Team:KU Leuven/Human Practices/Ethics



Secret garden

Congratulations! You've found our secret garden! Follow the instructions below and win a great prize at the World jamboree!

  • A video shows that two of our team members are having great fun at our favourite company. Do you know the name of the second member that appears in the video?
  • For one of our models we had to do very extensive computations. To prevent our own computers from overheating and to keep the temperature in our iGEM room at a normal level, we used a supercomputer. Which centre maintains this supercomputer? (Dutch abbreviation)
  • We organised a symposium with a debate, some seminars and 2 iGEM project presentations. An iGEM team came all the way from the Netherlands to present their project. What is the name of their city?

Now put all of these in this URL:, (loose the brackets and put everything in lowercase) and follow the very last instruction to get your special jamboree prize!

tree ladybugcartoon

The Blog

You are here!


Psychoanalysis & synthetic biology


Ethics from our point of view

The blog is part of the new developed approach which is bottom-up structured. It has been written to give scientists a clearer view on ethics.

As scientists it is not easy to think about our work in an ethical way, likewise, philosophers may find problems when confronted with the exact sciences. That is why we decided to collaborate with members of the KU Leuven Higher Institute of Philosophy . This way they could guide us in making ethical decisions and we could guide them in learning what comprises synthetic biology. To give regular scientists a better understanding of ethics in science, Michael, iGEM KU Leuven team member and Sam, advisor, wrote a blog. In this blog they explored and explained the ethics of science together with the KU Leuven iGEM team. Read their latest blog entry here.

1: Music taste and the ethics of synthetic biology

In this first blog we decided to reflect on the question how one ethically evaluates a scientific project as such. How can we, as philosophy students, provide a judgment on a scientific project, whose workings and consequences, to a large degree, escape our understanding?
What is the role of ethics in scientific innovation anyway? From the outside, it seems that much (if not all) scientific progress is not really guided by ethical evaluations at all. Neither did ethics stop the development of the atomic bomb, nor did it hamper the development of the software that enables the U.S. Government (and others) to spy on their citizens. Closer to home, recent protests against a research program in which the KU Leuven cooperates with Israël Aerospace Industries (a company that makes drones that were responsible for the bombing of Gaza), was not able to create much turmoil. It seems that religious or ethical objections (whether justified or not) may function as a break on the ever progressing science, but stopping it or changing its direction fundamentally seems impossible. In order to gain an understanding of the relation between our role as ethicist and scientific research, we will dwell a bit on what ethics actually is. Ethics, as most people know, has to do with good and bad. An ethical judgment is a normative judgment, i.e., it is an evaluation of some person, action or process. Whereas one can easily provide a judgment on something that one is familiar with, it is harder to do so in relation to something that one has not yet previously encountered (such as synthetic biology).
Quotation 1
Something, compared to synthetic biology, that we are more familiar with, and know how to evaluate, is music. At first sight this might look a little far fetched, but remember that both ethics and aesthetics are about value judgments, the former about good and bad, the latter about beauty and ugliness. When we listen to music, we know whether we like it or not. Sometimes we can immediately say "this song is beautiful" and other times it might take some time to develop one's taste and to be able to appreciate a new song.
The way we judge music is by our taste. Michael might think that the piano piece "Gute Nacht" by Shubert is beautiful while, at the same time, Sam absolutely hates this song and prefers “Alors On Dance” by Stromae. Even after long nights of discussing and studying the piece, we might not reach an agreement; our tastes simply differ. The fact that Michael likes this piece and Sam dislikes it, does not seem to say anything about the music itself. When Sam says that he dislikes the piece, he is not talking about an objective quality of the piece, but about his relation to it. It seems that referring to taste/feeling is not going to help us evaluate of the iGEM project of the KU Leuven, if we want to reach beyond our personal relation to the project. We can stop here and say that one cannot evaluate a scientific process, or one can search for certain feelings or values that are shared among people and one the basis of which one is able to reach an agreement that goes beyond our subjective feelings. What we will try to do is look at philosophers who propose some values that, according to them, go beyond a merely subjective evaluation and see how they apply to the scientific project of KU Leuven iGEM team.
Quotation 2
The normative evaluation tends to judge the outcomes of a scientific process (Is the product potentially harmfull, or is it able to cure a great number of people?). Next to this normative evaluation, we will try to gain a deeper insight into the role ethical evaluations of the teammembers themselves. What do they think are important values? How do their values relate to the work they are doing in the lab? Instead of judging what they are doing, we would like to bring forward how ethical evaluations themselves play a role in a scientific process. More about this, next time.

