5 Framework for the Ethical Assessment of RRI – Responsibility and Freedom

Framework for the Ethical Assessment of RRI

After having understood how responsibility and freedom are tightly connected through an ethical framework, we can now return to the point from where we started and try to make a different assessment on Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). We can say that we have detranscendentalized Kantian’s reason and its subjectivity by placing it into an external, real dimension. We have detranscendentalized the subject of reason to discover that at the basis of it there is freedom and so now we can transcendentalize freedom and the responsibility related to it. The transcendental role of freedom can be easily expressed if we take the words of Habermas. The German philosopher explicitly refers to communication but the description suits our conceptualization where the quasi-transcendental reference is instead freedom. Habermas said [HAB 15]:

“Regard the transcendental achievements as being realized only in the performative acts of subjects capable of speech and action and in the social and cultural structures of their life-worlds. For them, apart from the subjective mind there is only the objective mind left, which materializes itself in communication, work and interaction, in appliances and artifacts, in the living out of individual life stories and in the network of socio-cultural forms of life. But in the process, reason does not lose the transcendental power of spontaneously projecting world-disclosing horizons. This “creative” power of imagination expresses itself in every hypothesis, in every interpretation, in every story with which we affirm our identity. In every action there is also an element of creation”.

Freedom in this sense can perform the role of contributing to the objective structure with original and immanent articulations of what freedom means for subjects. The contents of this freedom cannot be foreseen or embedded into a rationalistic frame. In this sense, I would like to turn Habermas’ words against him when he relegates the “objectivist” understanding of the world to science. Habermas, as such, is still trapped into a dichotomic understanding of society [HAB 15]:

“The advocates of what we might call “scientism” ultimately view only statements of physics as capable of being either true or false and insist on the paradoxical demand of perceiving ourselves exclusively in descriptions of the natural sciences.

[…] Scientism buys the supposed scientification of philosophy by renouncing the task of self-understanding, which philosophy has inherited from the great world religions, though with the intention of the enlightenment. By contrast, the intention of understanding ourselves exclusively from what we have learnt about the objective world leads to a reifying description of something in the world that denies the self-referential application for the purpose of improving our self-understanding”.

The subjective contribution, our self-understanding, does not have to stand against science but can gain fundamental aspects of who he is from scientific knowledge.

An ethical perspective understands the relation between science and society as a common effort to increase the general level of freedom according to different complementary logics. Although we do find different languages in “society”, we do not find different rationalities, at least as long as rationalities have this ontological value of a transcendental reference point. Either we choose to understand reason as a transcendental reference, and therefore it does not make sense to think of two clashing versions of it, or we think of reason in a weaker sense and then the differences are only in terms of expressions referring to some other kind of transcendental reference. Either one, or the other.

I think the second hypothesis to be the correct one, and according to the journey we have been going through, I believe the common reference point could be assumed by freedom. Freedom is the common reference for science and society although they tend to not understand each other all the time. The objective and the engine moving them is always freedom as it is for all the other social spheres of society, although each sphere speaks a different language, i.e. promotes freedom in a different way.

The aim embedded in RRI as a new original framework is exactly to propose a different perspective on the relation among different social spheres of which science is a crucial part.

RRI is a model and an active process by which we can achieve the social objectives set by the European Commission (EC), i.e. the development of research and innovation for the sake of increasing the general level of well-being in democratic societies.

We have seen what ethics is, or should be, through the conceptualization made by Hegel. Ethics is the dialectic of subjective impulse and objective reality into an institutional dimension that promotes its peculiarity. We have analyzed the importance of subjectivity as well as the media as tools for intersubjective recognition. Moreover, we have understood how institutions perform two roles.

Now, we have to identify if and how RRI fulfills these tasks and understand if RRI performs an ethical role.

How do we define an ethical issue and what does it represent from an ethical perspective? These are the questions that often do not find a shared solution. We often have to detect identifications of ethics with one or another aspect, such as the conflation to morality or law. It is not difficult to highlight in these approaches an overlap of dimensions that is probably due to a predominance of the Kantian tradition, which inspected ethics from a sectorial perspective, i.e. a subsystem of morality [KER 15]. It is true that law has also been described by Kant as the institutional incarnation of moral recognition. In this way, questions connected to the development of technologies can be assessed due to legal instruments that are often intended as expressions of moral principles. In certain cases, often more complicated, it is usually suggested as a reflection based on moral principles, aimed at modifying or developing new juridical norms or regulamentations of different sorts. An ethical perspective is hence supposed to identify the matches between contingent situations and these regulative frameworks. An ethical issue is then a potential or real problem, which in a certain way puts in doubt the established order because this does not seem to respond at the moment a problem rises.

In this sense, the ethical issue does not only call into question the juridical structure or the reflection according to universal principles, but it has to also emphasize the fact that institutions are not able to face new issues according to existing principles. This fact requires an evaluation and deliberation on how to tackle the problem. It calls for a process that can positively respond to the issues with legitimate and efficient solutions. We will try to highlight such a process, which largely recalls the Hegelian proposal, splendidly updated by Moyar, with the term “rule consequentialism”. This process rises through a participatory process aimed at analyzing the different individual issues under the light of objective forms of justification within preposed institutions. Institutions are meant to promote a discussion and facilitate these participative processes that otherwise would only have the inefficacious role of consultation [FUN 06].

The ethical interpretation offered in this investigation tries to move beyond current views, offering a perspective that is normative, meta-inclusive and complementary, based on the actualization of freedoms. Through this point of view, we can pass to proposing a hypothesis of evaluation of RRI as an ethical framework.

I believe that RRI, in order to respond to its function as an ethical umbrella, must conceive certain conditions according to three different though complementary justificative sides. It stands on an historical plane, where the problems of previous paradigms cannot make us think of RRI as a repetition of dilution of certain aspects. After all, the criterion of RRI offers a substantive, complementary and immanent reference that other paradigms did not offer.

However, this aspect could be criticized until it finds a conceptual and therefore objective reference. After all, it could be accused of ideologization.

