Rafael Capurro

This is a slightly modified version of a paper published in: I. Alvarez, T. W. Bynum, J.A. de Assis Lopes, S. Rogerson (Eds.): Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference: The Transformation of Organisations in the Information Age: Social and Ethical Implications, ETHICOMP 2002, Lissabon 13-15 November 2002. Lisboa: Universidade Lusíada 2002, 319-327.
It was also published in: The European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) to the European Commission (Ed.): General Report 2000-2005. European Communities 2005, 19-25. An updated version with the title "Ethics and public policy in Europe" was published in: Stefano Rodotà and Paolo Zatti (Eds.): Tratatto di Biodiritto, Vol. 1: Stefano Rodotà and Mariachiara Tallacchini (Eds.): Ambito e fonti del biodiritto. Milano: Giuffrè Ed. 2010, 849-860.



1 Ethics and Public Policy in the Western Tradition 
2 Ethics and Public Policy Within a Digital Networked Environment 
3 The European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) 



The paper deals with the relation between ethics and public policy in general as well as with the role of public ethics committees in particular. What are the functions of ethics committees? What is their relation to political and legal institutions? And how is the relation of such institutionalised ethics with regard to mass-media as well as to the public opinion? These questions have roots in Western philosophy. The paper addresses some key insights of Aristotle's conception of practical philosophy in addition to Hobbes and Kant with respect to some main lines of thought behind modern democracy. Revolutionary discoveries and inventions particularly in the field of biotechnology have lead not only to an academic reflection on the moral foundations of society but also to the creation of public ethics committees at the national and international level. These committees act and interact within a digital networked environment including traditional mass-media as well as the Internet. The role and activities of the "European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies" (EGE) of the European Commission are described.


The question about the relation between ethics and public policy has a long tradition in Western philosophy. In the first part of this paper I will briefly refer to the classic (Aristotle) as well as the modern traditions (Hobbes, Kant). In the second part I address the issue of the role of public ethics committees. The establishment of ethics committees as part of the political system in conjunction with the possibilities offered by mass-media and the Internet allows ethics to be in between the political sphere and the civil society.  

Today's digital networked environment – including individual media, mass media and the Internet – changes the production, distribution, and use of ethical discourse not only with regard to ancient oral societies but also with regard to Modernity as based on printing technology. Political ethics conceived as a discourse in between public policy and society opens the possibility not only to reflect publicly on the foundations of morality including its legal fixation, but also to give politicians a space of reflection beyond the constraints of political parties. Finally I will present as an example the organisation and activities of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE), a consulting body of the European Commission. 

1 Ethics and Public Policy in the Western Tradition 

Aristotle situated ethics within practical philosophy as related to politics opposing it to Plato's identity between both fields [Bien 1983]. In the first book of the "Politics" he deals with economics, i.e., with questions concerning the administration of the house (oikos) and the family and he denies the Platonic conception of speaking synonymously about community (koinonia) with regard to the city as well as to the family. Later on it became a scholarly approach to conceive practical philosophy as consisting of three sub-disciplines, namely ethics, economics and politics, although Aristotle himself is not primarily concerned with the creation of such a triadic system. He distinguishes the private from the public sphere in contrast to the Platonic view that in a good organised city everything should be common to everybody. The unity of the city is, in other words, not of the same kind as the unity of the house or the unity of a single person [Pol. II, 2, 1261 a 18-22]. This pertains, mutatis mutandis, also the question of happiness. According to Aristotle it is not possible to conceive the happiness of the state as a whole without considering at the same time that everybody or the majority or, at least, some people may become happy [Pol. II, 2, 1264 b 15-19]. Plato's polis is a big family based on love and friendship while Aristotle treats friendship as an ethical virtue in the "Nichomachean Ethics," i.e., he distinguishes the spheres of the individual and the polis without separating them completely. The medium that allows the passage between the spheres is language (logos).  

