Open Journal of Philosophy
2013. Vol.3, No.1, 15-22
Published Online February 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 15
Nanotechnologies and Ethical Argumentation: A
Philosophical Stalemate?
Georges A. Le gaul t 1, Johane Patenaude2, Jean-Pierre Béland3, Monelle Parent2
1Faculty of Law, Université de Sh erbrooke, Québec, Canada
2Université de Sherbrooke, Québec, Canada
3Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, Québec, Canada
Email: Georges-Auguste.Legault@
Received October 16th, 2012; revised November 20th, 2012; accepted November 30th, 2012
When philosophers participate in the interdisciplinary ethical, environmental, economic, legal, and social
analysis of nanotechnologies, what is their specific contribution? At first glance, the contribution of phi-
losophy appears to be a clarification of the various moral and ethical arguments that are commonly pre-
sented in philosophical discussion. But if this is the only contribution of philosophy, then it can offer no
more than a stalemate position, in which each moral and ethical argument nullifies all the others. To pro-
vide an alternative, we must analyze the reasons behind the prevailing individual and cultural relativism
in ethics. The epistemological investigation of this stalemate position will guide us to the core problem of
the relation between theory and action (“Part 1: From a conceptual to a speech act analysis of moral ar-
guments”). The stalemate can be overcome from a pragmatic philosophical standpoint, which combines
epistemology, philosophy of language—that is, the philosophy of speech acts—and practical reasoning—
that is, reasoning about decision-making (“Part 2: Moral argumentation from a pragmatist perspective”).
From this philosophical standpoint, it will be possible to show how philosophy can accompany and sup-
port the development of nanotechnologies (“Part 3: Philosophy and the evaluation of the development of
Keywords: Decision-Making; Moral Argument; Moral Epistemology; Moral Relativism; Philosophical
Stalemate; Philosophy and Nanotechnologies; Practical Reasoning; Pragmatism
Interdisciplinary research on the ethical, environmental, eco-
nomic, legal, and social evaluation of nanotechnologies (NE3LS)
and their development confronts philosophers who participate
in such activities1 with the basic question of philosophers’ in-
tellectual contribution. What can philosophy bring to the inter-
disciplinary dialogue, and how can we ensure the contribution
is fruitful? At first glance, the contribution of philosophy ap-
pears to be a clarification of the various moral and ethical ar-
guments that are commonly presented in philosophical discus-
sion. In the context of interdisciplinary discussion, the clarifica-
tion of concepts and arguments represents a fruitful contribu-
tion to the discussion process; but it seems to offer little when it
comes to the core of ethical evaluation. As has been pointed out
by Jean-Pierre Dupuy (2007), philosophical debate over the
ethical evaluation of nanotechnologies has become so routine
that it would be easy to simply rhyme off the arguments regu-
larly brought forward: The same arguments are always served
up, and they are always answered with the same counter-ar-
guments. If philosophy confines itself to the clarification of
concepts and arguments, it thereby declares itself in favor of
individual or cultural relativism in ethics. All moral eval uations
are accordingly taken to be equivalent, and there seems to be no
way of emerging from this stalemate. Is there another alterna-
In this paper we will explore how and in what conditions an
alternative position to that of individual and cultural relativism
is possible. As a preliminary step, we must clarify the root of
the stalemate. In earlier articles, we have aimed to clarify the
background of the problem inherent in the existing stalemate
position. The first of these (Patenaude, Legault, Parent, & Bé-
land, 2011) clarified the nodal semantic core of the philosophi-
cal arguments used in the evaluation of nanotechnologies.
Seven categories of argument were identified: arguments based
on nature, dignity, the good life, utility, equity, autonomy, and
rights. These are the categories of moral argument that are al-
ways placed in opposition to each other. The utility-based ar-
gument in defense of nanotechnologies is critiqued with the
arguments based on nature and dignity, while arguments based
on nature and dignity are in turn rebutted with opposing argu-
ments based on autonomy and rights. In that same article, we
identified five epistemological stances that provide the bases
for the authority of these moral arguments: Stance 1Nature
and metaphysical human nature; Stance 2Human nature (a
priori conditions for moral experience); Stance 3The good
life; Stance 4Moral evaluation; Stance 5Moral subjectiv-
ism. If we focus exclusively on the epistemological dimension
of theses stances, the basic problem at the root of the philoso-
phical stalemate seems to be nothing other than that of the pos-
sibility of knowledge in ethical matters. In a second article (Bé-
land, Patenaude, Legault, Boissy, Parent, & 2011), a further
1In Quebec, Canada, the Commission de L’éthique de la Science et de la
Technologie (Commission for the Ethics of Science and Technology) is a
consulting board on the ethical aspects of technological development. In
various reports, the board was faced with having to choose a philosophical
standpoint in which to ground its e thical a n d moral evaluation.
analysis of the impasses that subsist between the moral argu-
ments highlighted three factors contributing to the philosophi-
cal stalemate. The first factor concerns ethical evaluation itself.