In the following, I will show how RRI has a conceptual validity that determines it as ethical framework. Such a validity is detectable in the activation and implementation of institutional participative and plural processes. This assumption, which appears based on a deontological plane, the role of RRI as ethical, will find protection from the critiques in the concrete evidence that the EC has actually proposed some key actions. These actions presuppose an institutional dimension and match with the conceptual framework according to which we have articulated freedom and responsibility.

5.1. Historical overcoming of RRI

Due to the analysis made on previous paradigms aimed at assessing technological development in relation with society, we have noticed different aspects all referable to a substantial incapacity to offer a pluralistic and efficacious perspective. Various technology assessments, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), etc., have tried to develop in a justified manner one aspect, not managing though to withhold also the other. I believe that we can detect three of these attempts. A first group has tried to use an epistemic perspective in order to gain legitimacy. If the problem was identified in the potential risks that certain technologies could pose, the solution could be detected in a scientific assessment of potential consequences. By a technical judgment, it was presumed to be able to overcome fears and misgivings arising from ignorance. These kinds of approaches, applying a technology assessment, place their trust in the authoritative character of science as the objective and infallible criterion of knowledge. They also have faith in the necessary match between scientific foresight and social acceptation, reducing the political decision-making process to the management of risks based on an algorithm. We do not find an explicit reference to the moral dimension apart from the interpretation that sees in the scientific certainty a morally legitimizing pass. Such approaches turn out to be inefficacious because they are unable to establish the connections between causal processes and free ones, and therefore cannot determine the necessity of consequential chains. In these terms, to talk about scientific objectivity becomes more an aspiration than a reality. As it has been shown by recent events, the scientific foresight based on current knowledge is not uniform but assumes a plural guise, often in open contrast among them1.

A moral variation of this understanding is detectable in the adoption of universal and rational rules that imply the legitimacy of the approach as they are based on a moral law. This should generate the necessary acceptation by agents that exerts reason because these moral rules are expressions of a rational, universal capacity. This side is often based on the epistemic knowledge and goes beyond it, looking for the moral correctness of the assessment. This is exactly the point of view expressed if we adopt a perspective that goes back the moral and political production of Kant. This position extends the side of acceptability according to formal, objective criteria, which will guarantee the acceptance and thus the efficacy of a technology. Also, this approach is destined to be ineffective for two different reasons. The first is that, on a logical plane, we cannot consider the rationalistic moral perspective as the only one legitimate. Other conceptions, or moral acceptions, could be present with equal or even stronger force. Moral positions could enter into a conflict generating what Van den Hoven calls “moral overload” [VAN 12a, VAN 12b, VAN 13]. The adoption of a universalistic perspective cannot account for the immanence and the reality that manifests itself in the discrepancy between reasons for actions and reasons to accept the reason itself. As stated by Moyar, “agents are supposed to act for rule-based reasons, but those reasons (rules) are supported by other considerations that are not supposed to enter into the agent’s deliberation” [MOY 12, p. 14].

The second reason, accordingly, is that the rules of acceptability are not always identical to the rules of acceptance that lead us to act, because the former entail a logical limitation that action trespasses [GUN 98, MOY 12, FER 02, BRA 98]. The consistent discrepancy between justification and application of a norm is a factor that undermines the attempts of judging science only according to a procedural framework. Consequently, also from a political point of view, such a framework is doomed to failure because of the distance between criteria of scientific legitimacy and social needs. In a period of loss of scientific authority, given the conflictive proliferation of its positions, the political dimension also runs into the same problems, due to its instability of judgment and consequent inadequacy [VON 93, RIC 07, ARE 91]. If the criterion of objective distinction seems to be vanishing in favor of subjective assumptions of validity, and if we do not foresee the alternative forms of objective realization, even the political dimension will tend to make decisions on the basis of subjective and partial criteria.

These paradigms privileged the criterion of legitimacy presuming that from it would necessarily arise the associated efficacy. Reality has shown us that this is not a necessary condition and that often this equation has turned out to be wrong.

The subjective contribution is almost absent from these paradigms, which turn out to be incapable of translating all the individual needs into technological development. Technology, accordingly, remains blind to the deployment of a procedural technique disconnected from the social context. Even its justification appears as an add-on necessary to unleash the process from external interferences. The paradigm of RRI must depart from this assumption for which legitimacy represents a crucial aspect but cannot be expressed anymore according to neutral criteria of a technical judgment without considering a subjective contribution.

Another modality, as reported in the first chapter, is the one trying to incentivize the subjective and substantive aspects of technological development and the subsequent company management. CSR, for instance, stands on an opposite plane according to which legitimacy does not come from the use of objective criteria but rather from the “valorial substantivation” within management and development. Without the need to go again through the various exemplifications, this perspective takes usually into account a specific aspect and, by implementing it, often reaches the objective of efficacy2.

It is likely that, as suggested by Pavie, the religious origins of this framework explain the incentive of subjective aspects [PAV 14]. Here, we do in fact find a subjective contribution within a structure that, although acting in a collective way, remains subjective because expressions of interests and motivations are personal and not collective. Although these assumptions, like the implementation of environmental aspects, can find a large consensus in a social domain, often other aspects that are related to it, such as retribution and labor conditions, are not taken into account in the same way. This makes these approaches a partial, subjective expression of the technological development that, although obtaining a lot on the side of efficacy, can lose on the plane of legitimacy because they do not have an objective perspective of justification. Thus, they cannot represent an actualized example of ethical development.

