Accepted Paper:

Politics by other means? Ethics as a blind(ing) spot for STS  


Luigi Pellizzoni (University of Pisa)

Paper long abstract:

In recent years the relevance of ethics to the governance of techno-scientific advancement has been increasing at a growing pace in a variety of fields, from biology to data mining and processing, from nanotech to geoengineering. Research projects are regularly required to take in consideration ethical aspects. Ethics councils spread. Bio-nano-info-ethics books and journals flourish. Public engagement in deliberative processes is typically expected to elicit the ethical dimensions of innovation.

The rise of ethics, however, has been counterbalanced by a decline of politics. Ethics councils replace politically-oriented institutions, as the original US Office of Technology Assessment. Ethical debates themselves are generally handled through standardizing metrics, which expunge positions deemed incompatible. 'How' replaces 'whether or not' or 'for the benefit of whom'. The latest EC framework, Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), allegedly aims to address also the later aspects, yet the predominance of an ethical concern is evident, beginning with the label itself.

In short, we are confronted with a sustained 'politics of ethics' (Felt & Wynne 2007). Yet the issue remains largely neglected within STS scholarship, and the situation may even worsen in the future. This, I will argue, for two reasons; two 'side effects' of otherwise valuable trends, one methodological, the other theoretical: 1) the growing relevance of ethnographic, practice-oriented approaches; 2) the turn away from epistemic deconstruction and towards an ontology of thingness and corporeality as ethically-charged, liberating processes of becoming.

The paper is theoretical and draws on analysis of recent academic and policy literature.

Panel C4
Non-concerns about science and technology and within STS