Team:KU Leuven/Human Practices/HannahArendt



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

Hannah Arendt

You are here!


The borders of synthetic biology

The End User

Our idea is being supported!


Ensuring the future of science


Lectures for the general public


We were in the news!

The critical reading of Hannah Arendt is part of our new developed approach, which is bottom-up structured.
The aim is to explain why iGEM (and as a consequence our team) would like to make contact with the general public. In this contribution we will investigate how the public may judge developments in synthetic biology based on a reading of the philosopher Hannah Arendt and her interpretation of the notion of judgment as it is found within Immanuel Kant's philosophy.

The iGEM-team from Heidelberg in 2008, concluded that "[o]nly a well-informed public is able to develop a non-prejudiced and profound opinion about synthetic biology” (iGEM team Heidelberg, 2008). They argued that it was necessary to inform the public about the uses, potentials and practices of synthetic biology and therewith enable the public to have an informed opinion on the developments in synthetic biology. The students from Heidelberg are not the only ones that feel the need to close to gap between the public and the scientist concerning developments related to genetic manipulation and the synthetization of DNA. In much of the recent literature it is argued that in order to bypass the hostility of the general public towards new developments in genetic engineering, a new approach has to be found which brings the scientist and the citizen closer together (Schmidt et al, 2008) (Sture & Whitby, 2012). This paper will investigate how the public may judge developments in synthetic biology based on a reading of the philosopher Hannah Arendt and her interpretation of the notion of judgment as it is found within Immanuel Kant's philosophy. It appears that Arendt's understanding of judgment is close to the goals of iGEM and that of particular teams aiming to popularize science and make the scientific process more transparent. However, her focus on the need for a common sense of the public as a prerequisite for judgment points to possibly significant problems when spreading knowledge on synthetic biology.


It is commonly agreed that recent developments within synthetic biology are in need of ethical consideration because the potential of this new science is huge and the accessibility of this novel technique is not yet fully regulated and can easily spread. Most reviews on ethical issues in synthetic biology concern themselves with the biosafety and biosecurity, and if you are lucky it also discusses justice related aspects of synthetic biology. Biosafety deals with threats to humans and the ecosystem that might occur in the case of accidents, whereas the biosecurity aspect deals with the danger when an individual, group or government with bad intentions lay their hands on this new technology in order cause harm. Next to the fact an ethical evaluation based on these two aspects seems to be a quite narrow interpretation, namely a risk-analysis, of what an ethical evaluation ought to be, it most often does not discuss, or dismisses, the concerns that the synthesization of a genome has on the public that feels weary about the possibility of creating new life forms.

At the same time, most reviewers are aware of the clash between the scientist and the public, manifested by the dismissal of novel technologies by the public, for example, the abundance of protests in Europe against genetically modified crops. Hence, some claim that a new form of communication needs to be sought to inform the public about new scientific technologies that may clash with the opinions and beliefs of the public. One phrase that is often mentioned in the literature is that the public thinks that the scientist is “playing for God” by creating new life forms (Caplan, 2009)(Kaebnick, 2009)(Douglas & Savalescu, 2010). Yet, even though some people might indeed be of this opinion, this phrase runs the risk of making all criticism against the creation of new life forms appear as religious or dogmatic. It seems that in relatively secular societies the religious argument does not have a strong base, especially not when it is voiced in the public realm. Moreover, making every argument against the creation of new life forms appear as dogmatic or religious runs the risk of disqualifying the public before one has properly considered the arguments that are at stake.


