses constitute the "goods" or "bads" that we calculate. Sometimes, however, other kinds of goods are included in the utilitarian social calculations.

Rights principles, in contrast, fix on absolutes. If an individual person or groups of people have rights to something, there is no legitimate way to ignore or override those rights. Rights are "trumps" against other socially desirable goods or goals (Dworkin, 1978). Accordingly, there can be no trade-off, no "balancing," no calculating net gains. Even though an action may achieve utilitarian gains, or serve some greater social good, if individuals have certain rights against that action, it is wrong. Rights principles are based on the idea of autonomy—individuals are the best judges of their own well-being—and nobody else's calculations can override autonomy.

Other ethical notions have reared their heads in the agbiotech arena: for example, religious ethical views, maintaining that actions (or technologies or their products) should not violate God-given rules, or God's creation/natural order, plan, etc. Or, some have argued that "virtues"—the idea that there are unique human excellences of character that we should aspire to and encourage—ought to serve as criteria for judging actions. I will briefly discuss these two latter, somewhat less well-traveled approaches to agbiotech only briefly below. Suffice it to say that utilitarian and rights approaches have served as the primary platforms from which agbiotech has been (and presumably nanotechnology will be) judged.

0 0

Post a comment