Another historical attempt, closer to incarnating the ideals of an ethical paradigm, is the one that becomes aware of the limits of a rationalistic approach in the assessment on the value of an innovation. As introduced earlier, if the political does not find in the objectivity the necessary criterion for acceptance, it will be relegated into the subjective realm. However, this apparent limitation to the conflictual relativity of the decision has been taken up as an opportunity by those who have tried to develop forms of subjective inclusion within objective practices, like Participatory Technology Assessment (PTA) [FIS 13, GRU 09]. Inclusive structures have been merging with processes aimed at assessing the value and the consequences of technological developments with alternate results. The problem here arises from the lack of an overarching aspect that can order the different perspectives. In other words, the contribution made by plural subjectivity has not been sufficiently regulated according to institutional mechanisms. I think what is missing is a clear normative reference that could entail not only a deliberation, but also an effective decision, justified according to subjective values translated into objective criteria. Accordingly, it is missing a reference to the transcendent value through which we could articulate the various immanent aspects connected to technologies. The basic mistake of the objectivist approaches, although mitigated by participatory efforts, remains. The trust in the fact that a formal procedure, deep into its legitimate aspect, will necessarily generate the acceptance of value-based issues ends by running up into the same inefficacious situation of previous attempts. All three perspectives stay in the dichotomy between science and society, between normative substantive aspects and formal procedures, between subjective contribution and stable objective structures. These paradigms lack the reference to a concrete value or reference point by which these two aspects connect, as well making an error in wanting to find this value in reason or in a procedure. Here, they miss, in the end, the reference to freedom as a quasi-transcendental reference criterion and they defect in the description of the institutional role for the actualization of this relation between subject and object. Even a sophisticated attempt like the one proposed by value sensitive design, which describes with accuracy both the importance of the subjective contribution and the procedure by which to solve moral conflicts, does not determine the reference criterion according to which we can develop third positions.

RRI must learn and keep in mind all these aspects. From this historical background, as emphasized, RRI has been generated in order to overcome those limits. The mechanism, initiated by the Commission through RRI, is to go beyond those unilateral positions through the concept of responsibility. It is clear to me that the genesis of a new acronym wants to express both the continuity and the originality in a developing process about the relation between science and society. The adoption of the criterion of responsibility offers the possibility to gather the plurality of claims connecting them with each other. Responsibility presupposes the presence of an ethical freedom that is determined through a subjective contribution in concrete institutional mechanisms. These must develop the objective side, not through the simple reference to procedural forms, but by the construction of intersubjective practices that still must assume an objective aspect to be understood.

From a conceptual point of view, RRI must build on past problems and develop new processes, but how does it develop a responsible approach in concrete terms? Through which procedures can the institutions aspire to achieve responsible forms of innovation that manage to hold the double aspect of legitimacy and efficacy? I believe that we need to think of a process that can develop through three moments that are complementary and can recap the two parts of the question. The three moments are participation, reflection and a decision according to the criterion of freedom as expressed in its social and ethical sense.

We now need to go into more detail in order to explain how this could work in real terms as, according to my understanding, it is already recommended by the main institutional organ we have in Europe, the European Commission.

Among the tools that we have already highlighted, we need to choose those that favor a complementary approach to Research and Innovation (R&I), those means by which agents can exploit their personal capacities in order to improve the level and quality of general freedom. We do not need to go much further in selecting a normative reference as we have now identified this to be freedom.

It is quite obvious that our suggestions will not exhaust the possible options, as these tools must be seen as immanently founded and hence subject to developments, improvements or changes. Some could also be dismissed in the future, or in some regional contexts, as not expressing the needs and interests of a specific society. The attempt we are trying to achieve here is only to provide some examples to concretize the general backbone of a concept of responsibility tied to current understanding of freedom. Responsibility, as we have said, is not only a status but it is first and foremost a practice, an attitude that must be actualized in concrete and immanent situations. Thus, defining them would mean to confine exercises of responsibility and reduce the concept to its conservative side. This would be far too distant from a notion, like the one of RRI that needs to promote innovation.

Therefore, what we need to follow here is a practical path, we could say a political one, in order to define the possible tools that should characterize RRI.

One of the most challenging issues in a frame based on responsibility is exactly the one of finding a shared platform for clashing views and normative backgrounds, and this cannot be associated neither from a mere individualistic perspective nor from a generic collective one, but needs to be addressed using a social and highly differentiated perspective. As we have said, institutional relations need to be in a constant equilibrium. At the same time, institutions should always represent the objective translation of individual stances. When it comes to R&I, the novelty embedded in such technologies often generates ethical issues, meaning a sort of potential reduction of someone’s freedom. In order to overcome these ethical imbalances, and to provide an overview of different agents and social spheres, a process needs to be established, in order to collect those perspectives.

Such an engaging process should be based on participation. Participation is considered as a key tool for enhancing legitimation and efficacy of political decisions. Among the several reasons for adopting participatory processes in the development of R&I, Andy Stirling has proposed the following: “The normative [one] (e.g. that dialogue is the right thing to do for reasons of democracy, equity, equality, and justice), the instrumental (e.g. that dialogue provides social intelligence to deliver pre-committed policy objectives, such as those of building trust or of avoiding adverse public reaction) and the substantive (e.g. that policy choices can be co-produced with publics in ways that authentically embody diverse social knowledge, values, and meanings in a substantive manner)”[OWE 13, p. 95]3.

However, participation as such does not insure an automatic positive outcome of the process. The genuineness and efficacy of this idea depends basically on who participates (and how) and on the link between participation and the decision-making process. Furthermore, these are the three layers strictly connected and dependent on each other.

The importance of this substantial specification is motivated by Arnstein and Fung [ARN 69, FUN 06], for the reason that participation can have different depths according to which level the decision-making process will be influenced by the participants’ opinions. Fung, for instance, lists six modes of communication in participatory settings that can be divided according to the influence they are going to have in the decision-making process. Unfortunately, according to Fung, often these attempts maintain a considerable distance between decision-making and bottom-up contribution. “The vast majority of those who attend events such as public hearings and community meetings do not put forward their own views at all. Instead, they participate as spectators who receive information about some policy or project, and they bear witness to struggles among politicians, activists, and interest groups” [FUN 06, p. 68]. Participation in this sense is reduced to communication, consultation, or how Lazzarato would define it, advertisement [LAZ 97].

What Fung highlights is the fact that, although participation is frequently promoted, it is also too often exploited as a legitimating framework, underplaying its concrete influence in steering the decision-making process. If participation processes are settled upon but then do not lead to a change or an adaptation at institutional level, participation loses its basic scope. The role of subjectivity in this way should be considered important only as an instrument for achieving external legitimation, without actually modifying features predetermined elsewhere.