In order to investigate the relation between scientific innovations-or may one say revolutions?-and the judgment of the public it seems imperative to investigate the actual process of opinion-formation. Next to that, it is important to investigate how this relates to the transparency of the scientific process and supplying the public with more information as was proposed by the Heidelberg iGEM-team mentioned in the introduction. Hannah Arendt in her lectures on the political philosophy of Immanuel Kant develops an understanding of what it means to judge something, and how this is intrinsically linked to issues as publicity and popularization. In these lectures Arendt stresses the need for publicity and popularization in order to enable the public to judge something properly. Moreover, Arendt's lectures stresses the importance of separating ethics, understood in a Kantian sense, and judgment. For Kant, there cannot be such a thing as a moral opinion, that is, something is good, or it is bad, there is no matter of taste. The attractiveness of Arendt's effort of investigating the Kantian judgment lies for iGEM in the fact that it moves beyond an ethics which in our times would be called dogmatic and turns to a way of judging that is related to taste and is grounded in a political community. Hence, even though Arendt did not link her analysis of judgment to scientific processes, it seems to be a good model to evaluate how judgments and opinions evolve, how they relate to publicity and the popularization of science, without making ethics into a matter of deontological and theological arguments.

Publicity and Popularization and a Condition for Judgment

Kant is an enlightenment thinker. His works are imbued with the awareness that people should break free from the dogma's that inhibit their autonomous thinking and that they should become autonomous agents. His most famous work, the Critique of Pure Reason, is a plea to break with the metaphysical tradition of his time. However, Kant is not only concerned with breaking with the tradition and authority of his time that dictated philosophical thought, in the Critique of Pure Reason he breaks with the previous traditions by looking at the conditions and limits of reason itself (what can I know?). Hannah Arendt argues that Kant himself did not “see the clearly destructive side of his enterprise”, which consisted of breaking with previous metaphysical thought (Arendt, 34). Instead he argued, as Arendt quotes, that the “loss affects only the monopoly of the Schools, but by no means the interest of men,” because the distinctions and concepts introduced by these different Schools never “succeeded in reaching the public mind [das Publikum] or in exercising the slightest influence on its convictions” (Arendt, 25).


Hence, we find in Kant the attempt to break away from previous dogmatic philosophical doctrines and to reassess their claims to arrive at a position where one can start anew by relying on one's own faculties of reason. Arendt argues that it is for this reason that Kant regretted that the Critique of Pure Reason never reached the reading public. Arendt relates the effort, or at least the intention, of Kant to popularize his works to the spirit of Socrates who after all philosophized on the streets in dialogue with the common public that Kant attempted to reach. For Kant, reaching the public was essential because it would be, as Arendt quotes Kant, “the test of free and open examination” (Arendt, 39). Even though a thinker might write and think in solitude, if he cannot “communicate and expose to the test of others, either orally or in writing, whatever you may have found out when you are alone, this faculty [of thinking] exerted in solitude will disappear” (Arendt, 40). Hence, we can find a strong analogy (not necessarily in intentions) between Kant's hope that his work would popularize and be read by the public and the attempts of synthetic biologists or scientists working in the field of genetic engineering and their attempts to inform the public of what they are doing. This paper does not argue that scientific truths depend on their ability to popularize and to be spread, this is another discussion. Instead, this paper looks at the need of scientific concepts to spread so that people can judge ethically the developments within science.

In several papers concerning ethics and synthetic biology the need is formulated that the public should be more informed about synthetic biology (Schmidt et al., 2009) (Sture & Whitby, 2012). Moreover, one of the aims of the iGEM competition is trying to get the public more acquainted with synthetic biology, by going to schools, organizing conferences and writing articles for magazines and newspapers. In a Kantian spirit, one should not do this with the motivation to educate the unknowing and ignorant masses (this quickly turns into disdain for the opinion of the public), but it can in fact be a proper test of the current developments within the field of synthetic biology. How does a scientist know whether he/she is not led astray by the need to publish and his/her scientific curiosity, loosing sight of the social relevance or ethical importance of her research? Kant argues that publicity is in fact the principle that should rule all action, so it can be judged. If scientists would be able to conduct their experiments in secrecy no such check would be possible. Hence, the popularization of synthetic biology could serve the purpose of being an ethical check of developments within synthetic biology.


