faculty & experts
17 November 2020

Governing through Expertise: The Politics of Bioethics

Through a close up of bioethical expertise – an intriguing form of “expert knowledge” that claims authority in the ethical analysis of issues arising in relation to biomedicine, the life sciences and new fields of technological innovation – this book provides us with a fresh analysis of the enmeshment of expert knowledge with politics in global governance.

Policy-makers in pluralist democracies have presented ethics committees as a novel, more deliberative and all together more democratic form of advisory mechanism. While maintaining an appearance of broader consultation and dialogue, the book reveals that mobilising ethics experts helps to ensure that policy remains insulated and no conflicts arise. Because it allows policymakers to not open up bioethics deliberation to the broader public, while claiming to be doing just this, the mobilisation of bioethics expertise acts as a particularly effective mechanism of policy insulation. At the same time, the creation of expert bioethicists has “scienticised” ethics through the creation of doctrines, concepts and a specialised terminology, thus legitimising the idea that moral problems can be addressed in a seemingly objective and rational way. The authority of ethics experts is thus double-edged: it is both (seemingly) “democratic” and “epistemic”, giving ethical expertise a unique function in the pre-emption or taming of controversies related to scientific and technological innovation. 

The mobilisation of ethical expertise can work to that effect because mainstream bioethics is itself an expert discourse that has been co-opted by politics. Three distinct logics – labelled “orchestration”, “ideational alignment” and “calibration” – ensure that bioethical expertise remains enmeshed with politics, even when it is contested. The logic of orchestration allows us to capture the way policy-makers may develop tactics to shape the production of knowledge and ensure that experts do not develop counter-narratives. Ideational alignment refers to the way common narratives are created or reinforced through repeated interactions in “crossing points” – those spaces where governance actors and experts meet, talk and deliberate. Calibration refers to the way experts themselves practice self-restraint when they produce their expertise, in order to adjust it to the needs of a given policy debate. 

The making of a new class of experts, who claim the capacity to deliberate on the values at stake in biomedical research and scientific advances, has also contributed to the exclusion of various non-expert voices from debates on scientific and technological innovations. In particular, it has delegitimised claims that citizens themselves, lay patients and consumers were to have their say on such issues. It has in fact taken issues that have an explicit ethical component out of the realm of democratic debate.

Littoz-Monnet, Annabelle. 2020. Governing through Expertise. The Politics of Bioethics, Cambridge University Press.