In the first book of the "Politics" Aristotle states that human beings are the only living beings "bearing language" (logon echei) which means that we can communicate with or "disclose" (deloun) to each other not only what is useful or damaging but also what is just or unjust. He concludes saying that "the commonality (koinonia) in these affairs creates the house and the state" [Pol. I, 2, 1253 a 18]. Only gods or wild animals can live alone [Pol. I, 2, 1253 a 9-30]. We can become good citizens and good persons through critical thinking (phronesis) and virtue (arete) within the legal framework of the state. But the virtues of civic life are not the same as the virtues of good life. Everybody should strive to become a good citizen (polites spoudaios) but this does not necessarily imply that one would become a good person (aner agathos) and vice versa, becoming a good person is not identical with becoming a good citizen within a given state constitution [Pol. III, 4, 1276 b 16 - 1277 a 5].

In some states the virtues necessary to become a good person are the same as the ones to become a good citizens, but in other states they are not. And even in an ideal state the virtues of a person and the ones of a citizen coincide only in the case of the state leader or the community of state leaders "taking care of the common affairs" (tes ton koinon epimeleias) [Pol. III, 5, 1278 b 1-3]. The polis is indeed not only based on law but also on the ethical virtue of friendship (philia) "which has to do with the same kind of things and persons as the law" [NE VIII, 11, 1159 b 26-27] but friendship is of different kind within various political systems and social relations. Political friendship does not presuppose that everything should be common to everybody, and for this reason Aristotle criticises Plato's state [Pol. II, 5]. In other words, the polis is conceived as a legal as well as a moral community (koinonia) of free and equal citizens which means, for instance, the exclusion of slaves [Pol. III, 9, 1280 a 31]. Its final aim is not just living but good living (eu zen) [Pol. III, 9, 1280 b 33]. 

The Aristotelian conception of the relation between ethics and public policy stresses the idea that the passage between moral and the political sphere is done through language as the constitutive medium of the polis. We are naturally a political being (anthropos physei politikon zoon), i.e., we create a moral and legal state on the basis of language in contrast to other living beings [Pol. I, 2, 1253 a  1-10]. Aristotle points in this context to oral speech (phone). The polis is indeed primarily an oral and moral society based on written laws. What is written is only the general (katholou). Then, according to Aristotle, it is impossible to determine every specific action (praxis) in detail (akribos). The political order (politike taxis) concerns the general and the particular (kath' hekaston). Through oral and written deliberation as discussed by Aristotle in his "Rhetoric", we may "cautiously" (eulabeia) change written laws in order not to suggest that they should not be taken seriously but to indicate that in fact it takes a lot of time until they become customary [Pol. II, 1269 a 22 ff]. Written laws are based on political morality or ethos and could be changed through ethical deliberation. 

The relation between the citizen and the person changes dramatically with the arrival of Modernity. Hobbes' "Leviathan" is a rational and artificial institution in contrast to the ancient polis which has a natural and moral form of living. He writes:

"NATURE (the Art whereby God hath made and governes the World) is by the Art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that i can make an Artificial Animal (...) For by Art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMON-WEALTH, or STATE, (in latine CIVITAS) which is but an Artificiall Man" [Hobbes 1985, 81]. The political body is defined as "the Unity of the Representer, not the Unity of the Represented" [Hobbes 1985, 220]. The "finall Cause, End, or Designe of men, who naturally love Liberty, and Dominion over others)" is not "good life" but the institution by "covenant" of a "Common-Wealth" through which the original "condition of Warre" may be overcome [Hobbes 1985,  223].

Hobbes postulates a fundamental difference between the individuals under the "Lawes of Nature" and  their life under the commands of the Leviathan. The moral substance of the polis is usurped by the Sovereign who represents by his own unity the "Multitude". Ethos and, correspondingly, ethical deliberation disappear. As Rüdiger Bubner remarks, the modern contractual theory becomes dominant in modern Western political thought up to the present [Rawls 1971, Habermas 1998], with one major exception, namely Hegel [Bubner 2002, 167].  