The ambiguity between participation as an expression of actual freedom and as a decoy recalls another aspect, close to the first one although slightly different. What is also the case within participatory process is the limitation of freedom caused by the predetermination of the framework in which participation is settled. In this way, discussions and the consequent preferences or opinions are in a way already steered in a specific direction. Often in fact, agents are called and exhorted to participate but they are not solicited to question the boundaries given by a specific frame. Furthermore, any questioning of the frame is conceived as an obstacle or sabotage of the process. Michael Walzer has lucidly highlighted how associations or figures usually identified as participants, have to withstand preconditions that limit the access to a vast majority or, even worse, to not “well intentioned” actors [WAL 06]4.

If we recall that participation is meant to provide a space for agents to express their freedom concerning societal issues, we see how this intention clashes with forms of engagement that do not enhance autonomous preferences. It is the actual and free clash of preferences that need to be settled upon in a participatory process aimed at including all individual perspectives in objective structures. “What makes a preference autonomous is that it has survived a certain process. And this process is not merely an internal and a subjective one; it is one in which one can check one’s preferences against the arguments of others. My preference is autonomous if I still find reasons to hold it after I have heard the relevant arguments and considered the relevant information” [ROS 08, p. 86].

This also implies that although apparent access to societal controversies can be guaranteed, agents can still feel that their perspectives are not going to be recognized in reality. This situation where the agent feels unease concerning intersubjective relations but cannot explicitly identify the reasons of it contributes to generate a sensation of indeterminacy that can lead to pathologies and later to apathy [HON 09, HON 14a, DEW 69]. If the agent does not manage to independently define his actual role in the determination of societal issues, he will most probably develop (or maintain) a stable perception of distance between him and the institutions meant to represent his subjectivity.

A thick participation also requires a proportional level of reflexivity concerning the necessary questioning of the frame. Reflexive participation already diverges from individual reflexivity because it entails an intersubjective manner of forming preferences that makes our reflection stronger because it is actual in an objective dimension. As stated by Rostboll “By participating […], our reflexive judgments become products of intersubjective learning. Common deliberation thus achieves the sought-after qualitative difference between acting on first-order desires and acting on reflexive judgment, because the latter alone is based on reasons and knowledge gained intersubjectively” [ROS 08, p. 86].

However, far from exhausting the conditions for promoting an ethical approach to R&I, intersubjective reflexivity needs to be further defined. In fact, the type of reflexivity that we would need to assume cannot be reduced to something like a “first-order” one, but we would also need to conceive a second-order reflexivity that can judge of the respondance of a specific institution to its own scope and thus to the relation with others [LEN 03].

If on the one hand we have a so-called first-order reflexivity that represents the possibility of reflection on specific issues coming about in research and innovation, and on the other hand this basic form of reflexivity could not be considered as sufficient. Therefore, we need something like a second-order reflexivity, one that reflects on the institutional condition that allowed the reflexivity itself (funding, expectations, policy frames, etc.). In fact, reflexivity on specific external issues is often accomplished and generally leads only to moral overloads without generating the conditions for developing solutions that are legitimate and efficacious [VAN 13]. In other words, first-order reflexivity should rely on the fact that certain conditions are settled for reaching a decision that considers all aspects in a balanced way. Freedom itself, as we have described with Hegel and Honneth, can only be possible once the institutional conditions for its actualization are present. Accordingly, reflecting in a participatory process in order to define the impact and justness of novelties is a manner of developing our individual freedom in a concerted way. However, in order for this to develop in forms that can guarantee the exercise of freedom, it is necessary that such processes embody themselves within an ethical spirit. In other words, a reflective participation must act toward the implementation of freedoms according to a pondered equilibrium. What we would need in this sense is a relation, following Durkheim and Honneth, “institutionally equipped with discursive mechanisms that allow participants to influence the interests of the others and thus gradually give shape to the overall cooperative aims of the group” [HON 14a, p. 219]. The role of institutions in these processes is exactly the one of educators and facilitators [HON 14a, ROS 08]. In the first sense, because they need to provide with the tools and instruments for agents to objectively develop their personal preferences. Moreover, they educate with regard to the modalities of actualization of freedom that are intersubjective and not solipsistic. With this aspect, a double objective can be reached. On the one hand, a functional aspect for which the agent understands that its freedom increases more with the contribution of others. On the other hand, the moral fact that my freedom moves toward the implementation not only of myself but also of others. At the same time, such institutions also fulfill a facilitation role, setting up processes and guiding the inevitable conflicts toward conciliative paths. In this sense, the resolution becomes the key aspect that gathers the two functions, pedagogical and processual, because it teaches abstract and concrete ways of solving clashes. A fertile and concrete example of this hypothesis can be detected in those theorizations aimed at solving moral overload by the production of a third option that can include but transform the two opposing perspectives. To this, we would just need to add the reference value of freedom as stated before [VAN 13, MOY 12, ROS 08, HON 14a].

One of the issues that we have previously underlined, with regard to the substantive aspect, is the question concerning the criterion we could adopt when deliberating, in order to develop responsible approaches to research and innovation. That is, how can we decide which norms, values or rules can guide us in a situation in which an ethical issue generates some kind of moral or epistemic clashes calling for reflexive participation?

The main problems are the ones emphasized related to the risk of imposing a value-based perspective or of advancing through procedures of a rationalistic kind that do not guarantee an ethical legitimacy and accordingly also the efficacy5.

Among the solutions that have been proposed at a European level, stands out the one by René Von Schomberg and his strong reference to “European values, needs and expectations” [VON 13]. For Von Schomberg, the normative reference on which we can draw on is the one embedded in treatises developed and accepted at the European level such as the Chart of fundamental Rights of the European Union6, the Lund Declaration and the Lisbon Treaty7.

The particular reference to which Von Schomberg refers, and that he considers to possess the quasi-transcendental function required for RRI, is the “societal perspective”. “Economic prosperity and the anticipation that innovation yields positive anticipated impacts (such as the creation of jobs and growth) crucially become dependent upon the social context. The idea is clear; to steer the innovation process toward societally beneficial objectives. […] The Lund Declaration defines a type of justification for investment in research and innovation toward particular positive outcomes and underlines a justification for research and innovation beyond purely economic terms.” [OWE 13, p. 59].