Scientist might not like this judgment of the public as it is likely to interfere with their projects and ambitions. They fear a public that distrusts them because the public is not involved in scientific research and because of its ignorance it is likely to obstruct the application of scientific innovations or the attribution of money to one's research project. However, Kant argues that the public is in fact very well capable of making a proper judgment, for the very reason that they are not involved in the scientific process. Kant argues that the spectator in contrast to the actor occupies a special position that enables him to see the whole. Arendt phrases it in the following way: “the spectator occupies a position that enables him to see the whole; the actor, because he is part of the play must enact his part-he is partial by definition. The spectator is impartial by definition-no part is assigned him.” (Arendt, 55). In the context of iGEM this would mean that the teams would be drawn in by their particular perspective on synthetic biology which is shaped by their involvement in the competition and their ambition to win. A spectator would not be bothered by these ambitions and would be able to take a distance and see things in a larger perspective.

But how much does the public really know about synthetic biology in order to judge it? This indeed seems a valid objection. However, what we are concerned with in this paper is not assessing scientific truths, but with the ethical or social importance of scientific innovations. Even though, one might not understand how DNA is synthesized into a genome, one might still be able to judge the value of the creation of a bacteria that is able to prevent certain illnesses, protect our crops without using pesticides or the recreation of certain lifeforms that went extinct. What is required though, for the public to judge these developments, specifically within the field of synthetic biology, is that they are acquainted with the concepts of synthetic biology and the innovations that take place within this field. This mirrors what Arendt argues in her lectures, namely that to judge is to “go visiting”, meaning that one's own judgment is based on the possible judgments of others (Arendt, 43). In relation to developments in synthetic biology, this would include getting the public acquainted with the concepts and ideas of scientists working within this field.


In fact, Kant provides a standard that the public judges by, namely the idea of progress, which seems very close to the standard that scientists use to judge their own work, namely to advance knowledge within their respective field or discipline. Arendt argues that for Kant this notion of progress is not necessarily scientific progress, or man made progress but the progress of nature. Here we arrive at an important point, because due to this notion of progress, as Arendt points out, the importance of an event “lies precisely not at its end but in its opening up new horizons for the future. It is the hope it contained for future generations” that makes an event and important event (Arendt, 56). Both the position of the onlooker-that is, his informed non-involvement-and the idea of progress, which is to judge an event according to the promise that it holds for the future, are the essential components of judging the value of certain events or developments (within synthetic biology).

So far, it seems that Arendt's lectures on Kant's political philosophy in fact agree with the need to publicize and popularize the findings and workings of synthetic biology in order to enable the public to judge these developments and also to close the gap between the knowledge of the scientist and the knowledge of the public. It changes the role of the public from a nuisance that obstructs the progress of science to a useful check that if informed properly can function as a distanced observer monitoring the ethical and social relevance of scientific research. Moreover, the standard of progress and the gains for future generations by which recent developments ought to be judged seems to provide a standard that scientists working in the field of synthetic biology can agree with. At the same time the judgment of the public is not informed by dogma's or higher authorities such as the government or the church. However, we did not yet discuss the importance that Arendt attributes to the common sense in order to reach a judgment. As will become clear this notion of common sense introduces some questions as to how the public can adopt the concepts and ideas within synthetic biology.



Common Sense?

Arendt argues that judgments are matters of taste and of opinion, in contrast to matters of reason and ethics. This means that one judges something according to how it affects one's taste. Normally one would argue that one cannot discuss about taste. As Arendt says “[n]o argument can persuade me to like oysters if I do not like them” (Arendt, 66). But what value do judgments on the ethical worth of developments in synthetic biology have when they are purely subjective and cannot be shared and discussed with others? Arendt answers that there are in fact two factors that make judgments inheritable communicable (Arendt, 66). The first one is called the imagination and is the ability to make something present even though it is absent. This means that one can judge certain developments in a laboratory even though one is not present (given that one is acquainted with the ideas and concepts that are needed to grasp these developments). This ability to judge whilst not being involved in the process has been discussed above. The second factor is common sense, which relates to the ability to take other perspectives into account. Arendt writes that a judgment is only possible if we are a member of a community. There is no reason for me to judge developments in synthetic biology if there is no one that listens or that has a different opinion.