Furthermore Kant's conception of morality ("Moralität") as opposed to legality ("Legalität") differs basically from the Aristotelian conception of ethos and its intimate relation with the written laws of the polis and (oral) ethical deliberation. For Kant there is a fundamental difference between the law in its relation with an external action (legality), and with the internal motivations of such actions (morality) [Kant 1977, 15]. But this dichotomy should not be seen as an absolute disconnection between the objective sphere of the citizen and the subjective sphere of the person or between political action and theoretical thinking. Kant conceives the task of enlightenment as the possibility of using our own reason in order to criticise a given state of affairs in scientific, religious, moral, and political fields. At the core of his political philosophy, as developed for instance in his famous "Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?" [Kant 1964], he points to the possibility of influencing the "moral condition of the people" ("Sinnesart des Volks") as well as the "principles of  government" ("die Grundsätze der Regierung") through "free thinking" ("freies Denken"). In order to achieve this, he is less concerned with the enlargement of "civil liberty" ("bürgerlicher Freiheit") than with having no censorship in the field of the diffusion of scientific ideas on the basis of written or, more precisely, of printed works ("Schriften"). This kind of liberty is called "liberty of mind of the people" ("Freiheit des Geistes des Volks") [Kant 1964, A 61]. In another essay Kant stresses the social nature of knowledge in contrast to a solipsistic and idealistic conception. He states that we can only think if we can communicate ("mitteilen") our thoughts to others and vice versa  [Kant 1958, A 325]. In other words, the mediation between ethics and public policy is conceived as mainly a theoretical task to be achieved on the basis of censorship-free and printed diffusion of critical scientific thinking.  

Hegel criticises Kant's dichotomy between legality and morality. He conceives the traditional concept of ethos as the moral substance of the state ("Sittlichkeit") in the sense of a process of liberty mediated not just through censorship-free distribution of critical knowledge but through the historical shaping of political institutions [Hegel 1976]. According to Marx and Engels the working class is the real historical mediation of ethical ideas and moral ideals [Marx/Engels 1970]. 

Present societies, at least in Western democracies, are basically influenced by contractual, moral and historical paradigms. Moral traditions build the basis of the "pacts and covenants" of democratic constitutions. This is particularly obvious, for instance, with regard to such concepts as human dignity or pursuit of happiness. Both, moral traditions and legal systems are subject to historical changes. But modern democracies, including supranational political structures, are, of course, neither the "Leviathan" nor the ancient polis 

From the beginning of Modernity ethical reflection takes place within academic institutions as well as within political bodies, mainly the parliament. These two places correspond to the modern distinction between theory and practice. Mass-media, particularly the press, play a key role in the mediation between public policy and the civil society. Freedom of the press is a conditio sine qua non of modern democracies which become increasingly influenced by broadcasting media (radio and TV). Democracy is more and more a matter of mediocracy.   

2 Ethics and Public Policy Within a Digital Networked Environment 

In late 20th Century the Internet emerges as a decentralised digital and global medium. Users, individuals and groups, can become not only receivers of a hierarchical one-to-many sender structure as in the case of mass-media but can be at the same time senders and receivers with several options: one-to-many, many-to-one, many-to-many, some-to-many, one-to-one etc. This digital networked environment  creates new opportunities for ethical, legal, and political discourse as well as for individual and social political action. Beyond the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of the press the question of freedom of access becomes a key ethical issue of the so-called information society in the 21st Century [Capurro 2000]. 

Modern society is also influenced by revolutionary and accelerated changes in science and technology that challenge in different ways some basic implicit and explicit moral assumptions and legal norms. This is one main reason why there is a growing need for ethical reflection on morality and law particularly in the field of biotechnology. In the last ten years or so public ethics committees have been created within the political system in order to give advice to the parliament as well as to the executive branches particularly in the fields of biotechnology and information technology. Ethics is no longer restricted to academic institutions  but becomes part of the political, legal, and  the social debate as carried out until now mainly through mass-media and in the academic sphere. Instead of ethics and public policy we find ethics in public policy. In modern democracies ethics is carried out in such contexts as: 

  • the parliament
  • academic institutions
  • the mass-media 
  • the Internet
  • public ethics committees
Ethics committees are set up not only in the political sphere but also in civil society. In particular biotechnology firms have often their own consulting groups. What are the functions of such committees? What is their relation to political and legal institutions as well as to the public sphere? And how does this discourse take place within a digital environment? These are complex questions that should be carefully studied not only with regard to the differences between the contexts but also with regard to their mutual interactions. In the following I will only consider the role of ethics bodies within public policy. 