For Von Schomberg, the important aspect is to include aspects that can go beyond mere economic calculation, toward societally beneficial objectives. Accordingly, this reference will serve as a way to assess the goodness and rightness of an innovation process. Perhaps, the Habermasian reference behind this indication moves toward the possibility of understanding in a substantive way the contours of RRI. The clear reference to the fact that other aspects apart from the economic one have to be taken into account suggests a broader, more inclusive perspective. This suggestion finds a confirmation in the word social, a term that we have identified as the key for the actualization of responsibility. Responsibility cannot remain on an individual plane but must transcend toward a social dimension.

However, I still have the impression that this determination of the relations between innovation and society remains within a dichotomic matrix that does not enable us to rise toward an ethical dimension where the economy and material needs have a crucial role. Furthermore, it is not clear how to decipher in a more precise way the identity of these social desires and needs. As it has been shown extensively, they are conflictual, imposed, manipulated, etc., and in some cases to a great extent.

It might be useful to underline again another factor that undermines this reference point. The Treaty of Lisbon, for instance, to which Von Schomberg refers, is a chart of norms and values that have not passed a large, democratic screening, given that they were edited by a minor group of policy-makers and never went through a general agreement like a referendum. Therefore, to use these values, established by a political elite, a minority, in order to solve problems that concern society at large, appears as an instrumental and quite naive way of gaining legitimacy, not to mention efficacy.

Among the various attempts to find some assessment criteria able to identify examples of responsible approaches to R&I, we need to briefly analyze the investigation made by a group of experts that has already finished and proposed a list of indicators for RRI [SPA 15]8. The indicators are aimed at assessing, in an objective way, not only the processes by which R&I are developed, but also their results and the perception they produce. In other words, these indicators are supposed to represent a reference point, perhaps even a normative one, in order to understand if certain processes or products can be defined as responsible.

A certain complexity already exists in understanding exactly what the things that we need to measure are. “In order to arrive at concrete and attainable indicators, it is necessary to have a precise understanding of the outcome variables (impacts) that the indicators are supposed to indicate” [SPA 15, p. 9]. However, if this could be (said to be) easy for several fields, especially when it comes to quantifiable data, it appears more difficult when it comes to RRI. “RRI is young and unconsolidated in the sense that there is neither an authoritative definition nor a consensus on how to understand it” [SPA 15, p. 9].

Keeping in mind the novelty of RRI, the experts tried to rely on the indications provided by the Commission where RRI’s aims are listed as making sure that: “societal actors work together during the whole research and innovation process in order to better align both the process and its outcomes, with the values, needs and expectations of European society. RRI is an ambitious challenge for the creation of a Research and Innovation policy driven by the needs of society and engaging all societal actors via inclusive participatory approaches (emphasis added)” [EUR 12]. They built upon the work of the Expert Group on the State of Art in Europe on Responsible Research and Innovation [EUR 13]. Furthermore, they took the definition provided by Von Schomberg cited and added into their consideration social justice and sustainability.

They have tried to assess the presence of these criteria in the six keys proposed by the Commission that accordingly should form RRI. It is interesting the understanding proposed by the experts of these six keys as a field of pertinence of RRI and not as indications for the achievement of responsible practices. I think in this interpretation lies the complexity of accounting for the crosscutting dimension of RRI identified by a correspondence with a list of specific actions, and this complexity is explicitly reported in the text.

In fact, the basis on which this report relies witnesses a sort of uncertainty in connecting a crosscutting framework to only six precise keys. The experts clearly understood the potential of RRI as an umbrella term, able to embed immanent value and interests. There are several references to RRI as a “cross-cutting issue” and indicators could not detect all the various dynamics of such an overarching function. This is because “as RRI is a dynamic concept, other ways might occur to implement RRI as a cross-cutting issue and support the dynamic development of RRI policies and practices” [SPA 15].

At the same time, this generated several difficulties for them. On the one hand, the identification of RRI to six keys was seen as a reduction not able to detect external examples of responsibility. They then highlight the discrepancy between the six keys in which RRI should be framed and the concept of RRI, where more flexible indications help to comprehend various attempts [SPA 15, p. 10]. On the other hand, they put in evidence the difficulty in trying to define an exhaustive and at the same time efficient list of indicators for such an overarching framework. The main difficulty probably emerges here from the complicated operation of translation of qualitative aspects into quantitative data. We do not want to judge the qualitative aspect, the results of which are at least outstanding, but we can surely underline the quantitative difficulty they had to face. The proliferation of contingent impacts is dispersive in order to be useful, for admission of the reporters (“the full set of 100 indicators is unlikely to be practicable or even interesting” [SPA 15, p. 41]). These tensions run through the whole text.

The categories through which these indicators are categorized show us the dangers connected to the interpretation often made with regard to the relation of these six keys as fields of application. We find in fact a repartition of indicators that poses a difference at the level of outcome, process and perception. Although an equilibrium among these three aspects is often suggested in the document, “public perception indicators are particularly important for considerations on legitimacy and justification, also of RRI” [SPA 15]. As much as the intention of the reporters is genuine, it seems evident the risk that such a suggestion can generate. This perspective moves us to make a little excursus and take up some considerations of political nature that we hinted at earlier. In our examination, it has played a crucial role the political function that the concept of responsibility has assumed as showed by the analysis made by François Ewald. He showed us how the use of the term, embedded into an institutional frame, was not circumscribed to solve issues related to the labor world, but represented the actualization of a specific political paradigm. For Ewald, responsibility implied a discourse register based on the increase in economic freedom. Without going into specific considerations with regard to the correct reading of the acceptions and the concept of responsibility, Ewald has the great merit of having emphasized the relations among politics, morality and institutional mechanisms. He showed us with accuracy how every institutional measure is the realization of a vision of the world and how the use of certain regulations could determine the path of progress. At the same time, he made clear that in order to actualize a specific rationality we always need the institutional support. Furthermore, we can infer from his analysis the close connection between values, norms and development of the functional dimension. In other words, Ewald has unveiled the relation among different social spheres and the strong impact that only the institutional plane can have.

The criticism that Ewald poses to that paradigm is the injustice that is connected with it because of the lack of inclusion and the increase in benefits only for a specific sector of society. The adoption of the criterion of responsibility was emblematic for him because it was connected to a specific political discourse. The fact that emerges is that the affirmation of one side of society not only will not manage to reach the acceptability but will also not even obtain the acceptance. For as much as I can agree with most of his thesis, I believe his conviction of the criterion of responsibility alone is not correct and does not correspond, for instance, to the objective set by the EU.

