Role of Practical Ethics Combined with Social Science

The focus of practical ethics is on collaboration among practitioners to solve problems that have an ethical component. Similarly, social scientists who work in science-technology studies typically establish close links to practice. There are four roles for practical ethics linked to social sciences:

• Prevention of undesirable side effects

• Facilitation of quality research in nanotechnology by social scientists

• Targeting of converging technology areas of social concern

• Incorporation of ethics into science education Prevention of Undesirable Side Effects

What are the potential negative impacts of nanotechnology, as far as important segments of society are concerned? How can these be prevented? The 2001 NSET report made frequent reference to the negative press received by genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as exactly the kind of problem nanotechnology practitioners wish to avoid. Monsanto, in particular, has developed a variety of genetically modified seeds that improve farmer yields while reducing use of pesticides and herbicides. But Monsanto did not include consumers in its trading zone, particularly in Europe, where potential customers want GMO products labeled so they can decide whether to buy. The best prevention is a broad trading zone that includes potential users as well as interested nongovernmental organizations like Greenpeace in a dialogue over the future of new nanotechnologies. Social scientists and practical ethicists can assist in creating and monitoring this dialogue.

A related area of concern is the division between the rich and poor, worldwide. If new nanotechnologies are developed that can improve the quality of life, how can they be shared across national boundaries and economic circumstances in ways that also protect intellectual property rights and ensure a sufficient return on investment? Consider, for example, the struggle to make expensive AIDS medications available in Africa. Again, proper dissemination of a new technology will require thinking about a broad trading zone from the beginning. Social scientists can help establish and monitor such a trading zone.

Nanotechnology offers potential national security benefits (Tolles 2001). It might be possible, for example, to greatly enhance the performance of Special Forces by using nano circuitry to provide each individual soldier with more information. However, there are limits to how much information a human being can process, especially in a highly stressful situation. This kind of information might have to be accompanied by intelligent agents to help interpret it, turning human beings into cyborgs (Haraway 1997). Kurzweil (1999) speculates that a computer will approximate human intelligence by about 2020. If so, our cyborg soldiers could be accompanied by machines capable of making their own decisions. It is very important that our capacity for moral decision-making keep pace with technology.

Therefore, practical ethicists and social scientists need to be involved in the development of these military technologies. For example, cognitive scientists can do research on how a cyborg system makes decisions about what constitutes a legitimate target under varying conditions, including amount of information, how the information is presented, processing time, and quality of the connection to higher levels of command. Practical ethicists can then work with cognitive scientists to determine where moral decisions, such as when to kill, should reside in this chain of command.

Military technology faces barriers to sharing that are much higher than intellectual property concerns. The cyborg soldier is much more likely to come from a highly developed country and face a more primitive foe. However, technological superiority does not guarantee victory — nor does it guarantee moral superiority. Practical ethicists and social scientists need to act as stand-ins for other global stakeholders in debates over the future of military nanotechnology.

Facilitation of Quality Research in Nanotechnology by Social Scientists

Improving the quality of research is one area of convergence between the nano and the cogno. Cognitive scientists can study expertise in emerging technological areas and can help expert nanotechnology practitioners monitor and improve their own problem-solving processes. Experts rely heavily on tacit knowledge, especially on the cutting-edge areas (Gorman n.d.). Portions of this knowledge can be shared across teams; other portions are distributed, with individuals becoming experts in particular functions. Cognitive scientists can help teams reflect on this division of labor in ways that facilitate collaboration and collective learning (Hutchins 1995). Cognitive methods can therefore be used to study and improve multidisciplinary convergence, including the development of new trading zones.

Targeting ofConverging Technology Areas of Social Concern

Practical ethics and social sciences should not be limited to anticipating and preventing problems. Both can play an important role in facilitating the development of nanotechnology, by encouraging reflective practice (Schon 1987).

An important goal of this reflection is to eliminate the compartmentalization between the technical and the social that is so predominant in science and engineering (Gorman, Hertz et al. 2000). Most of the engineers and applied scientists I work with are solutions seeking problems. They are generally people of personal integrity who, however, do not see that ethics and social responsibility should be factors in their choice of problems. Technology can evolve without improving social conditions, but true technological progress requires social progress. Indeed, focusing on social benefits opens up a range of interesting new technological problems.

Practical ethicists can work with engineers and scientists to identify interesting and worthy social concerns to which the latest developments in nanotechnology could be applied. Philosophers and social scientists cannot simply dictate which problems practitioners should try to solve, because not all social problems will benefit from the application of nanotechnology, and not all future technologies are equally likely.

Directing a technology towards a social problem does not eliminate the possibility of undesirable side effects, and a technology designed to produce harm may have beneficial spin-offs. For example, Lave (2001) does an admirable job of discussing the possibility of unforeseen, undesirable effects when nanotechnology is applied to environmental sustainability. The probability of truly beneficial environmental impacts is increased by taking an earth systems perspective (Allenby 2001). Similar high-level systems perspectives are essential for other nanotechnology applications; in order to achieve this kind of perspective, scientists, engineers, ethicists and social scientists will have to collaborate.

Incorporation of Ethics into Science Education

How can practical ethicists and social scientists work with science and engineering educators to turn students into reflective nanotechnology researchers? I am Chair of a Division of Technology, Culture, and Communication at the University of Virginia, inside the Engineering School, which gives us a great opportunity to link social responsibility directly to engineering practice. We rely heavily on the case method to accomplish this (Gorman, Mehalik, et al. 2000). We also co-supervise every engineering student's senior thesis; we encourage students to think about the social impacts of their work. But we need to go a step further and encourage more students to pursue work linking the social, the ethical, and the technical.

This kind of linkage can attract students into engineering and science, especially if this sort of education is encouraged at the secondary level. Unfortunately, our secondary and elementary educational systems are now focused more on the kind of accountability that can be measured in examinations and less on the kind of creativity and perseverance that produces the best science and engineering. New educational initiatives in nanotechnology can play an important role in changing this climate.

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