Press Release 06/2016

German Ethics Council discusses own mandate with members of parliament and experts

What can and should ethical advice achieve? This question was discussed by the German Ethics Council on 21 and 22 September, at a parliamentary evening with members of the German Bundestag, and at a public meeting with five experts.

At the parliamentary evening on 21 September, the President of the German Bundestag, Norbert Lammert, and several members of parliament paid tribute to the work of the Ethics Council. They took the opportunity to voice requests about future topics and formats. The President of the German Bundestag encouraged the Ethics Council to take up topics early on, while they are still on the horizon and to address them in a controverisal manner.

The public meeting held the following day on the topic "Ethical Advice and Public Responsibility" continued the Ethics Council's reflection process on its perception of itself as an advisory committee for politics and society – a process it had begun on an internal level after its reconstitution in April.

Legal expert Christoph Möllers began by explaining that although the democratic constitutional state allows for moral arguments, it does not demand them. In his view, the German Ethics Council could fulfil a plausible institutional function by concentrating above all on work that other institutions cannot carry out. Möllers recommended that the committee focus more narrowly on research, especially in the field of life sciences, and show more courage in developing controversial positions.

Sociologist Armin Nassehi described the German Ethics Council as one "component on the path of a society which needs to find new forms of self-representation." The council must give thought to the question: "How can different reasons be weighted in such a way that we end up, where possible, with good reasons for particular reasons?" Committees like the Ethics Council provided a place where participants tried, on an institutional level, to understand different perspectives as the expression of a complex relationship, and not simply to assert their own interests against those of others, said Nassehi.

Alexander Bogner, an expert in technology assessment, saw the Ethics Council's task as ethicizing biopolitical issues. He praised a conflict culture which, rather than taking as its starting point a moralizing search for the only true values, is naturally dissenting in questions of value. He warned, however, against marginalizing ethical questions of principle in this strongly pragmatic decision-making process. A further challenge, according to Bogner, was the sensible involvement of affected social groups or of the public; it was important to avoid the charge of expertocracy, without overwhelming the public with offers to participate in highly abstract and complex discussions.

Bioethicist Silke Schicktanz picked up at this point with her contribution. The representation of affected persons could, in public ethical deliberation processes, mean enhanced competence for the committee and improved consensus between decision-makers and affected persons. In this way it would be possible to improve social acceptance of suggested solutions. In particular it would be possible to complement usefully the academic expertise of the committee with qualitative and discursive procedures, and to ensure that other important perspectives be taken into account as well. In all this, it was crucial to cultivate plurality, transparency and an awareness of marginalized groups.

In the last presentation, philosopher Matthias Kettner recommended that the German Ethics Council "lay claim to the authority to examine, improve or, if necessary, create relevant moral knowledge, which we use in our judgements." To do that, the Ethics Council must combine various forms of knowledge to produce moral judgements, and the members advocating those judgements must be convinced of their correctness – "not despite but because they are based on grounds which are open to criticism."

The programme of the public meeting, together with the presentations, participants' contributions to the discussion and the audio recordings are available at (in German).