For this reason, I think that the use of persuasive strategies cannot be of any help to the EU. The objective of the EU in this moment is exactly the one of covering the distance between science and society caused by a qualitative growth of technologies and by the adoption of processes that had for a long time excluded society and its request of freedom. As greatly shown by the efforts made, and the path took by, the several assessment frameworks (Technology Assessment (TA), PTA and CSR), we need to pass from a model of governance based on the implicit or explicit impositions of technologies, to one where the normative horizon is codetermined9. Among the various techniques adopted, the management of risk perception has surely been one of the most common. Institutional representatives that did not consider society as an efficient or valid partner to collaborate with in R&I domains tried to bypass the obstacle through communicative strategies. From a functional point of view, the results of such an approach have not been successful, and will be neither efficient nor efficacious in an age where epistemic conflicts arise even more than in the past due to information accessibility. From a moral and ethical perspective, such a perspective moves away not only from the necessary justification but also from the very possibility of a just society. If the criteria of justification and therefore legitimation are identified with public perception, the whole social process of growth and development risk to be resolved into an immense and perpetual marketing strategy.

As I said, although it is not entirely explicit, I believe the overall objective of the indications provided by the Commission are for justice or a just society. The way in which such an objective could be reached is settled by the conditions reported. Inclusiveness, sustainability and the more recently fairness10 call for something more than a mere technocratic approach to science. What is at stake with RRI is to conceive a society that finally reconciles with science, a science that produces progress with and for society. Consequently, these two aspects automatically produce an understanding of justice not as a mere reference to purely abstract principles or to ambiguous communication processes, but rather as an effort to build a common frame with its domain of application, i.e. a social reality.

This report helps us in understanding how several of the difficulties of RRI stand on a theoretical level. We need to draw the plane on which we can match the interpretation of guidelines proposed by the Commission with the concepts of ethics and responsibility.

In fact, the reference to perception, of which we have briefly listed the risks, could assume a completely different meaning in the moment in which we ground it to a deeper understanding of the reference point of RRI. Through this anchor point, we can hope to define perception not as a prerational condition but according to a comprehensive understanding of RRI. This would mean to base RRI perception on both rationality and all those elements that go beyond rationality to form a hermeneutical approach11.

If we want to measure the normative impact of RRI, we need to understand what the presumed function of RRI is meant to perform and comprehend its implications. In this sense, we can state that if it is a responsible modality of innovation that we want to promote, the reference must be the implements of freedom.

In order to understand how this is, according to me, also present in the guidelines proposed by the European Commission, we need to briefly analyze those six keys, mentioned previously, on which it is perhaps useful to offer another interpretation. It is an interesting aspect, because they represent the modalities by which, according to the Commission, we can obtain responsible approaches of R&I. First, we need to specify that these keys should be intended in an instrumental form and not a structural one, meaning that they are not dimensions but key actions, manners of embedding R&I. In other words, responsible approaches to R&I are not detectable within these categories, but can be achieved if these key actions are taken into account. In this way, the distance between the conception and the keys will be covered and the latter will represent the operational tools to achieve the former.

More precisely, the six keys proposed by the European Commission entail not a static nature, but rather a performative and dynamic one. Besides, a more useful way to read their relation, also suggested by the same document on the six keys, is a lexical one. This means that the different aspects must be taken into account according to a precise order, form the first to the last one, where each of them is a consequence of the previous one. We will see how this path can also be taken in the opposite direction, in a complementary way, justifying the perspective that we have defined ethical.

I believe in fact, that we can detect an ethical relation at the basis of RRI, and I think this is witnessed by the adoption of these six keys. My interpretation remains one among the others, because the Commission does not explain into details the conceptual extension of the keys. However, this interpretation, which does not diverge from the text edited by the European Commission, finds its justification in the comprehension of responsibility and freedom as ethical categories.

The six keys developed by the Commission in 2012 are engagement, gender, science education, open access, ethics and governance [GEO 12]12.

The first key, engagement, is a strong presupposition aiming at the establishment of dynamic procedures for actively involving agents into the shape of R&I. Every attempt of RRI will “entail that the societal challenges are framed on the basis of widely representative social, economic and ethical concerns and common principles”. The Commission also recommends thinking about these practices in terms “of mutual learning in order to develop joint solutions to societal problems and opportunities”. Engaging people to participate in the development of research and innovation appears nowadays to be a basic criterion. Policy structures and processes have been forced to change their nature and tendency toward decision-making in order to regain the legitimacy and efficacy that they have been losing. The development of technology, especially communication technologies, has radically changed the relation between decision makers and people who are affected by those decisions [HON 14a, FUN 06]. Thus, the determination of institutional changes through which a society can address innovations as well as face ethical issues must be conceived as an active one, based on engagement.

Engagement must entail a general attitude for fostering direct connections between individual preferences and social reality in order for the former to determine the latter. Thus, it cannot be reduced to participation but needs to move beyond by trying to actively determine the course of social events. To actively involve stakeholders in the determination of R&I, we gain the advantage of increasing the level of legitimacy and efficacy. Engagement in this sense represents the dynamic that enacts the connections among agents and inserts them into a network of intersubjective exchange. Recent investigations, both theoretical and empirical, have shown that irresponsible, or better said unethical practices, often start from little or no care toward engagement13. This is caused, either because this engagement is impeded in explicit or implicit ways, or because agents do not feel the urge to take part in the determination of social issues. The latter scenario is often provoked by the inability of institutional devices to serve their pedagogical scope and function as connectors among agents. However, this “apathy” leads to forms of isolation that not only cause suffering to single agents but could also generate alternative forms of expression of freedom, mining social stability. We can then affirm that engagement itself does not imply a responsible behavior but rather a complex tool that needs to be promoted considering the effective role it is going to play in the decision-making process. It is the starting point of a responsible behavior and not the end point.

In this sense, we believe participation represents the starting point for every governance process, and the stress placed by the European commission, not only to assume it as a precondition, but enforcing engagement as much as possible, must be also seen as an ethical value and a vital political point.

