For many decades emerging technologies keep challenging both scientific communities and the broader public. In the academic field questions are raised concerning not only the practicality, but also the acceptability of new technologies or new research methodologies; in the public field, the life-changing impact of technology is widely felt and inspires the need for information and debate.
With the 1970s, applied ethics has become the platform where technologies can be discussed from the vantage point of all disciplines concerned. Such discussion involves not only scientific expertise, but also the joined reflection of ethics, sociology, psychology, political studies, economics, and law. Applied ethics is an interdisciplinary focus starting from the premise that any serious judgment about the ethical dimension of new technologies needs the best scientific knowledge available, together with the categorical framework provided by the various relevant disciplines of humanities.
In this sense, ethics is not the exclusive property of philosophy as an academic discipline, but a common focus of all scientific and humanistic disciplines, and a commitment to respecting both the benefits and the vital interests of all stakeholders involved. The IEST offers a platform to enable and promote this shared reflection of the scientific community. It functions as an umbrella for all activities in research and education where scientists, out of their proper discipline, question and discuss the ethical dimension of their work.
Ethical problems of emerging technologies usually arise under two conditions: first, when science and technology have a significant impact on individuals, society, or nature, and, second, when this impact creates a situation of uncertainty concerning the risks and benefits for the individuals involved. Risks and benefits can be assessed in different ways, both quantitatively and qualitatively, and often the balance between technical and scientific criteria on the one side, and individual and social interests on the other side, remains undecided or unclear.
Emerging technologies create such situations of uncertainty in various ways: through the long-term impact on nature, the introduction of nanoscale objects into the environment, the loss of personal responsibility in complex system interaction, the change of human interaction through the mediation of digital interfaces, the high impact factor of genetic therapies, etc.
In the face of this uncertainty, the primary goal of ethics is not so much to give definite answers and solutions very often this is possible only at the price of reducing the complexity of a given situation but to conceptualize the problems that emerge from it and to give consideration to the legitimate view points of all interest groups involved. Much is gained if decisions about the use of new technologies are made with a clear consciousness of the uncertainty that goes along with such use. Any evaluation of ethical issues and, finally, any recommendations, have to come out of such consciousness.
Again, this means that applied ethics has to be seen as a field where the expertise of all related fields science and humanities is combined in order to achieve higher conceptual clarity and insight regarding all relevant facts that go along with the development and the application of new technologies.