Foreword – Responsibility and Freedom


This second volume of the Responsible Innovation and Research (RRI) set has been written by a philosopher who is an expert in the emergent field of research around this notion. He is involved in different European projects like, for instance, Governance for Responsible Research and Innovation (GREAT)1. This book does much more than just present RRI practices or how to make a framework operational. In addition to these important aspects, Robert Gianni also proposes here an analysis of the philosophical roots embedded in the notion. This is a crucial point, which will be addressed, although through different perspectives, throughout the set.

Gianni offers a very structured and relevant understanding of RRI in order to develop an efficient and concretely ethical conception. According to his perspective, freedom is the main condition of possibility at the basis of any responsibility. This should be obvious, but most of the RRI discourses or research take this point either as guaranteed, or tend to stick to a legal framework. Indeed, Robert Gianni believes that the reason for which science and innovation have undergone a general mistrust is because they have been sometimes perceived as a threat to one’s freedom. Thus, according to the author, the different protests and the reasons supporting them referred, either explicitly or implicitly, to the necessity of guaranteeing freedom of individuals. He takes as an anchor point for the regulation of the science and society relationship the fact that every adoptable measure should be based according to the guarantee or development of freedom.

By the adoption of several examples, he emphasizes that the use of persuasive European Union strategies cannot be sufficient in terms of legitimacy and efficacy, as a measure to implement research and innovation. If the EU needs to increase its efficacy in order to develop our economies, it must also guarantee the legitimacy in the way these domains are steered in respect to society, its needs, values and norms. For this purpose, the objective of the EU should and is, according to Gianni, 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. What he emphasizes with respect to the strategy of European research and innovation can be true for every country with a strong development of research and innovation.

Gianni offers an original interpretation of the EC guidelines and a critical reading of RRI made by the scientific community. By doing so, he considers both sides, the practical application of the European Commission’s RRI guidelines, i.e. the six keys (participation of stakeholders, open science, science literacy, gender, governance and ethics), and some of the most important theoretical proposals regarding RRI research on the dimensions of responsibility. RRI can be achieved if the six key actions are adopted as an action list. According to him, in fact, these keys proposed by the European Commission should not be seen as static but rather as performative and dynamic. They are key actions, or manners of embedding research and innovation, rather than dimensions. In this way, the distance between RRI conceptions and the keys will be covered and the latter will represent the operational tools to achieve the former.

Contrary to most interpretations, which reduce to participation of stakeholders (first key) the fulfilling of responsible practices, he places “ethical governance” (a mixture between fifth and sixth keys) as the overarching device that considers all these perspectives, objectified in common institutions. “Ethical governance” comprises the aim of reaching a reflexive equilibrium between legitimacy and efficacy for the sake of freedom. This “ethical governance” assumes a complementary perspective on social dynamics, developing through learning ability and adaptability between different social dimensions.

This claim has some echo in the previous book of the series, Ethical Efficiency [LEN 16]. Its author, Cristian Virgil Lenoir, makes a plea for sincere attention to the relationships between the various efficiency logics, which either concern economy or science or politics. For him, ethics may influence the development of efficiency logics if they are continually fueled by what is referred to as “ethical innervation”, a term he borrowed from Chinese philosophy. But C.V. Lenoir has carefully discussed in his book the contribution of Hegel too. This difficult but powerful philosopher has also found an important place in this book although used from another perspective. The core notion in C.V. Lenoir was contingence and the need for it. Here, Robert Gianni insists on the importance of freedom as an institutional device. It has a double nature. On the one hand, it is a transcendental reference to which none of us would want to renounce, and, on the other hand, freedom cannot be determined in an objective way. The contents of freedom cannot be predetermined because they will always be immanent, echoing C.V. Lenoir.

Robert Gianni’s proposal to articulate freedom and responsibility has many aspects. It is not an obstacle for research, where researchers often given an additional importance to their work. Research needs to be honest for the sake of freedom of research itself and has to develop novelties that by definition cannot be completely foreseen, even with programmes and contracts. Freedom cannot be predetermined in its contents and articulation. Accordingly, freedom always finds new ways of expressing itself. For this reason, the role of responsibility is to preserve the possibility of freedom, to guarantee the possibility for freedom to find innovative ways to actualize itself (preservation and implementation).

