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Edited by R Chadwick. Academic Press, 2001, pp 404, £53.95. ISBN 0-12-166355-8
Whilst offering extensive new opportunities, technological developments also tend to pose serious challenges and difficult ethical questions. Developments in—for example, biotechnology, information technology, transport technology, and nuclear technology have for decades been the subject of intense public debate and a principal object for philosophical reflection and ethical analysis. The Concise Encyclopedia of the Ethical Assessment of New Technologies is a collection of articles, thoughtfully edited by Ruth Chadwick, which addresses a range of the ethical issues pertaining to contemporary technology.
The editor’s objective in this collection appears to be to describe general methodological issues in ethical analysis and to give an account of the practical application of ethical theory to issues surrounding new technologies. Some of the articles provide an outline of conceptual frameworks for ethical analysis and key ethical principles—for example, discussions of consequential and deontological perspectives, the precautionary principle, and slippery slope arguments. Other articles go beyond these methodological issues and apply ethical terminology to specific technologies such as genetics, computers, nuclear technology, and reproductive technology.
The collected articles all have a standardised and easily accessible layout and are arranged in a single alphabetical list by topic. This confirms what is already suggested in the book’s title, namely that the encyclopedia is a scholarly reference work. The main body of each article follows a short outline section, including a preview of headings, a glossary of essential concepts, and a brief introductory paragraph defining the debated issues and summarising the content. A short bibliography completes each article.
The encyclopedia provides a detailed first introduction to a number of new technologies and the ethical issues pertaining to them. The very helpful introductory paragraphs make it easy for the reader to focus on essential themes and the glossary makes it possible to keep track of sometimes quite complex technical and philosophical issues. Most articles are easy to read and the authors succeed in giving a nuanced account of often quite controversial cases. However, the limited space available makes it difficult for the articles to be more than good and thorough introductions. An extended bibliography, consisting of suggestions for further reading, could make the encyclopedia an even better work of reference.
Naturally a collection of articles on a very broad subject such as new technologies will have to depend on a cautious selection among a large number of relevant and important topics. It seems the articles for this collection have been selected with some preference for biotechnology and medical technology, and although the book to some extent also addresses the impact of other technologies it leaves the impression that ethical questions relating to bio/medical technologies are particularly numerous and significant. The distinct focus adopted in the selection of articles suggests that this is a work aimed mainly at an audience specifically interested in biotechnology and medical ethics.
In sum, The Concise Encyclopedia of the Ethical Assessment of New Technologies impresses as a highly applicable reference work, particularly for readers with an interest in biotechnology, medical technology, and biomedical ethics. The book is easy to use for reference but also serves to bring attention to important new issues and emphasises the need to develop the conceptual basis for analysis as new technologies emerge. For that reason it is likely to become essential reading for ethicists, medical students, scientists, and others working with the ethical implications of technology.
I thank Donald Hill, John McMillan, and Michael Parker for discussion on the points made in this review.