The notion of common sense is interesting because, at first sight, it seems to have an enormous democratic potential. Instead of having only experts judging the work of synthetic biologists it opens the door to a wider public that can judge these developments (given that they are informed). However, this is also where some difficulties come in which problematizes the public's ability to judge developments within synthetic biology ethically. Our judgments are rooted in common sense, that is, according to Arendt, the way of thinking that takes other judgments into account and can therefore easily be communicated (Arendt, 71). This implies that one shares the standards by which one judges a certain event, which was according to Kant the idea of progress. Interestingly, for Kant, this progress was not human driven but was the progress of nature. Yet, when we enlarge our mind with the concepts of synthetic biology it is clear that it becomes very difficult to talk about such a thing as nature. After all, are we not creating the life forms that one would formerly categorize as nature?


Of course Kant was living 200 years ago and could not have envisioned the enormous “progress” science would make and which would enable humans to create life forms from scratch. The Kantian notion of progress might still be shared among many people and be a part of our common sense, but it can no longer be applied to synthetic biology because the concepts and developments within this field are in conflict with a notion of progress that is inherent in “nature”. Moreover, it seems that other ideas that are part of our common sense, namely our understanding of what it means to be a human being, how nature is opposed to culture and how machines differ from animals are in conflict with what is happening in the field of synthetic biology. Hence, it becomes questionable as to whether one can easily enlarge one's mind with the concepts used in synthetic biology if they are in conflict with the notions, ideas and oppositions that are present in common sense and which enable people to communicate with each other. When someone says that it is inhumane to treat another human being like that, one does not need to discuss the idea of a human being in order to understand what the other means. Instead, we understand it because the idea of a human being is part of our common sense.

Hence, at first sight, the notion of judgment as provided by Hannah Arendt's lectures on Kant's political philosophy seems to correspond with the people that argue for a popularization of the findings in synthetic biology. In fact, if one is able to spread the concepts and ideas that are used by scientists, the public might be able to give a well-informed judgment on what they deem to be desirable and praiseworthy developments within the field of synthetic biology. However, even though the idea of making the recent developments within the field of synthetic biology public and the attempt to popularize concepts and ideas that are used within the field seem to foster a closer link between the public and the scientist, the actual adaptation of these ideas and concepts by the public in order to judge developments in synthetic biology might be conflicting with the notions and ideas that make up our common sense.

This paper only considered the role of the public and did not consider the scientist as playing a part in the ethical evaluation of his/her project. Following Arendt's analysis of Kant, this would simply be unthinkable because the scientist would be occupied with fame and, moreover, would lack the distance to oversee the whole. Yet, one may argue that one can momentarily bypass these difficulties by saying that the scientist is able to reflect upon what he/she is doing by taking a step back from the work that he/she is doing. Yet, in order to provide an ethical evaluation of what one is doing, one is dependent on the common sense. Above, it was argued that the common sense of the public is in contradiction with the recent findings and synthetic biology. However, it is questionable whether this is all together different for the scientist. The scientist is also part of a community, in which he/she fulfills an ethical responsibility as well. The question is whether the scientist's ethical framework that is part of his/her common sense is modified by the scientific process in which he/she is involved. In fact, it is likely that the everyday ethical framework is separated from the work and thought that happens in the lab. Hence, instead of educating the public, it seems necessary to adapt the ethical framework that people (the scientist and the public) use to judge everyday situations to a world in which concepts such as humanity, life, nature, culture, etc. become less and less stable.

Caplan, A. (2009). Moving Ahead but with Greater Controls. Nature Biotechnology, 27:12.
Douglas, T., Savulescu, J. (2010) Synthetic Biology and the Ethics of Knowledge. Journal Medical Ethics, 26, 687-693.
iGEM team Heidelberg (2008)
Kaebnick, G. E. (2009) Should Moral Objections to Synthetic Biology Affect Public Policy. Nature Biotechonology, 27:12.
Schmidt, M. et all. (2009). A Priority Paper for the Societal and Ethical Aspects of Synthetic Biology. Systems and Synthetic Biology, 3, 3-7.
Sture, J., Whitby, S. (2012). Conclusions. Medicine, Conflict and Survival. 28:1, 99-105.