We can make a link between freedom and responsibility and give the general orientation of his book:

Being responsible means responding to the guaranteed freedoms as a recognized moral agent of a society, having the aim of preserving such freedoms and at the same time implementing them through institutional arrangements”.

In the first book of the series, C.V. Lenoir was discussing the relationships between economy and ethics. Here, Robert Gianni lends an important part to the legal sphere. The distinction and the articulation between moral, ethics, politics and law are as difficult as they are crucial in the RRI debates and more generally around responsibility. He rightly reads, discusses and reintroduces into the RRI debate the proposals of Kant, Hegel, Kelsen and Hart, among others. We are very far from a restricted analytical and contemporary approach.

His first chapter shows us how RRI is a new framework for an old controversy. Having presented the different conceptions of the main contributors to this debate, such as Von Schomberg, Van den Hoven and Armin Grunwald, who will contribute to another volume of this set, Gianni describes a kind of genealogy of the concept of responsibility, starting from theology and law. For this purpose, he follows Paul Ricoeur’s works on this question and introduces him in actual RRI research, which unfortunately, only seldom quotes the very creative French philosopher, namely in the field of interpretation. It is the case of the contemporary debate in moral and political philosophy too. Ricoeur has offered a deep analysis of the conceptual and etymological origins of responsibility in relation to the emergence and implementation of the concept of freedom. In its fragmented origins, responsibility can be understood as following two main veins, which have contributed to produce a polysemic concept, although it is still ambiguous today. On the one hand, we have the philosophical legacy, articulated by Kant in the first Critique [KAN 98], determining the epistemic and ontologic importance of the ascription of an act to the agent, and, on the other hand, we encounter a moral– juridical tradition, which overlaps with Kant’s indications in the second Critique [KAN 97] where he defines the criteria for the moral and legal accountability of a person.

Another important philosopher, Axel Honneth, with his stunningly and ambitious exploration [HON 14a], is used here to make a very original contribution to RRI. In this book, Honneth analyzes the difference between the right, the possibility, the reality of freedom, through legal freedom, moral freedom and social freedom. Freedom strives to achieve a twofold objective: legitimacy and efficacy. Its peculiarity is that it changes the understanding of the relation between them. The possibility of achieving this dual objective is embedded in the absolutely unique nature of the concept of freedom that has a conservative and innovative aspect, which are inseparable and are continually interchanged so as to make it difficult to identify the characteristic features of one or the other, as they are placed in a framework, which contains them but at the same time exceeds them. Here, Gianni speaks of an ethical framework. This ethical (or social, as Honneth would so) freedom comprises individual freedoms within institutions by means of objective perspectives. Freedom finds its alter ego precisely in responsibility as a pondered equilibrium of its various conceptions by means of institutional mechanisms. To be efficacious, a norm beside its purely formal validity must also be the fruit of individual determination.

One of the strongest and most original contributions to the construction of RRI can be detected in the following: all conceptions of responsibility must be kept together in one conceptual framework. In this way, we have a concept that can contain, on the one hand the accountability for a commitment taken with regard to a community in which we are recognized, but, on the other hand, a concept that is also able to go beyond, due to the commitment toward an undetermined future.

At least three important steps are presented in his demonstration.

The first one, still topical, can be found in the Hegelian critics of a Kantian approach that does not take into account the efficacy and the application of a norm that he refers to. According to Hegel, Kant does not consider as necessary these substantive and institutional aspects apart from a reduced legal one. For Kant, the necessity lies only at the level of the procedures through which we achieve the legitimacy of those aspects. Kant’s proceduralist approach supposes all imaginable aims and intentions as long as they meet the conditions of moral reflexivity. According to Hegel, we cannot limit our comprehension to one type of freedom that is exclusively epistemic, reflective or moral, because otherwise there would not be the conditions of possibility of that freedom. In Hegel’s philosophy, ethics is the dialectic of subjective impulse and objective reality into an institutional dimension that promotes his peculiarity. Following Honneth, famous for his use of Hegelian recognition theory to go beyond the Habermasian proceduralism, Gianni shows the importance of subjectivity as well as the media as tools for intersubjective recognition. RRI may fulfill these tasks, performing a real ethical role.