What does it mean to appeal to a principle for judging nano-
technologies; and what is the specific ethical principle that is to
be applied to a situation? When philosophical discourse appeals
only to concepts like “nature”, “dignity”, and so on, without
explicit wording to present the moral obligation or the bases of
a value-based evaluation, we are faced with confusion as to
meaning. Thus the first component of meanings and therefore
with a moral argument, namely the moral utterance, is unclear.
This necessarily engenders ambiguities in the other two com-
ponents: the authority of the moral utterance and the practical
reasoning with which the moral utterance is applied. As was
shown in that article, the nature of the impasse between trans-
humanist and humanist argumentation is twofold. First, it re-
sides in the fact that the two camps oppose each other with
what appears to be the same moral argument, based on the con-
cept of nature. However, once clarified, the use of nature
proves to refer to two different conceptions of the moral obliga-
tion mandated by nature. Both sides try to support a given
moral argument’s authority on the basis of knowledge of nature,
a basis that is itself not justified at the epistemological level.
Then both sides apply the same form of practical reasoning,
moving from the general to the particular, with mediation by
intermediate concepts such as those of the natural and the arti-
ficial, but with no presentation of what practical reasoning con-
sists of. Second, the impasse is based essentially on the fact that
both positions share the same holistic structure for moral argu-
mentation: an appeal to a substantive concept of morals; a justi-
fication for the moral authority of that substantive concept that
is based on a definition of human nature; and an application of
the general concept to a specific situation: all without providing
any philosophical justification for this structure.
To find a solution to the impasses between moral arguments,
we must first revisit each component of a moral argument in
order to clarify the alternative way of conceptualizing those
components. This is done in Part 1 of the present article (“Part
1: From a conceptual to a speech act analysis of moral argu-
ments”). The theory of language known as speech act theory
that will have been introduced in Part 1 adopts a pragmatist
perspective. In Part 2 of the article (“Part 2: Moral argumenta-
tion from a pragmatist perspective”), we will show how such a
perspective in philosophical inquiry can provide an alternative
conception of the holistic structure of moral argument. Finally,
in Part 3 (“Part 3: Philosophy and the evaluation of the deve-
lopment of nanotechnologies”), we use this philosophical stand-
point to show how philosophy can accompany the development
of nanotechnologies.
Part 1: From a Conceptual to a Speech Act
Analysis of Moral Arguments
A Conceptual Approach to Moral Argume nts
The appeal in a moral argument is often made by means of a
single word, such as dignity, nature, autonomy, utility, and
rights, instead of a complete utterance specifying the moral
obligation that the word in question conveys. This way of de-
signating the appeal of a moral argument is grounded in the
approach to moral argument based on conceptual analysis.
Since conceptual analysis of moral arguments is at the root of
the impasses in moral argumentation, it is important, as a first
step, to describe the specifics of this approach in order to dif-
ferentiate it later on from the speech-act-based analysis of mo-
ral arguments. To present the principal characteristics of con-
ceptual analysis, we will follow the reasoning of the French
philosopher Marc Hunyadi, who, in guiding Quebec’s Com-
mission de L’Éthique de la Science et de la Technologie (Com-
mission on the Ethics of Science and Technology) in its ethical
evaluation of nanotechnologies, appealed to the precautionary
principle (Gouvernement du Québec, 2006). In exploring the
precautionary principle in his published work, Hunyadi’s main
concern has been to establish a clear distinction between pre-
vention and precaution:
If we didnt manage to establish this distinction, it would
clearly appear that the indiscriminate invocation of the precau-
tionary principle that we have been witnessing since the start of
the nineties is actually purely rhetorical and serves only to use
a new name to gild a principle for action that has never been
foreign to public policy. This version of precaution would thus
amount to nothing more than shiny new clothes in which we
would be dressing up good old prevention (Hunyadi, 2003).
Here is how he formulates the concept of the precautionary
principle in such a way that the unity behind the multiplicity of
definitions is revealed:
Just what does the precautionary principle say? In that jun-
gle of innumerable formulations, one central idea emerges,
which can be summed up as follows: when there is a reasonable
presumption of an unreasonable risk, lack of scientific certainty
about the coming to pass of that risk must not serve as a pretext
for slowing down the adoption of measures intended to limit or
eliminate it (Hunyadi, 2003).
The concept of precaution can be applied in various ways;
but with the above analysis, there is a way to identify the spe-
cific nature of the principle appealed to. Is the obligation moral
or legal; and if the latter, is it constitutional (as in France) or
conventional (as in the European community and under interna-
tional law)? As Hunyadi notes, such a conceptual analysis is
perhaps of little immediate interest to the practitioner of pre-
caution (Hunyadi, 2003).
Moral arguments addressed to questions of biotechnical de-
velopment are often transferred to questions of nanotechnolo-
gies, because of the convergence between nano t e c h n o l o gi e s a n d
biotechnology. Jürgen Habermas performs a similar conceptual
analysis of moral arguments in his paper on liberal eugenics.
