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Nanoethics: General Principles and Christian Discourse


[1] The hopes for nanotechnology are evident in the amount of public funding devoted to it over the past few years.[1] Nanotechnology, indeed, has been proclaimed the source for a revolution comparable to the emergence of the steam engine, electrification, or computer technology.[2] The visions for nanotechnology include advancing broad societal goals such as better health care, increased productivity, sustainable development and improved comprehension of nature.[3] A report by the EU commission on strategies for research into nanotechnology suggests this:

Nanotechnology provides a golden opportunity for the creation of new knowledge-based enterprises and has a "revolutionary" potential that can open up new production routes … Nanotechnology is expected to contribute towards improving our quality of life, in particular, for sectors such as material sciences, healthcare, information technology and the environment. Many products have been enhanced by nanotechnology to provide improvements and are already on the market e.g. heart-valves, coatings, scratch-free paints, tyres, sport equipments etc.

[2] The report goes on, however, to raise cautions as well:

At the same time, we should be vigilant in addressing any drawbacks of nanotechnology and to ensure that research is carried out in a responsible manner. Any negative impacts on public health, safety or the environment must be addressed upfront and as an integral part of the technological development process … Applications of nanotechnology are emerging and will impact on the life of every citizen.[4]

[3] While such cautions are common in the nanotechnology literature, researchers are worried that the science is advancing faster than the ethics.  For example, Canadian researchers at the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics recently concluded that there is a paucity of thoroughly published research into the ethical, legal and social implications of nanotechnology. They believe there is a danger of derailing nanotechnology if serious study of nanotechnology's ethical, environmental, economic, legal, and social implications does not reach the speed of progress in the science.[5]  In this essay, we want to challenge the worry that ethics lags behind the science and then reflect on how Lutheran ethics can engage an ethically informed conversation about nanotechnology.  We shall begin by raising the question whether one can infer that too little reflection on ethical issues of nanotechnology has taken place simply because only a few articles have been published so far. 

Must the Ethical Discussion of Nanotechnology Start from Scratch? 
[4] The Canadian research group is undoubtedly right in their claim that few articles have been published so far specifically on ethical issues of nanotechnology.[6] However, in those published the ethical issues of nanotechnology fall into three groups (Table 1): Risk problems (a-d), privacy problems (e-f) and problems of transhumanism (g-h). None of these can be regarded as unknown hitherto. Risk and privacy problems are addressed within a number of areas. Transhumanism, indicating a transgression of the limits of the human, is a rather new concept, but it is not totally unknown either.  In order to show that the potential ethical problems of nanotechnology are not new and unique, we want to point to parallels within the fields of biotechnology and biology that have been widely analysed.

[5] As to risk problems one can draw parallels between the fear of the uncontrolled spread of Genetically Modified (GM) crops and the prospects of runaway proliferation of self-replicating nanosystems (a) and the uncontrolled function of nanorobots (b). The discussion of the possible toxic nature of nanoparticles (c) can be compared with the discussion of the toxicity of asbestos which has run for years. The fear of biological warfare and terrorism caused by nanotechnology (d) is not only a future issue but of current interest, especially since the terrorist attack on the US September 11th 2001 and the subsequent mail deliveries of anthrax powders.

[6] On the matter of privacy problems, the fact that nanotechnology could lead to an invasion of privacy as a result of improved communication capabilities (e) is a currently discussed issue, as people can be reached by cell phones and internet connections 24 hours a day. But, of course, the ethical problem of invasion of privacy could grow if nanotechnology leads to the spread of spying nanomicrophones in the environment (f).

[7] As to problems of transhumanism, one can draw a parallel between the ethical issues of the enhancement of human capabilities and transhumans caused by nanotechnology (g, h) and the issue of genetic enhancement. Since the first experiments of gene therapy in cell cultures during the 1980s, ethicists have warned that gene therapy may lead to the enhancement of normal characteristics in contrast to treatment of disease. 