What we need to put into evidence is a point that is already implicit in the six keys. In order to achieve a satisfactory level and quality of participation, it is important to highlight further measures and mechanisms that can define the terms and the extent of engagement. It is in the wake of this attempt that we should understand the other keys provided by the European Commission. Engagement needs to be driven toward some more precise contents and methodologies. But first, it needs to be ensured that all the means for a substantial participation are guaranteed. One of these means is surely well indicated with the second key highlighting the importance of gender equilibrium.

The second key, gender, addresses specifically the balance between men and women and refers to an overall need for modernization for research institutions in terms of their “discourses”. Accordingly, a suggestion is made regarding not only the balance of men and women in labs, but also that the very content of research and innovation should be developed according to gender issues. It is sadly true that the number of women and men in research is not at all balanced, showing a lack of attention especially in those sectors not directly under the public influence. And it is also true that often research products themselves are not shaped according to a gender perspective, maintaining the current bias in everyday practices. This can and often does lead to a disparity that it is perhaps not seen but only perceived. The Commission thus wants to stimulate not only the quantitative presence of women in research, but also its quality, meaning the concrete influence they can have in shaping R&I. Gender issues crosscut different dimensions generating a complex scenario.

I think this key fulfills a double function. On the one hand, it tackles the imperative of freedom by posing the very conditions for it to be. Equal chances to access progress should be the starting point of any development of freedom. In this sense, I see the connection with the universalistic acception of freedom embedded here, especially if we consider the legal actions put in place in general to obtain such a result. On the other hand, I would not confine gender issues to legal or moral ways to achieve an anonymous equality. On the contrary, I read this key, especially in the last indication (integrated in research and innovation contents) as one fostering self-determination. The reference to content of innovation as gender driven can be interpreted in as many ways as the researcher can think of. Accordingly, the determination of content will need to be done according to subjective perspectives embedded in an objective form. The link between abstract right and concrete determination, between equality and freedom, forms and shapes the depth of this key. Furthermore, I believe that we cannot limit gender issues only to a mere distinction or equation between men and women. Rather, we need to think of this key as a transcendental category able to host all the different interpretations of gender and its contents14.

Unfortunately, the scenario regarding gender is still unacceptable and the data themselves show an important lack in this sense. We cannot bring to attention further analysis that could show more hidden barriers, but we can highlight how the “SHE Figures Report” draws a truthful picture15.

Another factor concerning engagement is to provide the right tools for actors to be able to participate. Removing physical barriers and setting public audits or enquiries, etc., are surely important steps but need to be integrated with more subtle albeit crucial ones. Often, people are not trained or skilled to perfectly understand the potential development of technologies. Knowledge and awareness are fundamental factors for settling debates on equal premises. Awareness has a long tradition as a political tool, able to favor emancipation and the Commission shows the depth of its aims in not dismissing it.

In fact, the third and the fourth keys, science education and open access, address one of the main aspects undermining the relation between science and society. Scepticism concerning the good intentions of scientists, or disagreement on future outcomes of products, is often indicated in the actual epistemic gap between scientists and society. Furthermore, disagreement between scientists renders the scenario even more puzzling for citizens. Therefore, the European Commission believes education for future generations to be one of the crucial answers for filling the gap and improving the relationship between science and society. This key is also addressing the creation of future generations of scientists able to feed the R&I structure, a crucial sector if Europe wants to keep up with global economic challenges.

While science education calls for an education specifically targeted at hard sciences, open access focuses on the crosscutting transparency of scientific results. Under the same understanding of “science engagement”, public funds should be used for public benefits as sharing knowledge is considered to be a crucial way for gaining legitimacy as well as for generating new knowledge.

Science education and open access are thus to be understood as the necessary knowledge for agents to be able to engage in discussions, to understand technical controversies and to develop preferences flowing into new solutions. The aim at the basis of these two keys is to provide agents with the tools and the general knowledge to make them able to enter a moral intersubjective dimension.

The only way of enabling a reflexive freedom around research and innovation is to raise the general level of knowledge on scientific issues. Furthermore, in order to promote science in society, to produce new scientists, to increase knowledge production across Europe, but most of all to increase democracy, it is crucial to address education [DEW 16]. As we have seen, an educational role is one of the two main aims of institutions. Only through knowledge can agents chase their self-determination in an objective and also new way. With these two keys, I believe we climb into the realm of objectivity for two reasons. The first one is that “science education” and “open access” imply an intersubjective dimension. Education and sources are developed by several different agents, which interact through objective means. And this is exactly the second reason. The means implied in these two keys are objective in the sense that they need to be “readable” and “usable” by all (at least potentially).

These three keys together then define the shape of engagement. We are not supposed to understand engagement as a solipsistic process but rather as an intersubjective one. Engagement also means to act according to self-determination obtained through means of objective knowledge in intersubjective dimensions.

However, we are still in a position where we do not understand how to merge in a concrete way objective and universal forms with subjective determinations. In other words, we still do not have the key to understand how to connect all the different social dimensions.

Such stasis can be overcome only if we move from the moral and epistemic ground on which most of the indeterminacy lies and towards the ethical and political dimensions, spheres where a solution can be proposed.

Ethics is the fifth key promoted by the Commission. This key is interesting and broad, integrating methodological measures with norms and values pertaining to the European community. The aim is not only to respect fundamental rights but also to go beyond the legal aspects as to “ensure increased societal relevance and acceptability of research and innovation outcomes” [GEO 12].

It is not by chance then that the last two criteria that are comprised in the six keys (perhaps the most important ones) try to represent an answer to an already known problem. According to our perspective these last two, ethics and governance, are meant to drive social pluralism embedded in responsible research and innovation in order to gain legitimacy without loosing efficacy.

