Ethics and Public Policy within a Digital Environment


Rafael Capurro (Germany)


The paper deals with the question of the relation between ethics and public policy in general as well as with the role of ethic bodies in democratic systems within a digital environment in particular. In the last years different kinds of ethic bodies have been created within the political system in order to give ethic advice particularly in the fields of biotechnology and information technology. The ethic discourse is thus not restricted to universities or research institutions remaining a theoretical one and more or less disconnected with the field of action but becomes part of the political, legal, and of a large social debate. What are the functions of such bodies? What is their relation to the Executive, the Parliament, the Legislative as well as to the mass-mediated public opinion itself? And how is it in its process as well as in its results integrated within a digital environment?

Some of these questions have a long tradition in Western philosophy. Aristotle situated ethics (techne ethike) within practical philosophy. His conception of the distinction and relation between ethics and politics or between man as rational being (zoon logon echon) and as an individual belonging to the city (zoon politikon) is opposed to Plato’s identity between both fields. Modernity created a disjunction between individual and civil society or between morality and politics. Mass media as well as the Internet brought new forms of mediation.

Ethic committees as political bodies may be considered as situated within the political system providing a reflection on the relation between the scientific, technical, economic, moral and legal foundations of political options. They have a deliberative character that is related but not identical to the parliamentary debate as well as to the creation and diffusion of opinions through mass media. Politically institutionalised ethic discourse provide a reflection on the foundation and application of moral standards as related to economic, scientific, technical, and political rationality. They neither predetermine or even substitute political decision making nor intend to just sanction a given morality. They are an instrument for policy counsel and public awareness. This does not mean that they owe per se a kind of specific moral authority although at least some of their members should be qualified by their ethical expertise. Their political legitimation is to be seen within the context of complex modern societies within a digital environment.

Modern science and technology challenges more and more basic philosophic assumptions and provokes 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 presuppositions. The rise of ethics within the political arena may be interpreted as a symptom of a moral crisis within modern societies.

The paper deals particularly with the role and activity of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) of the European Commission ( as an example of how ethic discourse is established within public policy. It will address EGE present and future activities as a body providing different services within a digital environment.