Table 1. Parallels drawn between ethical issues of nanotechnology and currently analysed ethical issues.[7]

[8] In light of the parallels drawn between ethical issues of nanotechnology and ethical issues of bio-technology and biology, we made a survey of three scientific databases - 'ISI Web of Science', 'PubMed' and 'Philosopher's Index'. The data demonstrates a general pattern of an average increase during the last 20 years in the number of publications on ethical aspects of genetics, biotechnology and environment which parallel ethical issues of nanotechnology.  This means that a reasonably sound knowledge base has already been acquired in the field of bioethics that can be extended to nanotechnology. There is no reason the ethical discussion of nanotechnology should not gain from this knowledge base acquired from previous ethical reflection on biotechnology and biology.

[9] In short, we conclude that the fact that only a few articles dealing specifically with ethical reflections of nanotechnology have been published so far does not imply that the ethical discussion of nanotechnology needs to start from scratch.  Nanotechnology can draw on matters already considered by researchers within the area of ethics and by ethical boards since the establishment of the academic discipline of bioethics during the 1970s and 1980s.

General Ethical Principles at Stake
[10] In order to analyse further the potential ethical issues of nanotechnology we want to make a distinction between general ethics on the one hand, and Christian or Lutheran ethics on the other.  Our discussion of the former will lead to a discussion of the latter and as will become clear, we believe that Christians in Lutheran understanding are called to engage in social and political life and seek a moral basis they share with non-Christian fellow citizens.

[11] In this conversation we presuppose that general ethical principles are at stake in relation to nanotechnology.  Several examples will illustrate this.  The first is the fear that the dispersion of nano-sensing structures (e.g. microphones) in the environment may lead to an invasion of privacy (Table 1, f). Behind the ethical issue of respect for privacy is a general ethical principle that the autonomy and integrity of humans ought to be respected.  Autonomy means self-determination, and, as an ethical principle, the respect for autonomy means that in questions concerning his/her own life each individual has the right to make his/her own decisions.  The ethical principle of respect for integrity is closely related to respect for autonomy and means a person's sphere of experiences, of information, and of self-disclosure, etc. should not be intruded upon under normal circumstances.  It makes sense to speak of respect for this integrity especially in the case of human beings who are not able to exercise autonomy. This could be the case for toddlers, drug-dependent patients, persons who are senile or mentally troubled, etc. The principle of respect for integrity means, then, that prima facie noone has the right to access information that is intimately linked to the life and identity of a human being.

[12] Another illustration is the prospect of runaway proliferation of self-replicating nanosystems (Table 1, a) and the spread of possible toxic nanoparticles in the environment (Table 1, c).  In light of such a prospect one ought to perform a risk assessment.  On this matter, the American bioethicists Tom L. Beauchamp and James F. Childress show that the moral evaluation of risk in relation to probable outcomes can have the character of risk-benefit analysis. They use the definition of 'risk' as possible future harm, where 'harm' is defined as a setback to interests, particularly in life, health and welfare.[8] In the field of biomedicine, the term 'benefit' commonly refers to something of positive value, such as life or health. Risk-benefit relations may be conceived in terms of a ratio between the probability and magnitude of an anticipated benefit and the probability and magnitude of an anticipated harm.[9] The terms 'harm' and 'benefit', as defined above, are ethically relevant to nanotechnology since ethical obligations or principles are generally accepted against inflicting harm (nonmaleficence) and promoting good (beneficence).[10]

[13] It should be evident, also, that there are societal implications at stake in relation to nanotechnology.  These include issues such as the prioritising and commercialisation of science, public trust and transparency, and the question of who should gain from nanotechnology.  For instance, do we have a responsibility for sharing this technology with developing countries? Clearly, the ethical principle of justice is at stake.

