U.S. nanotechnology funds study ethics of human enhancement

Patrick Lin over at the Nanoethics Group let us know that the principals of that group have received a US$250,000 grant from the NSF to study the ethics of using nanotechnology to do human enhancement, through their academic affiliations at Dartmouth and Western Michigan U.

The questions to be investigated by the nanoethics research team include, but are not limited to: What exactly constitutes enhancement? Is there a right to be enhanced? Is it justifiable to enhance people in order for them to undertake certain tasks, e.g., in the military? Is there an obligation to enhance our children? Should there be limits on the types of enhancement allowed or the degree to which someone can be enhanced? Does it make an ethical difference if some enhancing device is implanted into the body rather than worn on the outside? Does the notion of human dignity suffer with such enhancements?

These are fun questions to debate, and I look forward to doing so with Patrick and his team. But I find myself becoming a bit uneasy about a meta-ethical issue: while we in the U.S. (and Europe) spend our time and money discussing these admittedly fascinating topics, are people in other countries spending their time and money on technical R&D instead, and what are the ethical implications of their winning the race to advanced nanotechnologies? It seems to me that whoever develops a particular technology first can exert a huge influence over how it’s used, regardless of how our debates turn out.

Maybe I can persuade the study team to look at these “who gets to decide” issues, if they aren’t planning to do so already. —Christine [UPDATE: I see that the way to get comments is to discuss ethics! Or maybe it’s human enhancement you enjoy discussing… –C]

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