How does nanotechnology affect human life

Bioethics

Prof. Dr. Dr. Dietmar von der Pfordten

Prof. Dr. Dr. Dietmar von der Pfordten

holds the chair for legal and social philosophy at the University of Göttingen. Research subject: Topics of applied ethics or legal ethics: justification of punishment, humanitarian intervention, justice, human dignity, etc .; Elaboration of a "legal philosophy" and "metaethics"; Investigation of the formation of terms.

Nanotechnological research and application are subject to certain limits of ethics and justice - like any human activity. However, since laypeople find it difficult to evaluate their chances and risks, ethical assessments of nanotechnology are fraught with uncertainties.

Scientists form a nanoparticle at the Technical University in Braunschweig. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

Like all human activity, nanotechnological research and application are subject to certain limits of ethics and justice. [1] These limits are shown below.

Special features of nanotechnology

First of all, five special features of nanotechnology should be pointed out: Firstly, nanotechnology - comparable to atomic technology - is extremely far removed from our sensual experience. Second, it is strongly interdisciplinary. Thirdly, in many cases it is more or less radically replacing already known technologies. Fourth, nanotechnology creates previously unattainable opportunities. Fifth, nanotechnology is extremely diverse. Nanotechnology thus offers great opportunities, but also harbors significant risks that are difficult to assess for laypeople. Ethical assessments of nanotechnology are therefore subject to certain uncertainties.

Aspects of ethical evaluation

Aspects of ethical evaluation
Morality, law, religion, politics, technology and medicine are primary norms that necessarily exist in fact and are directly binding. They are opposed to ethics as a secondary order of norms with an ideal character. Their job is to establish and criticize primary obligations of morality, law, etc.

Questions of justice for nanotechnology

The question of justice is the central question of ethics in the social space. Justice is threefold: firstly, it is necessarily related to other people, [2] secondly, it is always directed to an object, an action or a state, and thirdly, it is always associated with a measure of justice.

1. Basic relation of ethics or justice

Basic relation
The basic relation of ethics is that between two actors or those affected, normally between two people A and B. In contrast to general ethics, justice is limited in three ways: firstly, it does not include pure questions of the good life, the other does not include moral or legal issues concern, secondly, no obligations towards oneself and, thirdly, no acts that are beyond duty. [3] In this comprehensive understanding, the term "justice in the broader sense" ("iustitia generalis") is used. [4] An example of a case of general injustice would be if A harmed B with nanoparticles.

2. Specific application to nanotechnology

With regard to nanotechnology, ethics and justice initially demand responsibility for scientists and decision-makers in dealing with this new technology. Like any other technology, nanotechnology is not value-free. It opens up both positive and negative opportunities. Even the opening of these possibilities is subject to a general prohibition of damage, all the more so to their realization.

a) Specification of the general prohibition of damage

Human life and human health must not be set off in a utilitarian way against advantages of the economy. Rather, a so-called deontological position, which prohibits predictable and avoidable damage to life and health, is constitutionally and human rights obligatory. [5] However, a probability estimate is often necessary for this:

b) Probability estimation

A distinction can be made between two types of probability estimation: firstly, that of a risk, the probability of which can be predicted, second, that of an uncertainty, for which a prognosis cannot be given. [6] The guiding principle of every risk assessment is the inadmissibility of serious increases in risk for life and limb of other people, provided that this would significantly exceed the general life risk. Questions arise, for example, when using nanoparticles in food or cosmetics. Critics have already called for moratoria on various occasions. A counter-proposal is to expand toxicological research and risk management related to such products.

The second type of probability estimation concerns uncertainties. The following principle applies here: If one does not know a subjective probability of possible future events, one should choose the alternative course of action whose worst possible consequence is better than the worst possible consequence of the other alternatives. If you cannot estimate the probability at all, you have to choose the action whose consequences are the least serious. Nanotechnological research and application are therefore prohibited if it cannot be ruled out that their consequences are more serious than the benefits to be expected.

c) precautionary principle

If a risk assessment can be carried out, then every action is subject to the precautionary principle. [7] Five different versions of the precautionary principle are discussed.