[14] As most ethicists will recognize, these general principles-respect for autonomy (and integrity), beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice-are part of the bioethical theory developed by Beauchamp and Childress.  They published their theory for the first time in 1979 in the work Principles of Biomedical Ethics.[11] The general ethical principles mentioned above have been used for years for analysing ethical issues in the field of biomedicine  Thus even though only a few specific articles have been published on ethical issues of nanotechnology, it does not mean that we need to start from scratch with the ethical discussion of nanotechnology. The analysis above shows that nanotechnology does not demand a new kind of ethics and we don't need new ethical principles such as 'nano-beneficence'.  We think that nanotechnology does not create totally new ethical problems and old-fashioned beneficence should suffice as one general ethical principle among others.  In short, the problems it raises seem, so far, to be analogous to well-known problems raised by biotechnology and biomedicine, so that the problems of 'nanoethics' can be dealt with in the framework of bioethics.

Christian Ethics and Nanotechnology
[15] But if the ethics of nanotechnology is parallel to general bioethics, it leaves unanswered ethical issues that Christians must face in bioethics.  The first is whether secular bioethics can be used by Christians.  Many believers and theologians answer this question in the affirmative. Others disagree and there are books on bioethics written specifically "for Christians".[12] The question is, in any case, highly disputed. Even among Lutherans there are sharp disagreements about the specific nature of a Christian bioethics.[13]

[16] The disagreement on this would be replicated in discussion of the ethics of nanotechnology and it concerns, among other things, the very attitude towards technological development.  Lutheran thinking falls on both sides and there are "technology sceptics" as well as what we could call "technology enthusiasts." Lutheran ethicist Gilbert Meilaender in the book just cited emphasizes that Christians must "say no" to some of the interventions into human life made possible by technology. Obvious examples are research on human embryos and germ-line gene therapy.  However, we also find Lutheran theologians like e.g. Ted Peters, working with an understanding of humans as "created co-creators," who basically endorse biotechnological development as long as it can be seen as offering a better future for humans.[14]

[17] The question of a Christian perspective on these matters is sharpened by the fact that nanotechnology, like bio (medical) technology, will occur in institutions that belong to the profane (worldly) sphere. Christians are confronted by these problems in two clearly different ways: (i) They might face such problems in their own personal life, as when a couple risks giving birth to a child with a serious hereditary disease. (ii) They might face them as citizens, and hence are co-responsible for the sustenance and development of the social and political order.  In this realm, part of the socio-political responsibility is related to encouraging and finding common solutions to the challenges of nanotechnology and biomedical technology. To this important distinction corresponds another one which has to do with the kind of discourse in which Christians deal with ethical questions: (i) There is a specifically Christian discourse, i.e. a discourse of Christians' addressing other Christians, be it as ordinary church members or as providers of pastoral care. (ii) There is also a public discourse, i.e. the one in which all citizens contribute to finding common solutions for the whole of society.

[18] Certain Lutheran teachings can help us bridge these distinctions while not eliminating them.  According to Luther's own teaching, the basis for Christians' believing in the possibility of moral consensus with non-Christians is natural law. Luther hereby maintained a traditional thought to be found already in Paul who observed that "the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in law" (Romans 2:14). Theologically speaking, the doctrine of natural law claims that all human beings-believers or not-possess the ability to know the will of God in a general way because they are created in God's image. Put in more contemporary vocabulary: All human beings are acquainted with basic moral insight, i.e. there is such a thing as a universal ethics. As we all know, the doctrine about natural law has played and still plays a central role in Roman Catholic teaching. Thus, in all official statements on bioethics, the Roman church makes use of natural law reasoning.

[19] It is often thought that natural law belongs only to the elements in Roman Christianity and that Luther rejected it. That is however a big mistake as every careful reader of Luther's work will know. Rather, Luther defended a slightly different version of natural law from the Roman one which dates back primarily to Thomas Aquinas. According to Luther, natural law is summarised in the Golden Rule: "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you;" (Matthew 7:12 NRSV).  This "teaching of nature", Luther claims, corresponds to what "love does", i.e. the acts of neighbour love stemming from Christian faith.  The Golden Rule, then, is the bridge Christians may use between the distinctions mentioned above. This is at least true when we talk about acting in the 'worldly' sphere, i.e. the socio-political realm common to all humans.  