Instead of distinguishing prevention from precaution, he ad-
dresses the conceptual borderline between prevention and
eugenics, this being a philosophical matter that cannot be re-
duced to a legal distinction (Habermas, 2002). To conduct a
moral evaluation of eugenics, Habermas turns to Kant and the
categorical imperative, which is applied to one’s self-com-
prehension, a self-comprehension that would differ between a
natural-born human being and a eugenically programmed hu-
man being (Habermas, 2002). The whole validity of Haber-
mas’s position rests ultimately on how he applies the categori-
cal imperative to the situation. Intervention by a human being
into the genome of a future individual (necessarily done with-
out that individual’s consent) creates a link of dependency by
the latter on the former. It is this dependency that is considered
morally unacceptable, compared with the independence of na-
tural birth. (Habermas, 2002). But does this application really
consist of a deduction drawn from the categorical imperative as
applied to this case, which would imply only conceptual analy-
sis? Is this type of dependency on another’s will for a future
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
human being’s genome necessarily a conceptual infringement
of the moral imperative? It is in ways like this that counter-
arguments referring to the aims of the genetic programmer
bring to light the importance of aim in the moral evaluation of
liberal eugenics (Fenton, 2006).
In both these conceptual analyses, the focus is on an a priori
distinction. In one case, it is the distinction between prevention
and precaution; in the other, between two forms of self-com-
prehension. In both cases, the authors must appeal to a moral
imperative, in order to give these distinctions a moral compo-
nent. Where does this moral imperative come from and why
does it have authority with respect to the specific issue? All
these questions remain unanswered.
Towards a Speech Act Analysis of Moral Arguments
Since Stephen Toulmin wrote The Tyranny of Principles
(Toulmin, 1981), his reflection on what is involved in the ap-
peal to principles in ethics has focused upon the seventeenth-
century shift in philosophy that corresponds to Descartes’ me-
thod as expressed in the Cogito ergo sum. He sets out the four
principal changes (Toulmin, 1988): philosophy had been oral
and became written; it had been particular and became general;
it had been local and became universal; and it had been timely
and became timeless. Since 1945, Toulmin argues, we have
been confronted with problemsnuclear war, medical tech-
nology, and the environmentthat challenge us to revisit our
philosophical perspectives (Toulmin, 1988). To deal with the
questions these problems raise, philosophy must once again be-
come practical and renew its acquaintance with its pre-Carte-
sian antecedents.
In practical philosophy, moral arguments leave their absolut-
ist position behind to become speech acts addressed to others.
Ever since Descartes, all questions about soundness and va-
lidity of arguments are understood as referring to arguments
in the sense of chains of written propositions,” and their
soundness is seen to depend on formal relations among propo-
sitions. The question, Who addressed this argument to whom,
in what forum, and using what examples?” is no longer a phi-
losophical matter (Toulmin, 1988).
Absolutism in philosophy cannot be sustained when phi-
losophers accompany other disciplines in an interdisciplinary
evaluation of nanotechnologies. Moral arguments must there-
fore be looked at from a speech act perspective and considered
as normative utterances that must have explicit meaning when
addressed to someone in a particular forum as part of an in-
volvement in the ethical evaluation of nanotechnologies. From
a speech act perspective the three components of a moral argu-
ment assume a different aspect than the absolutist one.
The Meaning of the Moral Utterance
No one has stated more clearly than Kant, in his categorical
imperative, what is specific to a moral utterance. The entire
Western tradition of morals has to do with obligations. If we are
obliged to do something, it is because we have been ordered to.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, which includes the Ten Com-
mandments and the laws of God inscribed in nature; in the
common law tradition of obligations inherent in a living com-
munity; and in the philosophical tradition of laws as the sover-
eign’s commands (Austin, 1832): in all of these, we consis-
tently find reference to the speech act of commanding. In an
oral philosophical tradition, you would ask: “Who commands?”
“What is commanded?” “Who has the duty to obey?” and “Did
that person obey or not?” In a theoretical tradition, the focus is
on the propositional content of the command: “What is the ob-
ligation?” From this perspective, the question of the motive for
obeying the law seems pointless: it is inherent in the rationality
of an obligation to impose a course of conduct on a rational
human being. Once the course of conduct being imposed has
been stated, it is an altogether different philosophical question
to ask: “How do I know that I am under this obligation just as
any other human being is?”
From a speech act perspective, as first developed by J. L.
Austin (1962), the speech act of commanding will be successful
if and only if the person commanded recognizes the authority of
the commander. The motivations to obey the command rest not
in the theoretical foundations of the obligation, but in the rec-
ognition of the commander’s authority to guide one’s conduct.
The question of motivation for obeying laws is inherent in a
speech act perspective. Commanding is not the only type of
speech act that creates obligation; promising, as we know from
contract law, is another. And there are other ways in which
speech acts aim at guiding actions. Ethics boards of various
kinds always make recommendations to modify practice: re-
search ethics boards, clinical ethics boards, and national ethics
advisory committees.