As modern science and technology often challenge basic moral assumptions they provoke directly or indirectly a crisis or at least a basic insecurity with regard to moral standards that are either sanctioned by law or remain tacit presuppositions. In secularised societies these conflicts find no longer a solution based on religious authority, although religion plays an important role in the shaping of morality. The rise of ethics as a public discourse may be thus interpreted as a symptom of the moral crisis arising in complex modern societies that can neither be solved by an implicit or explicit moral tradition nor by a state policy alone. Of course, a common ethos is not based just on rational discourse. What is new in the present situation is that ethics is considered to belong to the public debate at an institutional political level. 

Public ethics committees are a place in which critical reflection on moral presuppositions of legal and political options can take place. Their object (objectum materiale) of deliberation are such options and their moral presuppositions arising particularly but not exclusively out of new discoveries and inventions in the fields of biology and biotechnology. Their perspective (objectum formale) is a scientific not a political one. Public ethics committees have a deliberative character, i.e., they do not intend to just sanction a given morality and should not be used as political instruments for moral control of society. They are supposed to provide a sound and independent argumentation and to facilitate judgement that should help politicians and society to get a more transparent view of the intricacies of scientific, technical, and legal issues as seen from an ethical viewpoint. This kind of ethics council should not predetermine or even substitute the political decision-making that should be carried out in the parliament. Public ethics committees also do not substitute the social debate that takes place, for instance, in civic face-to-face meetings or in the mass-media [Düwell 2002]. They are, in other words, instruments for public awareness. They do not owe per se a specific moral authority. Their members should be qualified by their ethical and not only by their scientific or legal expertise. Being in between society and public policy within a digital networked environment, public ethics committees should use not only the digital tools offered by the information society for their own work but they should be also present in the mass-media arena including the Internet.

In June 3, 2002 the German Federal Foreign Office and the French Ministry  of Foreign Affairs in conjuction with the National Ethics Council of the Federal Republic of Germany and the National Consultative Ethics Committee for Health and Life Sciences of the French Republic organised a conference: "Towards a global bioethic? An intercultural policy dialogue"   and invited 70 persons involved in bioethics from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia and Europe to discuss whether there is a minimum consensus on a global bioethics acceptable to all. The final statement of the conference, accessible at the web site of the German Federal Foreign Office, is a good example of the role of national ethics committees in the international political discussion. It states, for instance, that "there is a growing consensus that bioethical and related biopolicy issues need to be reflected in an international context taking into account the philosophical, cultural and religious values of different societies." The participants stressed the "necessity for education and capacity building in the field of bioethics to develop the ability of the national communities and stake holders to take informed positions and to establish procedures for ethics review committees and informed consent." [Auswärtiges Amt 2002]

3 The European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) 

The activities of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies [EGE 2002] are a good example of how a public ethics committee is deployed in between society and public policy. In December 1997 the European Commission set up the European Group on Ethics (EGE) to succeed the Group of Advisers on the Ethical Implications of Biotechnology (GAEIB 1991-1997). During its first mandate (1998-2000) the EGE provided opinions on subjects as diverse as human tissue banking, human embryo research, personal health data in the information society, doping in sport and human stem cell research. At a specific request of the President of the Commission, Romano Prodi, the Group also wrote the "Report on the Charter on Fundamental Rights" related to technological innovation. On 24 April 2001 the Commission has appointed twelve members for the period 2001-2004 and amended the EGE remit in order to strengthen the role of the Group. 