Prism program

"[Ethics] didn't hamper the development of the software that enables the U.S. Government (and others) to spy on their citizens."

Stromae vs Schubert

Do you prefer to relax with Schubert's "Gute nacht" or dance to Stromae's "Alors en dance"? This question might have more to do with ethics than you might think.

Science in action

In "Science in Action", Bruno Latour focusses on science in the making. Our ethics team will do something similar and look at the wetlab team while they build their biobricks.

2: Finished Science or Science in Action

As philosophers, that is, outsiders concerning the scientific work of synthetic biologists, we are privileged to be a part of the iGEM team so we gain an understanding in how the scientific process functions. Normally outsiders (non-scientists) only perceive the finished products or some controversy that manages to reach popular media. This time, we are given a chance to see how decisions are taken and trajectories are chosen before the controversy stirs up, or before the final goal is achieved.
What makes this perspective interesting is that it shifts the focus from facts of science to human decisions. Like Bruno Latour, in his book "Science in Action," we will be taking a look through the back door of "science in the making," instead of the looking at the facts of "ready made science." Latour explains how science is a process of opening and closing black boxes. A black box is a fact of ready made science. For example the helix structure of DNA as we know it today is such a black box. This does not mean that we do not know what is in it, but that we do not have to contest the idea of the helix structure of DNA every time we work with it. However, if we wish to contest someone who is saying that DNA has in fact a different structure, we will have open the black box and proof that in fact the helix structure is right. What do you get when you open a black box? According to Latour, you can have more black boxes, or facts, that were previously established through scientific experiments.
Quotation 2.1
Latour is claiming that to truly understand science one should look at how science constructs these black boxes. That is, how does science establish facts? How are the experiments set up? What is the role of different laboratories? What role do the production of papers play? What is the role of the scientist in the decision taking processes? Etc. Latour does not specifically focus on the role of ethical evaluations in "science in the making." With this we mean, how the attitudes of scientists concerning ethical or moral issues play a part in the scientific process. For example, what are the ethical evaluations of scientists investigating current alternatives for our oil consumption? Or why is the KU Leuven iGEM-team focusing on a bacteria that attracts ladybugs in order to protect plants?
We do not want to state beforehand that ethical considerations play a major role. We don't know. Maybe they only play a very minor role, or none at all. By investigating the role of ethics in science we want to break with the image of the scientists stubbornly working to advance SCIENCE and to look at the human beings that are contributing to the field of science with their own personal motivations, attitudes and beliefs.

3: Some thoughts on the locations of the faculties

When Michael and I attend a meeting of the iGEM group we have to cycle from the centre of Leuven, where both of us live, to the outskirts of the city where the campus with the faculties of the natural sciences is located. Apart from the nice bike ride the location of the faculties of the natural sciences made us think about what the position of the faculties say about the relation of the discipline to society.
Normally, we never have to use our bikes in Leuven. Both of us live 5 minutes away from the faculty of philosophy which is in the middle of town. In fact it is called the Higher Institute of Philosophy, whose fancy name puts it apart from the other faculties around here. The buildings of the institute are located behind an old fancy iron gate which reads the name of the institute in both Dutch and French. Next to the fence, one finds the oldest building of the faculty, which with its wooden front gives truly the impression of a historical building.
The building in which we have our iGEM-meetings has neither iron gates nor wooden buildings. It consists of buildings made out of concrete spaciously spread out with pastures of grass in between them. No effort has been made to cramp it into a small area. Moreover, there is nothing that gives you the impression of a history or a scientific tradition or any relation to Belgium. In fact, these buildings could be anywhere in the world. The structure of the concrete does not tell you anything.
Moreover, whereas the buildings at the Higher Institute for Philosophy are named after people who contributed to the faculty, the buildings on the campus of the natural sciences are simply numbered. A statute of cardinal Mercies (the founder of the institute) is placed in the garden of the Higher Institute for Philosophy. The Husserl archives at the Higher Institute is the best example. In 1939, the whole oeuvre of Edmund Husserl, was smuggled to Belgium, because its survival was not guaranteed in upcoming Nazi Germany. The legacy of these manuscripts (which consists of around 40,000 pages) do determine the orientation of the Higher Institute itself for the greater part.
On the campus of the natural sciences, we have not yet been able to find a statute. We did find the famous scientists on the posters in the hallway, who are of fundamental importance for the science in general, but not the science in Leuven.
What is the point of this all? Well, studying philosophy, one is made aware of the rich tradition reaching back to the Greeks and what they have written centuries ago is still relevant nowadays. Next to the rich tradition, also the relation to society is important. After all, much of philosophy analyzes society and its functioning. Is it a coincidence that architecture of the faculty of philosophy makes one aware that one is a part of rich tradition, and that the location of it is in the middle of the city? And why are the natural sciences outside the city center? Not limited by social processes but surrounded by wide fields of nature.