In applied ethics, it is now more common to translate the re-
cent distinction between deontology and ethics made by French-
Canadian philosophers into the terminology of norm-based
ethics and value-based ethics. To understand the central diffe-
rence between these kinds of utterance, we must distinguish
between commanding and recommending. In a recommenda-
tion, the propositional content sets a guide for conduct; but con-
duct is not commanded, but suggested, and this after an evalua-
tion of the different solutions at hand. The basic core of evalua-
tion consists of analyzing something using various criteria, each
of which attributes a value coefficient. The basic cost/benefit
analysis is an evaluation made by applying two criteria. Fol-
lowing the evaluation, the recommendation is made possible by
applying to these conflicting values the principle that if the
costs exceed the benefits, we should not undertake the opera-
tion. Is it possible to regard commands more as recommenda-
tions than as strict obligations? Joseph Fletcher (1966) takes a
step in this direction. He claims that there is but one command
that God imposes: Love thy neighbor. And when he applies this
command to specific cases, what he does is to analyze the
situation to see if in the end love has been maximized. In other
words, the command of God sets the criterion of Love as the
only one by which we can evaluate whether the specified con-
duct actualizes love or not .
Recognition of the difference between commanding and re-
commending and the fundamental role of evaluation as a form
of speech act that differs from affirmation allows for better
recognition of moral utterances and the appeal that is made to
compliance with the ethical evaluation of conduct. That is why,
in the first of our earlier articles on ethical arguments and nano-
technologies (Patenaude, Legault, Parent, Béland, Patenaude,
Legault, Boissy, & Parent, 2011), we recognized that, in current
moral arguments on nanotechnologies, some rely more on a
value-based moral evaluation than a norm-based one.
Justification for the Moral Argument’s Authority
When Toulmin refers to John Dewey (Toulmin, 1981, 1988),
he highlights Dewey’s interpretation of mainstream philosophy
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 17
since the 1630s: the philosophical debate has rested on too
passive a view of the human mind and on inappropriate de-
mands for geometrical certainty. It is the quest for certainty
that governs this second component of moral arguments. We all
know the options proposed by philosophy: moral realism (es-
sential or transcendental), in which we find a moral truth that is
universal and timeless and that thus applies to all; and moral
relativism (individual or cultural), in which no moral truth ex-
ists to guide our conduct. In a debate like this, who can have
certainty about either of these options? To arbitrate such a de-
bate, we must look beyond the grounds stated and verify the
epistemological position that provides the certainty of the moral
argument’s authority. But when we move to the epistemologi-
cal level, the same haunting question remains: What certainty
do we have that this epistemological theory is true? W. V. O.
Quine challenged the background theory of empiricism in his
Two Dogmas of Empiricism (1961) and Word and Object
(1960). For Quine, the impossibility for a ground of epistemo-
logical certainty about facts or a priori categories gives us no
other option than that of adopting a pragmatist perspective
If we take a pragmatist perspective, does this imply that there
is no rationality in ethics? The shift of perspective in Quine’s
epistemological theory does not make science irrational, but
brings to light the fact that rationality is not equivalent to cer-
tainty. Knowledge is just one sort of belief, the sort for which
the grounds of believing can be stated. There is no fundamental
difference between asking what are the grounds of our beliefs
in science and asking what are the grounds of our beliefs in
morals, because in both cases we choose to guide our actions on
grounded beliefs. As Dewey points out (1986), there are to
kinds of inquiry, a scientific inquiry and a common sense in-
quiry, and both involve the same logic of inquiry.
Practical Reasoning
In the debate between humanists and transhumanists (Béland,
Patenaude, Legault, Boissy, & Parent, 2011), having a clear a
priori distinction between natural and artificial seems manda-
tory in order to apply the natural argument to a concrete case.
Behind this debate, there is a consensus: practical reasoning is a
one-way operation that starts from a general law and is applied
to a concrete situation by way of intermediate concepts. Start-
ing with the law “Follow the laws of nature”, we must, in order
to decide if installing a cochlear implant in a person is contrary
to the general law, distinguish between what is natural and what
is artificial. A cochlear implant is artificial, but it repairs a
natural function of hearing. But while this is so for a person
who had an accident and lost their hearing, is it also true of a
baby born without the function of hearing? Isn’t it natural to
that baby not to hear; and, if so, does not giving the baby a
chance to hear therefore constitute a way of ‘improving’ that
human being? These controversies are inevitable, because the
process of reasoning must pass from a general level to a con-
crete situation. Intermediate categories are necessary, since they
help bridge the gap between general and particular. This con-
ception of practical reasoning is consistent with theoretical
philosophy founded on the quest for certainty.