[20] If Lutherans today want to keep this universalist element of ethics - which we believe they should - they will look for a kind of contemporary secular ethics that could be interpreted as a formulation of the Golden Rule. Without going into justification, we believe that the four principles stated by Beauchamp and Childress can be interpreted in such a way. One part of Lutheran reasoning about the moral challenge of nanotechnology, therefore, consists in participating in the endeavour of ana-lysing this challenge in the light of these generally shared principles. Lutherans do not stay in their own closed circle; rather, they participate in public moral discourse.

[21] But that is only one part of the ethical task as seen from a Lutheran perspective. There is also a specific Christian discourse dealing with the question: If you want to understand your life in the light of Christian faith, how could you meet the challenges of modern technology? We want to end this article with a reflection on possible Christian responses to the possibilities of "human enhancement" that nanotechnology shares with forms of biotechnology.

[22] Right from the beginning, there have been voices claiming that we human beings with the help of biotechnology are heading for a fundamental change to the human species. This claim has been rejected by experts as a hysteric doomsday prophecy. However, recently there are clear statements to the effect that biotechnology actually does open perspectives for a fundamental change of human beings. This is the subject of a recent Danish book[15] in which the concept of transhumanism is presented, indicating a transgression of the limits of the human.  Do we here face a challenge for Christian faith? It is true that traditional Christian doctrine includes the idea that humans originally were better than they are now.  In computer language one could say that a drastic down-grading of humankind took place. In Biblical language it is called the fall. And even if the old texts are not quite clear, they seem to regard painful birth, the pain of work, and death itself as something that did not distress humans in the paradisal state.  Similarly, traditional Christianity contains ideas to the effect that a perfect condition lies ahead after death for the faithful person. In the language of confession it is called the resurrection of the body and life eternal.

[23] Between the two perfect states lies faith and faith means that a human being reconciles itself with the life that is given to us. Does this mean that Christians should not accept all the possibilities of improving the conditions of life that are produced through human history? No, because a Christian life does not only consist of faith but also of neighbour love. And neighbour love means making life as good as possible for others, including bodily and material life.  For this reason Christians do not say no, for instance, to the fight against hunger, poverty and disease.

[24] Therefore, Christians have to be critical towards many of the Biblical statements about human life conditions as static. The pains of birth can be reduced as can the stress of strenuous work. Life expectation can be extended and Christians give thanks that nowadays expected lifetime is - in the rich part of the world - about three times as long as it was two hundred years ago.

[25] On the other hand, can Christians then just welcome the project "Homo Sapiens 2.0"? Is it simply another project of neighbour love? No, we need to make some distinctions. It is one thing to improve the life conditions of human beings within the limits that define humanity.  It is something quite different to improve human beings, to 'upgrade' them by transgressing these limits.  For Christians these limits include ageing and mortality, as well as emotional bonds to other humans and the perceptual relation to other creatures. 

[26] In relation to bio- and nanotechnology, then, this distinction means that we may continue to improve life, even if there are practical criteria for restraint.  For instance, one could question the justifiability of giving pig organs to humans or of developing organs out of stem cells or of substituting 'natural' organs by artificial ones. But these questions are due to a doubt about whether these interventions really benefit people.  There is nothing in principle against them. 

[27] It would be quite different to remove ageing as such, e.g. by making humans immortal. It would be quite problematic to Christians to enhance intelligence, sensibility, and perception far beyond what we know - and have known - as long as humans have expressed themselves about their lives.  Such alterations of humans Christianity can only regard as manifestations of the fact that humans are not prepared to accept the fundamental and limiting conditions of life. The traditional word for this attitude is sin.