HIW faculty

The fairylike environment of the Higher Institute of Philosophy in the city center.

Natural sciences

Rigid structures at the campus of the faculty of natural sciences outside of the city.

ancient vs modern farming

Ellul considers the modern technology to be fundamentally different from traditional technology. In ancient times, it was possible to keep away from the technology. Nowadays technology is universal. There is only one technological pathway and differences in the world are caused by the differences in development.

4: The view on technology by Jacques Ellul

Ethics is dull and woolly. In relation to technology it merely functions as a break on further developments and innovations. In fact, technology is autonomous and whether ethicists like it or not, it cannot be steered by ethical evaluations. The view on ethics and technology in the sentences above, implies an active role of ethics in science, as restrictive and breaking. The French sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul takes another view on how technology works in our modern society. He distinguishes two realities, the individual and the collective reality. He holds that all individual decisions (the individual reality) are made within the framework of the collective reality. This collective reality is partly determined by the technology that shapes our society.
quotation 4.1
Nonetheless, this does not mean that every individual is completely determined by technological processes. Technology itself brings a kind of freedom. For example, planes give you the possibility to travel to Boston in order to partake in the iGEM competition. However, according to Ellul this is not the only kind of freedom. He also points to on another freedom, namely freedom that begins when you become conscious of the constitutive force of technology which influences your personal reality. Ellul considers the modern technology to be fundamentally different from traditional technology. Traditionally, it was possible to keep aloof from the technology. Ellul shows this point with examples of the Roman empire, in which a farmer was independent from the innovations in technology and could keep farming the way his father and grandfather had done it before him. Also, it was not self-evident that man came in contact with the materialistic part of technology. The modern technology is universal. Technology and its consequences are applied all over the world. There is only one technological pathway and differences in the world are caused by the differences in development, according to Ellul. Ellul acknowledges the power of technology, and contrary to other thinkers, he does not think that technology only has a neutral status. Technological innovations do not occur in a vacuum and are related to social, political and economical structures. In fact, Ellul holds that technological products and innovations produce culture and morality. For example, new coffee machines create the new standard flavor of coffee and hence influences our taste. On a more fundamental level, technology makes it possible to produce a highly specialized workforce which creates a different distribution of responsibility, or in some cases makes responsibility entirely invisible. For example, when I am working in a research facility in the Netherlands doing research into certain chemical substances, my research might be used to produce chemical weapons. Interestingly enough, technological processes and innovations always escape responsibility. After all, if something goes wrong (for example with a Nuclear power plant) it is always people that are responsible. People are the weakest links and technology itself is sacred.

What is the connection between Ellul's analysis of technology and students working on creating bacteria? The aim of Ellul is not to account for the intentions of an ordinary student partaking in a competition within the field of synthetic biology. Instead, he attempts to show that one has to understand oneself as an actor who is determined by a world that is shaped by technological processes. Hence, the technological processes and innovations have implications and effects that transcend the effects of one individual or one iGEM team. Hence, in order to assess what one is doing in the lab also involves examining the constitutive features of reality that make scientific progress in itself a desirable thing.