From a pragmatist’s perspective, practical reasoning is our
basic human experience of problem solving. Demand for the
solution of a perplexity is the steadying and guiding factor in
the entire process of reflection… The nature of the problem
fixes the end of thought, and the end controls the process of
thinking (Dewey, 1933). Theory and action are intertwined;
theory is a tool for action, because it sets out a guide for analy-
sis. This is true for science as well as for morals. Dewey’s
(1892) critique of Green’s theory of moral motive clarifies this
His theory would, I think, be commonly regarded as the best
of the modern attempts to form a metaphysic of ethic. I wish,
using this as type, to point out the inadequacy of such meta-
physical theories, on the ground that they fail to meet the de-
mand just made of truly ethical theory, that it lend itself to
translation into concrete terms, and thereby to the guidance,
the direction of actual conduct.
Part 2: Moral Argumentation from a
Pragmatist Perspective
Swierstra and Rib (2007) hold a view of moral argumenta-
tion inspired by Dewey’s approach: We become aware of moral
routines when people disobey them, when conflicts between
routines emerge and a moral dilemma arises, or when they are
no longer able to provide satisfactory responses to new prob-
lems. This perspective corresponds essentially to the tradition
of common law. The whole idea of following a precedent
judgment is founded on the idea that the first solution is valid
until new facts or certain circumstances indicate that we have to
revise this decision. What judges then do is to question the
“routines” of the precedent judgment when necessary. In An-
glo-American philosophy, this is one way of coping with moral
argumentation: the process of argumentation allows us to ana-
lyze why the routine does seem to work; but when we are con-
fronted with impasses, there must be something more than a
questioning of routines. The reflective equilibrium advocated
by John Rawls (1971) presupposes that our innate sense of
justice can find the best equilibrium between the conflicting
moral ideals that are at the core of the impasses in moral argu-
mentation. This constitutes one way out of those impasses.
Another consists of recognizing a specific role for reason in law
and ethics, in the form of practical reasoning. When arguments
are addressed to a judge, the judge has the responsibility of
deciding which solution is the best in the circumstances and on
what grounds. Common law and case-based morality have de-
pended on the role of judging not only in finding a solution to
the legal or moral problem, but also in clarifying the grounds of
the belief that this is the best solution for this case. This is why
judges must state the reasons for their judgments.
In classical continental philosophy, philosophers, in their
search for absolute certainty in the quest for knowledge, have
placed their faith in reason. Morality has had to be founded on
truth, truth that is understood to be accessible to abstract ration-
ality. The impasses between moral arguments seem to reside in
the conflicting backgrounds of continental and Anglo-American
philosophy. Is there no alternative to the binary opposition be-
tween truth and custom in ethics; no alternative to the choice
between absolutism and relativism? So philosophys agenda is
as problematic as ever. What can we do? Must we agree to
regard philosophical writings as autobiography”? (Toulmin,
Aristotle was the first philosopher to distinguish two func-
tions of reason: one that consists of contemplating the world
(reason as knowledge), and another that consists of action (rea-
son as embodied in ethics). Since 1950, Stephen Toulmin has
been clarifying the place of reason in ethics. In continental
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
philosophy, Habermas examines communicative activity, seek-
ing in that process rules to guide the best choices. Thus phi-
losophy is circling back to recognition of the role of reason in
oral activity, in which arguments are considered as specific
utterances addressed to someone in order to arrive at a conclu-
sion about a specific question. In line with this trend, we can
reframe the question of reason in ethics as a question of the
components of reason in communication. As noted above, a
pragmatist position in language emphasizes the implied reasons
in a speech act. If you state “The cat is on the mat” and it is to
be taken as a statement by a hearer, that hearer can reasonably
conclude: i) that you believe that the cat is on the mat; ii) that
you can state the grounds for this belief; and iii) that the
grounds stated can be questioned as to their credibility. The
same analysis can be made for a moral prescription: “Morally,
you must stop research on nanotechnologies” presupposes that
you believe that nanotechnologies breach a given moral princi-
ple; that you can state how the grounds of this belief reside in
the authority of that moral principle and in practical reasoning;
and that these grounds can be questioned as to their credibility.
To overcome the stalemate in philosophy, a pragmatist per-
spective is the first condition, because of its internalist position,
according to which human action is always theory-driven, even
when it has become routine. The second condition consists of
acknowledging that philosophical arguments are speech acts
addressed to someone in order to guide action. Therefore it is
the function of reason in speech acts that can help us under-
stand the place of reason in ethics. But are these two conditions
sufficient to overcome the stalemate? All that positioning one-
self according to speech act theory seems to gain us is a change
from the “validity” of the arguments to the “credibility” of the
utterances. Even if dialogue then clears up the grounds for be-
liefs, we still do not have one best ground for belief.
When we reflect on the function of judging that is at the heart
of common law and case-based reasoning, we can identify an-
other factor that is essential for overcoming impasses in argu-
mentation. Judging does not consist of establishing which ar-
gument is valid or credible per se; rather, judging is part of a
decision-making procedure. Pragmatists like Dewey and Quine
have linked theory to practice in redefining the theory of
knowledge as theory of inquiry. But they haven’t reflected on
the presupposition that action seems to be the result of an
analysis of a problem. Between analysis and action there is a
decision. “How do we decide” is as important as “How do we
think.” Since the devising of the Nuremberg Code for research
ethics, the development of applied ethics has focused on the
quality of consent and thus on the quality of decision-making.