EGE is an independent, pluralist and multidisciplinary body which advises the European Commission on ethical aspects of science and new technologies in connection with the preparation and implementation of Community legislation or policies. The Group may prepare an "Opinion" either at the request of the Commission or on its own initiative. The Parliament and the Council may draw the Commission's attention to questions which they consider of major ethical importance. The members are appointed for their expertise and personal qualities. They come from different countries and are experts in disciplines such as biology and genetics, medicine, informatics, law, philosophy or theology.  

The Group’s regular working meetings are not open to the public. For the purposes of preparing its "Opinions" and within the limits of the available resources for this action, the Group may invite experts either from a Member State of the Union or from outside to take part in its proceedings on a given topic on the agenda, initiate studies in order to collect all necessary scientific and technical information, set up working groups to consider specific issues, and organise public round tables in order to promote dialogue and improve transparency. In future the Group will establish closer links with representatives of the various ethics bodies which exist in the European Union and in the applicant countries. 

The preparatory work for the creation of such "Opinions" includes monthly face-to-face meetings as well as exchanges particularly on e-mail basis. The Group works closely with the EGE Secretariat using all instruments of the digital age. Every opinion is published immediately after its adoption. Where an "Opinion" is not adopted unanimously, it includes any dissenting point of view. The "Opinions" are made known at a press conference and distributed to the Member States. They are also accessible at the EGE web site. The Group was presented by arte in the series "Forum des européens: Embryons pour guérir" in January 21, 2002. 


Modern science and technology challenge basic philosophic assumptions and provoke thus directly or indirectly a crisis or at least a basic insecurity with regard to moral standards that were either sanctioned by law or remained tacit moral presuppositions. The rise of ethics within the political arena may be interpreted as a symptom of a moral crisis within modern societies. The role of public ethics committees should be one of strengthening the capacity of reflection being traditionally done in such places as the parliament, the academic sphere and the mass-media.  

It would be a moralistic fallacy to conceive this activity as a kind of control of ethics on politics or even on society [Vollrath 1996]. Ethics, public policy and society should be regarded as relatively independent and interactive spheres. Otherwise ethics committees may become less a challenge than a danger for responsible autonomous political decision-making. Ambitious ethical universality may also forget the difficult historical process of creating a common ethos where differences are not just tolerated but respected as an essential characteristic of humanity. 


Thanks to Thomas J. Froehlich (Kent State University, USA) and Martha Smith (Drexel University, USA) for questions and corrections.  


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n. 1: The ethical implications of the use of performance-enhancers in agriculture and fisheries (12/03/1993) 
n. 2: Products derived from human blood or human plasma (12/03/1993) 
n. 3: Opinion on ethical questions arising from the Commission proposal for a Council directive for legal protection of biotechnological inventions (30/09/1993) 
n. 4: The ethical implications of gene therapy (13/12/1994) 
n. 5: Ethical aspects of the labelling of the food derived from modern biotechnology (05/05/1995) 
n. 6: Ethical aspects of prenatal diagnosis (20/02/1996) 
n. 7: Ethical aspects of genetic modification of animals (21/05/1996) 
n. 8: Ethical aspects of patenting inventions involving elements of human origin (25/09/1996) 
n. 9: Ethical aspects of cloning techniques (28/05/1997) 
n. 10: Ethical aspects of the 5th Research Framework Programme (11/12/1997) 
n. 11: Ethical aspects of human tissue banking (21/07/1998) 
n. 12: Ethical aspects of research involving the use of human embryo in the context of the 5th framework programme (23/11/1998) 
n. 13: Ethical issues of healthcare in the information society (30/07/1999) 
n. 14: Ethical aspects arising from doping in sport (14/11/1999) 
n. 15: Ethical aspects of human stem cell research and use (14/11/2000) 
n. 16: Ethical aspects of  patenting inventions involving human stem cells (7/5/2002) 

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Vollrath, E. (1996), Der reflexionsmoralische Fehlschluß. In:  Kurt Bayertz Ed.: Politik und Ethik. Reclam. 


Last update: June 22, 2017
Copyright © 2002 by Rafael Capurro, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. and international copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author. 
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