21 September 2021

Depoliticisation through Ethics in the Governance of Scientific and Technological Innovation

Values, when approached through the repertoire of ethics expertise, serve in fact to impose consensus in EU policymaking, argues Annabelle Littoz-Monnet, Professor of International Relations and Political Science and Director of the Global Governance Centre, in a recent chapter. Drawing on the polysemy and multiple uses of values, she shows that mobilising ethics experts in policymaking can keep problems away from politics both by maintaining the appearance of the technical character of policy proposals and by keeping bioethics deliberation within the domain of experts. 

What is “ethical expertise”, the kind of expertise you study in this book chapter?

Moral questions about the ethics of medicine and scientific research more broadly have been asked for as long as people have asked questions about human morality – histories of ethics in medicine typically going back to Greek physician Hippocrates – but asking these to a new category of experts in ethics is a recent policy innovation. The last decades have indeed given rise, in pluralist democracies, to a new cast of professionals whom we might call “expert bioethicists” or ethics experts. These new specialists claim expertise in the ethical analysis of issues which arise in relation to biomedicine, research and innovation in the life sciences, and increasingly so in new fields of technological innovation and even societal issues.

The idea of expert knowledge in the field of ethics is puzzling. The emergence of ethics expertise indeed bestows a specific authority in morals upon specialists who claim to be applying objective knowledge and systematic and universal tools of analysis. Most expert bioethicists see bioethical expertise as the ability to reflect systematically and objectively on moral issues, presenting their knowledge as general and applicable to all circumstances. Thus, while bioethical expertise does not deal with “facts” or “evidence” like traditional scientific expertise, it relies on the same claims to objective knowledge. Ethics experts take great care presenting themselves as “independent”, “objective” and “neutral” possessors of specialist knowledge. Even when such groups include theologians or religious scientists, they have adopted a more secular and “rational” language. The creation of bioethics as a new field of expertise has “scienticised” ethics through the creation of doctrines, concepts and a specialised terminology, thus legitimising the idea that moral problems could be addressed by experts, rather than through democratic debate. 

Why do you argue that mobilising ethics experts depoliticises debates on science and technological innovation

I argue that ethical expertise is mobilised by policymakers in order to depoliticise debates on scientific and technological developments. Politicisation is defined in the introduction of the volume as “the framing of an object of regulation as a matter of opposing interests and normative views” while de-politicisation refers to “EU techniques of conflict containment such as deference to member states, civil society and experts”. Involving ethics experts into policy can depoliticise problems, first, by maintaining the appearance of the technical character of policy proposals. As I said, expert ethicists indeed claim to resort to objective knowledge and universal tools of analysis. Making ethics the realm of expertise has thus rationalised discussions normally framed in value-based terms. Second, mobilising ethics expertise can also help pre-empt the politicisation of specific problems by insulating policymaking. When policymakers fear public protests, their best strategy consists in keeping conflicts outside of the public space. Because consulting ethics experts allows policymakers to not open up bioethics deliberation to the broader public or alternative (expert) voices (while claiming to be doing just this), the mobilisation of bioethics expertise acts as a particularly effective mechanism of policy insulation. The de-politicising effect of ethics is thus due to its content – a rationalist approach to ethics – and its container, a mode of deliberation which includes experts only. The expertisation of ethics in fact serves to deny or tame debates on values. 

How did this apply to the case of EU nanotechnology policy, which you examine in the chapter?

The case of EU nanotechnology policy provides us with an interesting case to explore the depoliticising role of ethical expertise. Its mobilisation by EU policymakers allowed them to make the claim that they had consulted broadly and openly on the ethical aspects of nanotechnologies, while in fact technicalising debates and insulating policy. 

The European Commission, together with the industry and a majority of scientists, indeed wanted to push research and new applications in the field as quickly as possible. They were concerned, however, that the nano agenda would stir opposition from the part of Green parties, consumers, and European citizens. It was in this context that the Commission formally asked ethics experts to produce an opinion on nanotechnologies.

Involving ethics experts into policymaking acted as a crucial element of the European Commission’s broader “anticipatory and integrated” approach and successfully contained the politicisation of the conflict. The moderate opposition that coalesced around the European Greens and a few NGOs could be defused and the push for nano-research took off – soon followed by the commercialisation of “nano-products” in a number of consumption goods –from toothpaste to sun creams or yet candies. Since the invention of synthetic material, nanotechnology is the only scientific development that unfolds the creation of new material, the health and environmental effects of which are still uncertain. Products containing nanoparticles have however been commercialised on a large scale, largely in the absence of genuine public debates in the media or elsewhere.

How could we integrate ethics into the scientific and technological governance, if not through “experts”?

While an ethical reflection on scientific and technological questions is as such to be welcomed, it is indeed not clear that delegating this thinking to specialists is the right avenue. Ethics expertise is often invoked by political actors in an increasing array of policy domains in order to make certain policies possible, while at the same time taming politics. This is problematic, because there often is no pre-existing societal consensus on what kind of normative framework should govern scientific and technological innovations. By shifting ethics into the realm of expertise, policymakers can obfuscate the political nature of such decisions and avoid democratic discussions on an increasing number of questions.

A remedy to this would be to develop mechanisms to facilitate the substantive participation of citizens most directly affected by decisions on scientific and technological innovation: consumers, patients, factory workers or engineers who make new products the safety of which is uncertain. Such participation would make for more open debates, as well as policy solutions which balance out a broader diversity of preferences. 

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Full citation of the book chapter:
Littoz-Monnet, Annabelle. “Ethics as a Tool of Value Denial in the EU’s Governance of Scientific and Technological Innovation.” In Value Politics in the European Union: From Market to Culture and Back, edited by François Fôret and Jana Vargovčíková, 151–68. London: Routledge, 2021.

Interview by Buğra Güngör, PhD Candidate in International Relations and Political Science; editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an image by magic pictures/