Professional ethics have brought to light, first in medical prac-
tice and then in all kinds of practice, the complexity of deci-
sion-making when the action undertaken has both positive and
negative consequences for the people involved and for society.
This is why integrating decision-making into ethics allows us to
take into account the link between inquiry and action.
Deciding consists basically of initiating an action in order to
solve a problem by reaching certain ends (Legault, 1999). It all
begins with a context that is problematic in the sense that what
is happening, the development of nanotechnologies, for in-
stance, is questioned. What the analysis of the problem clarifies
is the various consequences of this development for the envi-
ronment, the health of workers and consumers, the future
economies of companies and states, the legal system, and the
way we live in our world and cultures. What should we do?
Ban all development of nanotechnologies, or let the invisible
hand of the economy settle the issue? Deciding what to do
means deciding on taking a specific course of action (and mak-
ing the decision not to take a specific course of action still
amounts to taking a specific course of action). The complexity
of decision-making resides in the evaluation of the cones-
quences analyzed in the context. How is this evaluation of the
consequences done, and what values are considered as con-
flicting in the context of a given decision? With ethical analysis,
the scope of the values embedded in the moral arguments can
be identified and associated with the relevant consequences.
Faced with all the conflicting values involved in the decision, to
decide is to cut the Gordian knot by choosing what means are to
be taken to maximize the ends in the best way possible. Since
the ends are in conflict, the decision will give preponderance to
some ends over others; and this balancing of values must be
justified by giving the reasons for the ethical choice.
A pragmatist’s way out of the philosophical stalemate in
moral argument on nanoethics is inclusive: it considers norm-
based ethics in order to arrive at value-based ethics, because
both are dimensions of the decision-making process for evalu-
ating consequences and both propose an evaluation and a solu-
tion that corresponds to the balancing of ends.
Part 3: Philosophy and the Evaluation of the
Development of Nanotechnologies
When philosophers adopt a pragmatist perspective, as eluci-
dated in the previous sections, their participation in an interdis-
ciplinary dialogue on the multiple evaluation of nanotechnolo-
gies consists of giving guidance on the process of the dialogue.
As we saw in the humanist/transhumanist exchange of argu-
ments, we always end up with a stalemate position when both
parties adopt what Putnam calls the Gods-Eye View (Putnam,
1992), or Realism with a capital R. The first of the fundamental
impasses between moral arguments resides in the adoption of
the relevant moral stances as if they were not subject to criti-
cism. In spheres of ethical practice such as clinical ethics
boards, research ethics boards, and national committees on the
ethical development of technologies, there is an assumption that
interdisciplinary dialogue is the best way to achieve the con-
vergence of multiple forms of expertise in order to guide pro-
fessional and social choices. These instances of practice pre-
suppose that participants are capable of admitting that their own
disciplines do not have a monopoly on the truth about how the
world is, and that they only have access to an internal point of
view. Since the first impasse in the dialogue between the natu-
ral sciences and the humanities often resides in the debate over
the true picture of the world, philosophers must address this
epistemological question and place under discussion the ques-
tion of the grounds of belief for the relevant perspective, in both
science and philosophy. Without an internalist position on
knowledge, participants will stay in a stalemate.
When all participants have agreed to the internalist position,
they must next define a procedure that will ensure the conver-
gence of the different types of expertise. Convergence is possi-
ble if a problem-solving procedure is adopted and the problem
to be solved is the interdisciplinary evaluation of nanotech-
nologies. In order to develop such a procedure, we must take a
closer look at what con sti tutes the specific speech act act iv ity of
an evaluation. Evaluating always consists of grading something
using specific criteria. Thus what is to be evaluated must be
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 19
identified, as must the specific criteria.
A certain amount of confusion in the debate on nanoethics
exists because the participating authors are not evaluating the
same object. From a toxicologist’s perspective, it is the nano-
product that must be evaluated; for example, the carbon nano-
tubes or the silver nanoparticles. Others will insist on evaluat-
ing the end product obtained; for instance, a sensor incorporat-
ing carbon nanotubes, or socks using silver nanoparticles. Now
some will question the various possible usages of nanotube
sensors; still others will question the techno-scientific proce-
dure that gives rise to nanotechnologies today. Nanotechnolo-
gies do not form a single object that can be evaluated as such;
they are multidimensional, and each dimension must be taken
into account in the decision-making process. But even if we
agree that what we are evaluating is, for example, nanoparticles,
such as carbon nanotubes, we must determine more precisely
how they are to be evaluated. It may seem trivial to say that the
evaluation of nanotechnologies always consists of evaluating
the potential impact of the product as regards specific issues.
