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The ethics of conflict and impurity

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Faced with the proliferation of technological innovations, the wide dissemination of the concept of responsible innovation is certainly a step forward since it introduces a form of social regulation. But it is being held back in two ways: on the one hand, by a managerial conception of responsibility centred on anticipating the future consequences of technical development, which conceals from us the values in conflict here and now in science and technology; on the other hand, by an obstacle opposed to one of its components, stakeholder dialogue: the idea of purity, according to which we only dialogue well with people with whom we have affinities. On the contrary, it is the acceptance of the conflict of values and "impurity" that will take us forward.

Illustration: Canvas "The Conversation". of Ariane-J. 

Over the past half-century, the interactions of science and technology have gradually trivialized an engineer's view of nature, conceived as a set of devices or modules that can be described and used as machines. At the same time, the watertight boundary that once separated science from society has disappeared. Scientific research is generally no longer seen as a neutral activity, devoid of moral values. It is explicitly put at the service of certain social and economic values such as economic competition or job creation. Synthetic biology and nanotechnology are examples of this change of style.

This vision of science as a socio-economic enterprise is accompanied by calls for responsible innovation: it is now a matter of integrating ethical, regulatory and social values, summarized under the code name ELSI (Ethical, Legal and Social Implications or impacts), into technological innovation on the one hand, and environmental and health risk management (EHS, Environmental Health and Safety) on the other. This evolution has been accompanied by the willingness of some European policy-makers to involve the public in innovation from the outset, creating the notion of upstream public engagement in science.

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The ELSI checklist

The ELSI approach is designed to identify a series of problems upstream at the research stage, before the development of applications: health and environmental risks, cost-benefit ratio, potential infringements on privacy and liberties, safety and security, social justice (the question of the technological gap opening up between countries holding these technologies and others), etc. The ELSI approach is also designed to identify the potential risks to the environment and health, and to the environment. Faced with each problem, the ELSI approach makes it possible to propose, with the help of "embedded" human and social sciences, corrective recommendations.

Extending this review of the issues raised by technology, a wide range of experiments have been conducted to facilitate upstream public engagement, with citizen juries, citizens' conferences, public debates, forums of all kinds, scenario workshops on possible futures, open stakeholder inclusion processes, and so on.

This twofold evolution of the ELSI approach is positive. It is far preferable to the linear approach proclaimed by the motto of the 1933 Chicago International Fair, dedicated to technological innovation: "Science finds, industry applies, man conforms".

Exit from consequentialism

However, it is time to see the limits and perverse effects. The ELSI approach, with its "checklist" of the problems raised by innovation, gives the public engagement an illusion of control, whereas it often provides no solution and hardly reduces the uncertainty due to technical development.

Indeed, the ELSI approach is focused on anticipating the impacts due to the applications of technologies, on the prevention of a possible disaster, thus on a more or less distant future. This projection into the future legitimizes a potential future, fascinating but speculative, and finally diverts us from what is happening today. Thus, by focusing on the prospects of man "enhanced" by nanotechnologies, robotics and neurosciences, or on the ethical risks of genomics or the brain implantation of electronic chips, we ignore the fact that products placed on the market today may pose problems, such as nanomaterials, genetic tests... and electronic chips.

In other words, ELSI programmes are part of a managerial attitude aimed at anticipating the consequences and damage of technologies. However, this caution and consequentialism are far from exhausting the ethical issues raised by technological development. Ethics also aims at establishing norms and values that tend towards a 'good life'. We need to go beyond prudence and the prevention of consequences. How do we do this?

Praise for conflict and impurity

First, by taking the measure of the fact that research programmes are not neutral, that they shape society and that they are themselves shaped by society, by competitiveness and individualism in particular. This is a first step towards ethics. So we need to assess the values embedded, here and now, in research programs and products. This work has a virtue: it makes it possible to identify value conflicts, that is, to consider a technique or a product according to the values of greater or lesser importance associated with it by the designer, manufacturer, legislator or citizen, such as control, mastery, exploit, play, daily utility, creation of economic value, positive or negative impact on the environment, for example.

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Likewise, the stakeholder dialogue that is part of responsible innovation - because it allows these conflicts of values to be staged and discussed - can only really be implemented if we take the measure of the obstacles it encounters. In particular, dialogue comes up against a problem that is difficult to overcome, the ideal of purity: activists who oppose a technical development, or scientists entrenched in their ivory towers, do not want to dialogue, some considering it to be a masquerade of democracy, others that science is a matter for experts who do not have to interfere with public opinion.

This compartmentalized vision doesn't make sense. On the contrary, let us accept the impurity, the mixture, the composite structuring of the dialogue, the discussion with contrary arguments. This is the only way to recreate a little trust and mutual respect, to get out of the era of suspicion. Innovation will only be responsible if we accept the play of conflicting values and impurity.

vivagoraBernadette Bensaude Vincent, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, President of VivAgora

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