Giving life to Fichte’s intuitions, Hegel realizes the figure of a historically situated subject, which relates with other subjects by means of media based on recognition. With that, he manages to detranscendentalize Kantian subjects through the fulfilling of the three basic features of modernity: (1) the origin of our knowledge is historical (worldviews, mentalities and traditions, values, norms and institutions and social practices). The symbolic dimension enables the communication between different historical contexts as well as different social spheres; (2) the production of media (language for instance) as independent function structures the relation between subject and object before they meet. Innovations are always developing their semantic; (3) individual contribution is not solipsistic but interwoven in social textures based on recognition.

The second step relies on the work of the French philosopher François Ewald, who has played an important role in the debate on the welfare state and the precautionary principle. He has emphasized the relations among politics, morality and institutional mechanisms. He has shown through the development of liberal thought the relationships and the contradictions emerging in the interrelation between morality and law. Indeed, these two dimensions are mingled with the political sphere in the application of the dominant ideology at a certain time. To keep responsibility detached from concrete institutional devices produces a rhetorical use that could lead the concept of responsibility to function only as a tool of ideological legitimization. However, Gianni departs from Ewald by stating that responsibility must be abandoned because by concept it is an expression of a biased perspective. According to Gianni, Ewald reduces the concept himself for one of his applications. If there is a high risk of instrumentalization of such a broad concept, we can emphasize the partiality of an application as an expression of political inadequacy. This could help to partly highlight the logical and ethical limits in which responsibility might incur.

The third step also arises from Hegel and his indication of finding equilibrium among different dimensions, which are rational (universal) and historical (contingent). The reflective equilibrium between these two sides will enable us to detect the contents that the institutions must embody, according to the social sphere in which they are inserted and the role for which they exist. Such “normative reconstruction” will lead us to the diagnostic possibility of practices that we would define responsible or otherwise. This is an operation that passes between a philosophical side and a sociological side, to trace these contents and their institutionalization. Society and the freedom it offers is no longer either an objective to achieve or a possibility, but rather the necessity for the implementation of freedom itself. In this sense, institutions must strive to promote and preserve that “pondered equilibrium”. Juridical, moral or existential dimensions, according to which responsibility can be interpreted, must interact within society according to the objective of a pondered equilibrium. This weighting, a judgment that takes its contents from immanent issues, becomes necessary in order to adapt to the specific context the related most important conception of responsibility, or the most necessary social sphere in question.

This three-step demonstration offers a great contribution in the debates on ethics in context, and more largely, the relationships between philosophy and social sciences.

Gianni’s ethical framework of RRI integrates responsibility with its several layers and different depths. He does not want to isolate them in a theoretical exercise, so as to understand or define their traits. This kind of operation, although useful to understand the concept, underestimates the necessity to insert the different acceptions in a wider proposition in order to apply it in a practical domain. Instead of dividing spheres of responsibility, he thinks that we have to understand how they are all part of one wider conception. The polysemy that characterizes responsibility offers a range of conceptions that respond to the different articulations of freedom. His thesis is based on two assumptions: (1) the various conceptions of responsibility emerge where we find a freedom. The relations among the different conceptions are not linear as well as the relation between each conception and responsibility as such; (2) freedom has to be actualized in a plural form, in an ethical sense.

According to the author, we need to then develop the meshes as a place to put all the different acceptions of responsibility in a specular relation with freedom.

His conceptual proposition is very valuable in the field of institutional design, often far from Hegelian philosophy. It is of great interest for matching moral and political pluralism.

The knowledge of the field of research of RRI, as well as the careful reading of main authors of the Western philosophical tradition among moral, ethical, legal, political freedom and responsibility, together with their translation toward these new crosscutting requisites, makes this book very promising. Indeed, it already announces further debates for the coming volume.

Bernard REBER
December 2015