All risk analysis rests on this basis; but moral philosophers
have often overlooked the fact. Many people believe that only
consequentialists evaluate the consequences of objects as re-
gards certain issues; but even a deontological principle like
Kant’s categorical imperative, when applied, entails examining
the consequences of nanotechnologies for human dignity.
Since the evaluation of nanotechnologies depends on the re-
lationship between the object and its potential impact as regards
different issues, the procedure must begin with a scientific in-
quiry into this relationship. What do we know about this rela-
tionship; and what are our grounds for belief in this knowledge?
We can summarize this relationship as: “Exposure to nanote-
chnologies is likely to have an impact of some degree of inten-
sity as regards a certain issue.” More and more studies are
coming out on the health risks to workers in the nanoparticle
industry. Toxicological analysis often tries to establish the de-
gree of exposure to a product that will cause death: the levels
LD50 and LC50 are well established standards. But as this
example clearly shows, the relevant health issue is identified
solely with the potential for causing death. Yet that is only one
of the possible health issues that can be raised in identifying the
potential impact of nanopa rticles for human s .
Since the interdisciplinary evaluation of nanotechnologies
depends on the knowledge we have of the numerous relation-
ships between nanotechnology in general and the various pos-
sible impacts, we should not be surprised to find that the lack of
knowledge about all these issues has itself become an object for
evaluation in the evaluation of nanotechnologies. We must
admit, in nanotechnology as in biotechnology, that there are
very few non-controversial impact studies and thus little con-
firmed risk and many potential risks. In the absence of scien-
tific measurements, we often make an analogyfor example,
between nanoparticles and asbestosin order to state a hypo-
thetical risk. We must therefore distinguish between our state of
ignorance about many of the possible impacts of nanotechnolo-
gies as regards different issues, as well as about current scien-
tific knowledge of these impacts (confirmed, potential, hypo-
thetical, and theoretical risks). The evaluation of nanotechnolo-
gies sets aside the fact/value dichotomy, because values cannot
be ascribed to facts without a proper knowledge of the relevant
In an interdisciplinary dialogue evaluating nanotechnologies,
scientific knowledge about the possible impacts of these tech-
nologies as regards various issues is addressed first. The phi-
losopher can help create a picture of our state of knowledge
about the various issues and the bases for this knowledge. As
we have seen, risk analysis is often the type of evaluation that is
considered fundamental. But risk analysis is but one aspect of
impact analysis, an aspect focused on negative impacts. Why
should health and safety issues be the principal, not to say the
only, ones taken into account? This seems to confirm Dewey’s
analysis of our routines. When our democratic societies created
laws to prevent harm instead of relying on tort laws to redress
harm done, health and safety issues that had been at the center
of the problems handed down by tort laws came to be addressed
by regulatory systems. That is why, for instance, government
agencies usually distinguish health and safety issues (HSIs)
from ethical, legal, and social issues (ELSIs). But when we
consider that the need for the interdisciplinary evaluation of
nanotechnologies stems from a confrontation, within biotech-
nology, with the limitations of a risk analysis conducted exclu-
sively by natural scientists, then the question of “What issues
should be considered?” must be opened to an all-inclusive im-
pact analysis. That is what is proposed in a NE3LS analysis, in
which economic, environmental, ethical, legal, and social issues
are all handled together.
It is in this broad perspective that we can now concentrate on
the differences between the evaluations conducted by each
expertise. Since, as defined above, evaluating consists of grad-
ing something by specific criteria, it is possible to compare all
the scientific, moral, and ethical evaluations by identifying the
specific criteria used in each evaluation and the grounds for the
belief that these criteria should be used in the evaluation pro-
cess. Moral evaluations based on Kant’s conception of human
dignity in fact evaluate the consequences of a specific nano-
technological development to see if its impact will bring about
a loss of autonomy to humankind. All moral evaluations are
based on issues like nature, humankind, form of life, etc., and
propose specific criteria, such as the order of nature, the auto-
nomy of the human being, or the liberty (free choice) and bio-
logical condition of the human being. This repositioning of the
moral arguments does not throw out the baby with the bath
water, since the evaluation has taken into consideration the core
meaning of all the relevant moral arguments.
By proceeding in this way, we disentangle three aspects of
risk analysis: the assertion of the existence of the risk, the
evaluation, and the judgment as to whether the risk is accept-
able for humans. If exposure to carbon nanotubes is at 10 for an
LD50, does this scientific fact make the risk acceptable? In this
perspective, the process of evaluation must distinguish the
knowledge component of the relationship between nanotech-
nology and its impacts from the evaluation component (specific
criteria for grading the impact) and the acceptance component
(consisting of the making of a decision concerning a nanotech-
nology and the spelling out of the grounds of that decision).
