We recently interviewed Fritz Allhoff, co-author (along with Patrick Lin and nanoscientist Daniel Moore) of What Is Nanotechnology and Why Does It Matter?: From Science to Ethics. Fritz talks about his motivations for writing, and the unique approach of the book.
Philosopher’s Eye: Why did you decide to write What Is Nanotechnology…?
Fritz Allhoff: Back in 2004, my colleague Patrick (Pat) Lin and I started nanoethics.org, a non-partisan group that provided a forum for social and ethical implications of nanotechnology. Our previous work had been in applied ethics—particularly the ethics of emerging technologies—and nanotechnology was beginning to draw a lot of attention. We got funding from the US National Science Foundation for some of our work, and this monograph emerged from that grant.
PE: What makes this area interesting to you?
FA: With a background in both science and philosophy, I’ve always been interested in the intersection thereof, both philosophy of science and ethical implications of new technologies. In bioethics, there are several arenas in which an ethical discourse did not appropriately precede the science, such as with human experimentation and reproductive cloning. An important part of my research has been to think about what ethical issues are coming online before they do or, to put it another way, to make sure we think about the ethics before it’s too late. Since nanotechnology is such a nascent field, it’s critical that we think about the associated social and ethical implications, and this book is written toward that end.
PE: What’s the central concern of the book?
FA: The principal aim of the book is to introduce nanotechnology, as well as the attendant social and ethical implications. The first part of the book is predominantly written by Daniel Moore, a nanoscientist; he explains the basic science behind nanotechnology. Pat and I both have backgrounds in science, but Daniel really brought an invaluable expertise to the project. The second part of the book presents a general framework for thinking about risk, regulation, and access to nanotechnology, though much of that discussion generalizes to other emerging technologies as well. In the third part of the book, we consider particular social and ethical dimensions raised through various applications of the technology, including those pertaining to: environment, military, privacy, medicine, and human enhancement.
PE: What sort of reaction do you hope your book will get?
FA: Of course we hope that the book will generate wide interest. The format mentioned above really is novel, and we anticipate that people will be excited to find a single book that explains the science alongside the social and ethical implications of the technology. While we do advance specific arguments, the book is also just meant to be a general resource for those new to the area—or new to some of the philosophical dimensions—so we would like it to be received and appreciated as such.
PE: Is there another book you wish you could claim credit for?
FA: I wish I could claim credit for most books; it’s staggering how impressive so many projects are and how much knowledge they synthesize or generate. Having now written my first book—albeit a collective project—I have even more respect for the intellectual accomplishment of getting a book published. It’s very rewarding.
PE: What’s your current project? What’s next?
FA: My next project is an essay on the ethics of human enhancement for the Philosophy Compass. This emanates somewhat from the twelfth chapter of the book, but is more general insofar as it does not have anything in particular to do with nanotechnology. Since my background is in bioethics, enhancement is always a topic that has interested me. I am also finishing a book on terrorism and torture.