Representatives of the first, very strong version are calling for a moratorium on the economic use of nanotechnology and complete clarity about the consequences of its application, while representatives of the second, still relatively strong version, although waiving the demand for a moratorium, but the burden of proof on the users of nanotechnology want to impose for their safety. Proponents of the third, weaker version of the precautionary principle want to reverse this burden of proof and only expect users to rebut the presumption of risk - possibly through plausible arguments. Representatives of the fourth, weak version put the burden of justification for regulation on the state. And according to representatives of the fifth, so-called "wait and see" strategy, nanotechnology is generally assumed to be harmless.

Due to the diversity of nanotechnology, it seems appropriate to make the choice of the specific alternative of the precautionary principle dependent on the specific research project in question. For example, if the risk is extremely high, the strong or the very strong version of the precautionary principle is adequate. If it is extremely low, the "wait and see" strategy may be appropriate.

Justice in the strict sense

Beyond the simple fairness of treatment, a distinction is made between more specific forms of fairness.

1. Exchange justice

Barter justice
Exchange justice exists when the simple relations between persons A and B are connected via the principle of equality, so that a relation of the second level arises. For example, if A buys a nanoproduct from B, the question as to whether this purchase is a fair exchange is part of the fairness of exchange.

2. Justice in communities of persons

Justice in communities of persons
If a community of persons is added as the third pole of justice, two further types of justice can be distinguished: on the one hand, contributory justice (2), in which A and B contribute to the community, and, on the other hand, distributive justice (3), in which the community transfers goods to A. and B distributed.

a) Contribution and distribution fairness

Contribution fairness has already been described by Plato and Thomas Aquinas [8] and is also discussed in our daily debates, for example when it comes to the question of fair taxation. In distributive justice, classically referred to as "iustitia distributiva", [9] questions are asked about the actions of the community towards individual persons. An example of a current debate is the question of ensuring comprehensive medical care.

b) Relationship between fairness of contributions and fairness of distribution

Secondary questions of justice arise on both an intra- and interpersonal level. On an intrapersonal level, the problem for each individual is whether their contribution to the community and the distribution of common goods to them are proportionate.

With regard to nanotechnology, the relationship between beneficiaries and those at risk should be examined here. Risks to life and health, for example to employees who manufacture the respective products, must in any case be excluded, while other risks and restrictions could and must be compensated with their consent.

At the interpersonal level, the question arises whether contributions and benefits are fair between the various members of the community; H. are appropriately distributed.

c) Corrective Justice

Corrective Justice
Corrective justice (4), which has an effect in a large part of civil law, relates corrective to relations between the individual members of the community and the fairness of exchange between them. In liberal societies, however, their influence will be limited to particularly important issues and contractual relationships.

d) Application to equity issues of nanotechnology

The application of these questions of justice to nanotechnology is intended to illustrate the following scenario: Citizens' access to new medical treatment options could split up. Should the political community then intervene in the market-like exchange - either on the level of corrective or distributive justice?

In liberal societies, the starting point must be the ability of adult, rational individuals to look after their own interests. Only in the case of very important issues, for example in relation to life or health, does social solidarity require primarily a correction and secondarily a general distribution with regard to performance and risk. In the case of nanotechnology, the vital necessity of a product or its dangerousness is decisive for the transition from free exchange relationships to state correction or distribution. State correction or distribution would be appropriate if there was a risk of genetic discrimination from new diagnostic methods.

With regard to the distribution of state benefits, numerous principles are proposed in the literature, such as the principle of equality, maximization, difference, Pareto or sufficiency. [10] However, it seems more appropriate to choose the respective distribution principle depending on the context of the distribution. Examples of state distribution are social assistance and general health care.

With regard to nanoproducts, one will have to expect joint reimbursement of the costs, provided that they are genuine therapeutic agents that are similar to drugs. The assessment is different when it comes to mere aids that are comparable to glasses or dentures. No state reimbursement of costs can be justified when it comes to performance-enhancing or aesthetic products, the purchase of which is generally not borne by the community.

Furthermore, the state has obligations to protect life and health, which arise in particular from the basic rights. For nanotechnology, this means that very dangerous products must not be freely sold, that their research and manufacture must be monitored and that the production or distribution (proliferation) of nano-weapons, such as ABC weapons, cannot be ethically justified for humanitarian reasons .