The problem to solve in evaluating nanotechnologies consists
finally, from a pragmatist perspective, of a decision taken after
scientific inquiry and multidimensional evaluation. What will
we do now, following the comprehensive impact analysis and
considering our state of ignorance about the relationships of the
impacts? Deciding what consequences we are willing to shoul-
der in developing certain nanotechnologies and what cones-
quences we want to avoid constitutes the core of practical rea-
soning. That is why the case-based method is the only way to
initiate an interdisciplinary dialogue on whether or not to accept
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
a certain technology that is under development. What kind of
development is acceptable to us and for what reasons? Here
again we find that the grounds that justify the decision as the
best one we can make from an internalist perspective consist of
an appeal to shared reasons for action. This justification for the
decision must render explicit how we weighted the various
evaluations of the impacts and why priority was given to some
impacts over others. Some philosophers confuse this type of
weighting of the different evaluations with cost/benefit analysis.
The latter is only one way of considering how to weight conse-
quences and how priorities are distributed. But not all impacts
can be viewed as costs or benefits strictly so called, because the
price of health and life is hard to determine. In deciding on each
nanotechnological development, we are not only choosing
means, but also sorting out the ends we want to achieve, and
therefore the kind of world we want to live in and pass on as
our legacy to our desc e n dants.
Decision-making cannot be isolated from the forms of gov-
ernance we want to have over future technological development.
If we consider the precautionary principle, its fundamental aim
was to propose that, given the lack of knowledge about the
potential impacts, positive and negative, of nanotechnologies,
we should decide not to develop that field until we had obtained
more knowledge about the impacts, including the risks (Gou-
vernement du Québec, 2006). In European Community law and
French law, the precautionary principle is basically an exten-
sion of prevention under administrative law to situations where
doubt persists (Legault, Bernier, Daniel, Fontaine, & Patenaude,
2012). As developed in the section The Ineffectiveness of Moral
Argument in a Democratic Society of our article on humanism
and transhumanism (Béland, Patenaude, Legault, Boissy, &
Parent, 2011), we must distinguish moral argumentation for
evaluating nanotechnologies from philosophical debate about
how moral arguments can be accepted in a pluralist society.
When moral arguments are rebutted because they are con-
sidere d to be contrary to a pluralistic democracy, what happens
is that a conception of governance in society is taken as the
ultimate criterion for deciding what is good for that society. But
such a position is contradictory to a pragmatist perspective,
because new technologies will always challenge our routines of
governance, since what we have may be inadequate to cope
with the possible impacts of developments in nanotechnology.
Revision of the classical, positivist perspective of law must
therefore be part of the process of evaluating nanotechnologies.
The process of decision-making about nanotechnologies not
only identifies the ends we want to fulfill by weighing the con-
sequences; it must also specify the concrete means we are to
put into place to ensure that our aims will be fulfilled. It is in
the discussion of the means for attaining the ends that the ques-
tion of governance will arise. The interdisciplinary evaluation
of nanotechnologies is part of a complex mode of governance
in which collective expertise is part of the solution for the crea-
tion of a responsible development of nanotechnologies.
When philosophers take part in the evaluation of nanotech-
nologies, they often adopt a moral stance and argue within that
stance. Philosophy deploys five different stances and seven
types of argument that repeatedly go past each other, giving the
impression that philosophy is relative and that everything de-
pends on the author. Between dogmatism and skepticism in
ethics, there appears to be no third way. To show how an alter-
native position is possible in philosophy, we have made ad-
vances based on the conclusions of our first article. In that arti-
cle, which was on the debate between humanists and transhu-
manists, we showed the impasses in which the moral arguments
found in the dialogue between those two camps were mired. In
the first part of the present article, we have shown that those
impasses result from a philosophical position shared by the
protagonists in the debate, according to which moral evaluation
is the result of a process of deduction that starts with a specific
moral obligation founded on a conception of morality framed in
the terms of realism. The process of deduction is made possible
by means of intermediate categories that bridge the gap be-
tween the general principle and the particular situation. To find
a way out of the impasses, we must adopt a pragmatist perspec-
tive, in which philosophy is part of the process of resolving a
complex problem of the evaluation of the development of na-
notechnologies in order to guide our actions in society. The
second part of this paper has presented the basis of this position
in greater detail and the grounds for belief that support this po-
sition in philosophy. Finally, in the last part, our aim has been
to show how, based on this specific pragmatism, in which epis-
temological pragmatism is joined to speech act analysis of the
pragmatics of language, philosophers can play a useful role in
ensuring that interdisciplinary dialogue takes place in the
evaluation of the development of nanotechnologies. In assum-
ing this role, the philosopher does not impose a solution, but
rather helps everyone through the process of scientific inquiry
into the possible impact of nanotechnologies as regards differ-
ent issues. This the philosopher does by identifying the multiple
evaluations proposed and the grounds on which they rest; by
calling for precision about the way these impacts are weighted
and why we should give priority to certain impacts over others;
and finally, by identifying the best means of governance for
achieving these ends and identifying how they may be justified.
This study is currently being funded by a grant from the Ca-
nadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR: 43854) entitled:
Development of an interdisciplinary framework for the analysis
of the impact of nanotechnologies on health and of their social
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