Knowing is profoundly ethical

Maarten Hajer interviews Prof Sheila Jasanoff

Utrecht University is truly honoured that Prof Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School, will be delivering the keynote address at the 2019 Pathways to Sustainability conference on 24 January. Sheila Jasanoff has been one of the leading intellectuals of the Science, Technology and Society (STS) movement over the last thirty years, an intellectual approach very relevant for us as community of scholars in sustainability sciences. By way of introduction, Prof Maarten Hajer, Scientific Director of Pathways to Sustainability, corresponded with Prof Jasanoff while she was travelling, resulting in the following interview based on written questions and answers.

In your much praised ‘States of Knowledge’ (2004) you argue that science and society are ‘co-produced’. What is the implication of that insight?

“Most fundamentally, the idiom of co-production invites us to become aware that characterizations of the world, long considered the domain of objective science, are not purely a matter of accurate and truthful description, but also about the ways in which we wish to live in the worlds that our science discovers and describes. This is perhaps most obvious in the case of the environmental sciences.

Sheila Jasanoff
Sheila Jasanoff

We don’t discover phenomena on a planetary scale, for example, without at the same time incurring obligations to rethink politics and governance on a similar scale—even if reordering global politics proves to be much harder than modelling the global environment. But one doesn’t have to turn to something so big, urgent, and all-encompassing as climate change or sustainability to see co-production at work.

Science and society are so deeply intertwined in every facet of our lives that the implications of co-production are all around us: at the frontiers of biotechnology and neuroscience, artificial intelligence and robotics, even astronomy and particle physics, let alone all of the human and social sciences. Each step we take toward a deeper understanding of matter and life, consciousness and behaviour, or the dynamics of nature and society forces us to revisit the basic categories of moral thought: such as equality, justice, human integrity, and responsibility toward others. In this sense, co-production blurs the line between is and ought. It underlines that knowing is always a profoundly ethical undertaking, not limited to what science does in its high citadels, but what we as humankind choose to do with science.”

Your keynote has an intriguing title: 'Unmodern imaginaries: infrastructures for a sustainable world'. Can you give us a sneak preview of what you will be talking about?

“Our growing power to aggregate information and model complexity has given rise to a mindset in some quarters that favours big solutions to big problems. Some call these ‘moonshots’, such as solar geoengineering that will cool the planet even if we continue to emit greenhouse gases under a business as usual scenario.

Knowing is always a profoundly ethical undertaking, not limited to what science does in its high citadels, but what we as humankind choose to do with science.

Sheila Jasanoff
Prof Sheila Jasanoff
Harvard Kennedy School

My focus on infrastructures will be an attempt to diversify and pluralise this discussion, partly by pointing to the multiplicity of underpinnings that need to be put in place for achieving sustainability on any scale—not simply science and technology, but also economics, ethics, law, and politics. I want to advocate for more experimental but also more participatory approaches to future-making, not propelled mainly by what is (or is thought to be) technologically feasible, but more fundamentally by diverse human imaginations of what might be good and attainable worlds.”

In your most recent book Can Science Make Sense of Life? (2019, Polity) you argue science’s promises of perfectibility have gone too far. Can you explain what you mean there?

“I’m not sure if “gone too far” is the right framing for what I see as problematic. It’s more about the limited imagination of perfectibility that biology puts before us. What should perfection mean in an era when prominent scientists are claiming that we have acquired the techniques to control our own evolution? Is the right object of perfectibility the human individual, the organisation of society, or our relations with nature?

Thus far, discussions of what we should be doing with our powerful new biological tools have been driven largely by the toolmakers themselves, for whom the perfectibility of life becomes largely a matter of fixing perceived imperfections in the genome. Not surprisingly, formal bioethics has also tended to focus on relatively narrow questions, like is it ethical to choose your child’s eye colour or intelligence or musical ability.

The big questions of what it means to improve human nature or human relationships need to be put back on the table, and biology by itself is not up to that task, not even with an assist from official bioethics. We need more robust conversations between biology, the science of what life is, and other fields of thought with long histories of asking what life is for.”

Credit: The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters

There is a lot of talk about ‘open science’ today. If we look at your institutional work, you seem to prefer to link science to democracy, like in the ‘Science and Democracy Network’ that you set up. Is there a difference there?

“Open science, as I understand it, would be a highly desirable goal for democratic societies, although like every good thing it probably should be subject to some limits. In linking science with democracy, though, my hope has been to move away from prescriptions intended mainly for scientists or geared toward the governance of science.

I think the urgent issues of our time require us at one and the same time to ask questions about how we govern ourselves. In modern scientifically and technologically advanced societies, those two sets of governance questions can’t be kept apart. By putting together the words science and democracy, I want to suggest that we need scholarship and action based on a symmetrical understanding of the links between responsible self-governance in both science and society.”

The forced exposure to living in multiple worlds has made me ultrasensitive to the radical contingency of pretty much everything that we take for granted, or value, as given and natural

Sheila Jasanoff
Sheila Jasanoff

There is a wonderful section on your personal website called ‘The Road to STS’. It not only reveals the absolutely stunning interdisciplinarity of your work but it also touches on the consequences of your Indian upbringing for the choices you made in your early career. The novelist Amitav Ghosh – who also came from India but now lives and works in the US - has argued that he could think of alterative sustainable futures leaving his modern American mindset behind, and drawing on his Hindi upbringing.

“I don’t want to essentialise either the modern or the Indian, or for that matter the interdisciplinary, in historicising my own trajectory through academia. Much of what I chose to do seemed at the moments of choice quite accidental, driven by material imperatives such as the need to accommodate two careers or to fit a professional training in environmental law into a context where jobs were tied not to clients’ needs but to research and teaching.

But in long retrospect I do think that my central interests in order and reason come from an exposure to many different forms of life, whether linguistic, cultural, or disciplinary. That forced exposure to living in multiple worlds has made me ultrasensitive to the radical contingency of pretty much everything that we take for granted, or value, as given and natural. It has led me to ask questions that a more disciplined life might have made me overlook, and very likely it has made me embrace what I’ve called the “technologies of humility” in my own normative work.”

At the annual conference of Pathways to Sustainability all sustainability related researchers and partners come together. The conference will take place on 24 January at TivoliVredenburg, Utrecht.