[28] If we dare to use the word 'sin' here at all, the question is how we, as church, could do that.  We do not think that the right way would be to condemn researchers who represent projects like "Homo Sapiens 2.0". Rather, we should present the Biblical way of thinking as part of the long memory of humankind and ask whether this technological project could be understood as oblivious or neglectful of the truth about human beings found in the myths of fall and resurrection.  We should make the case that the attempt toward Homo sapiens 2.0 fails to reconcile oneself with the reality that life is marked by pain, suffering, and death. (This would not be the same as turning suffering into some-thing good in itself, for the Christian offer presupposes a joy about life that makes pain, suffering and death bearable).  We in the church should, above all,  remind this culture that the task of improving human conditions is far from solved and that, as a matter of justice, knowledge and capital that is used to develop the human of the future should be used, in large part, for developing the countries in the so-called third world.

[29] In the end, if the project of up-grading humans to 'Homo Sapiens 2.0' really will not hear this message, we think we simply have to come to terms with the emergence of beings on this Earth that are not accessible to the Christian message.


[1]. M. C. Roco (2003). Broader Societal Implications of Nanotechnology. Journal of Nanoparticle Research 5, 181-189. 

[2]. National Science and Technology Council, USA (1999). Nanotechnology Research Directions: IWGN Workshop Report. Vision for Nanotechnology Research and Development in the Next Decade. Edited by M.C. Roco, S. Williams, and P. Alivisatos, pp. iii-vi.
Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (2004). Technology Foresight on Danish Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, p. 9. 

[3]. M. C. Roco (2003). Broader Societal Implications of Nanotechnology. Journal of Nanoparticle Research 5, 181-189. 

[4]. A. Mnyusiwalla, A. S. Daar, and P. A. Singer (2003). &=javascript:goNote(39Mind the Gap': Science and Ethics in
Nanotechnology. Nanotechnology 14 R9-R13. 

[5]. A. Mnyusiwalla, A. S. Daar, and P. A. Singer (2003). &=javascript:goNote(39Mind the Gap': Science and Ethics in
Nanotechnology. Nanotechnology 14 R9-R13. 

[6]. A. Mnyusiwalla, A. S. Daar, and P. A. Singer (2003). &=javascript:goNote(39Mind the Gap': Science and Ethics in
Nanotechnology. Nanotechnology 14 R9-R13. 

[7]. D. G. Rickerby (2004). Risks and Ethical Challenges of Nanotechnology in Healthcare. In: Nanotechnologies: A Preliminary Risk Analysis on the Basis of a Workshop 1-2 March 2004. European Commission, 2004, pp. 127-31. W. Robison (2004). Nano-Ethics. In: Discovering the Nanoscale. Amsterdam: IOS Press, pp. 285-301. National Science Foundation (2001). Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. Report of a workshop run by the National Science Foundation, 28-29 September 2000 (published 2001).
M. E. Gorman (2004). Societal Dimensions of Nanotechnology as a Trading Zone: Results from a Pilot Project. In: Discovering the Nanoscale. Amsterdam: IOS Press, pp. 63-77.
R. M. Satava (2002). Disruptive Visions: Moral and Ethical Challenges from Advanced Technology and Issues for the New Generation of Surgeons. Journal of Surgical Endoscopy 16, 1403-1408.
E. Drexler (1986). Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. USA: Anchor Press. 

[8]. T. L. Beauchamp & J. F. Childress (2001). Principles of Biomedical Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 195, 199. 

[9]. T. L. Beauchamp & J. F. Childress (2001). Principles of Biomedical Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 195. 

[10]. T. L. Beauchamp & J. F. Childress (2001). Principles of Biomedical Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 4. 

[11] . T. L. Beauchamp & J. F. Childress (1979). Principles of Biomedical Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

[12]. G. Meilaender (1996). Bioethics. A Primer for Christians. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman. 

[13]. S. Andersen (2004). Can Bioethics be Lutheran? Dialog. A Journal of Theology. Vol. 43, 4. 

[14]. T. Peters (1997). Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom. New York, London: Routledge, p. 15f. 

[15]. G. Balling (ed.) (2002). Homo sapiens 2.0. Når teknologien kryber ind under huden. Copen-hagen: Gad. [Homo Sapiens 2.0. When Technology creeps under the skin]



© February 2006
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 6, Issue 2