As we have hinted at in the previous chapters, the main problem concerning the development of RRI is how to make all the different normative settings come to terms in a reasonable period of time without imposing partial perspectives. As we have seen RRI, building on responsibility is a notion that entails different dimensions, ranging from legal or economic to moral ones. Therefore, when we want to define a responsible behavior or decision we can think of all these different sides. All these dimensions, as well as the acceptions in responsibility, are expressions of several different perspectives that come into the game of research and innovation. The question is: how do we assess and eventually choose the right one? Which approach can help us in adopting the best perspective for responsibility to represent the right answer? According to our perspective, responsibility being an ethical concept is a sort of conceptual frame in which we can find all the different acceptions mentioned above. Therefore, we cannot take into account only one or some of those acceptions, while dismissing others. What we should do is keep them together as parts of the same broad concept. Only by this complementary structure we can maintain and develop an ethical understanding of responsibility.

It is under this light that we understand the position of ethics as the fifth key. In fact, ethics represents the result of the set of values and norms that should be promoted. Apart from the legal scheme to which it is often reduced, ethics should guarantee and promote the pluralism that all the societal perspectives are taken into account in a balanced way. As the Commission states: “Beyond the mandatory legal aspects, this aims to ensure increased societal relevance and acceptability of research and innovation outcomes” [GEO 12]. Talking of acceptability it does not mean then to reduce ethics to acceptance but to develop it according to a shared rational understanding. Furthermore, ethics should not be conceived as a mere aleatory discussion aimed at blocking economic development. As the Commission suggests: “Ethics should not be perceived as a constraint to research and innovation, but rather as a way of ensuring high quality results” [GEO 12].

If the Commission needs to firmly highlight these aspects it is because we often assist to a major misunderstanding of ethics, its nature and function in society. In fact, ethics is neither a set of marginal rules against economic development, nor a fixed scheme provided by transcendental sources external to society. Instead, ethics is the objectification in institutions of an equal degree of objective rights as well as reflexive freedom for all the members of a given community. Ethics represents an overcoming of too specific (subjective) or too formal (objective) positions into an identifiable asset of values and norms embedded in institutions. It distinguishes itself from morality and from law of which it maintains the core asset but providing an overall structure in order to render them actual. The aim of an ethical stance is to promote a level of self-realization through self-determination and objective structures.

In other words, ethics is the realm where freedom is fully realized, and this freedom cannot be reduced to one of its acceptions, but must rather be conceived as a multi-layered conception. Therefore, ethics is at the same time the sum and something beyond the different kinds of freedom that we find in a specific community. Accordingly, the range of understandings of responsibilities will vary according to the one of that freedom as showed in the previous chapters. Also the relationship between these acceptions of both responsibility and freedom will substantially contribute to shape our meaning of a “responsible” research and innovation. If we consider them in an ethical way, as the Commission seems to be doing, then all the acceptions of responsibility should be conceived in an integrated and complementary way.

It is exactly this understanding of ethics that needs to be brought up again in order to respond to the needs and challenges that RRI poses us nowadays. Only by connecting subjective perspectives with social institutions and oiling the gearwheel of their relations, can we aspire to obtain examples of responsible research and innovation. Whose task should it be to promote an ethical attitude toward RRI? The last of six keys proposed by the European Commission responds to this question and completes the framework for assessing responsible research and innovation. The previous keys also indicate the ways in which governance should “realize” this attempt, given their active nature, but we need to clarify it.

Governance is indicated as the policy framework to prevent harmful outcomes as well as to impede unethical developments in research and innovation. Governance is highlighted as the umbrella term that could drive the integration process of all the other five keys into one frame for responsible research and innovation.

In many respects, this last point summarizes the actions and measures that need to be put in place for achieving RRI, so it would be important to define those actions as well as the justification for them. What governance model represents the best solution for integrating the five keys highlighted by the Commission? What are its tasks?

The problems arising from the political realm, to which governance tries to respond, are puzzling, as we have emphasized. Here lies the crucial role of governance measures to enable this process.

According to Jessop, governance is an “important mean to overcome the division between rulers and ruled in representative regimes and to secure the input and commitment of an increasingly wide range of stakeholders in policy formulation and implementation” [JES 03]. For Jessop and Schön, an actual governance model requires both groups (rulers and ruled) to engage in a social learning process [SCH 83]. As the Commission seems to believe, given the other five keys, joined participation in collaborative problem-solving can lead to (self) critical scrutinizing of institutional variables: goals, values, plans and rules.

Governance then needs to be developed through this dynamic structure. A structure that is able to redefine its own norms in order to respond to the grand historical challenges in accordance with social needs and claims16.

Following this perspective, we can indicate a kind of reflexive governance as the one able to review its own mechanisms and to ensure institutional learning [LEN 03]. Reflection leads to questioning its own purpose and goals, together with the strategies to achieve them.

This model of governance has to assume a complementary perspective on social dynamics, developing through learning ability and adaptability across different social dimensions. Furthermore, it has to be concretely embedded in social institutions aiming at educating and facilitating. Hence, such governance should result in the codetermination of institutions and the elaboration of common social relations.

Accordingly, because of the specific mention in the document, given our understanding of the previous five keys, and building on our perspective, we need to think of governance as a structure that can establish engagement through an ethical perspective, i.e. a complementary perspective on social dynamics aimed at promoting freedom. We can name this kind of governance as “ethical governance”. “Ethical governance” is something that we could describe as an attempt to take into account contextual values and norms in order to create a dialogue between different single perspectives so to construct obtain and eventually achieve, a common institutional framework. “Ethical governance” is the overarching device that considers all these perspectives, objectified in common institutions, with the aim of reaching a reflexive equilibrium between legitimacy and efficacy for the sake of freedom17. Consequently, “ethical governance” has to assume a complementary perspective on social dynamics, developing through learning ability and adaptability between different social dimensions.

“Ethical governance” is meant to pursue this goal through three complementary actions. First, to set in motion the process based on the engagement through the dialectic between subjective determination and objective reality. Second, to manage the relation among these aspects in an integrated way. And third, to manage conflicts arising from society in terms of assertions of partial claims. Without the need to define the reasons for potential conflicts, we can summarize them in arising from the adoption of a single and not complementary perspective or in assuming a position that strictly contradicts its task [DEW 54, HON 14]. All these three actions should be activated and maintained through institutional devices that represent the objective form of subjective values, norms and preferences. The objective is to chase or eventually obtain a kind of instable “reflective equilibrium” [RAW 79] among different perspectives and social dimensions.