I work primarily on three related topics:
- Democratic theory: Under which circumstances are political decisions democratically legitimate when there exist (politically motivated) disagreements concerning policy-relevant matters of fact?
- Risk: When is it ethically acceptable to impose risks on people? How do experts’ and lay people’s risk perception (i.e. their beliefs about how serious different risks are) relate to ethical and political-philosophical theories of when risks are acceptable? What methods of analysis and decision-making should we use when regulating risk?
- Genetic modification and food ethics: What ethical problems (if any) are there in genetically modifying plants, microorganisms and animals? Should we allow or even promote the use of genetic modification and other biotechnology in agriculture and food production? Should we prefer organic over conventional farming, or is there third alternative that is even better?
I am a part of the research project Convergent Ethics and the Ethics of Controversy (CEEC), funded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation. The project runs over three years from February 2018, and consists of one senior researcher, three postdocs, one PhD student and a number of research assistants. Generally speaking, CEEC investigates popular skepticism towards new technologies from an ethical, a psychological and a political-philosophical point of view:
- Ethics: Under what circumstances do mainstream ethical theories agree on an ethical verdict concerning a new technology? What is the relevance of such agreement?
- Psychology: What relationships exist between people’s basic political-ideological worldviews and their factual beliefs about new technologies (e.g. beliefs about risks and benefits)? Why do some sections of science and technology become politicized, and how can we avoid this?
- Political philosophy: What is required for a political decision to be democratic legitimate when there is factual disagreement between politically/ideologically distinct sections of the population? What is the appropriate role of expertise and knowledge in democratic decision-making?
Apart from these three main topics, we will perform ethical reviews of new developments in a number of areas of biotechnology, in collaboration with researchers from the relevant sciences.
Democratic legitimacy and factual disagreement
I am responsible for part 3 of CEEC, on political philosophy. The point of departure is the existence of disagreements about policy-relevant matters of fact, e.g. with respect to technologies, climate change, gun control or the state of the economy. There are two types of disagreement: (1) Between different political-ideological groups of citizens, and (2) between experts in a given field and (large sections of) the population. These disagreements give rise to a number of questions concerning democratic legitimacy:
- To what extent does false factual beliefs undermine the claim to democratic respect that a citizen’s political preferences are normally thought to possess?
- Which property of a citizen should be democratically respected anyway (e.g. her actual preference, her idealized preferences, her interests, or ‘just’ her vote?)
- How do facts limit the set of legitimate policies (e.g. how does the fact that anthropogenic climate change is occurring determine what climate policies are legitimate?)
- Are citizens competent to participate in policy-making, and if so, how?
- What role should experts, e.g. in the civil service, play in policy-making?
- How can we design methods for direct public participation in policy-making that increase the democratic legitimacy of decisions?
I address questions such as these, both from a general point of view and as relates specifically to the case of technology regulation.
Risk is an important aspect of new technologies from an ethical point of view. I work on connecting three types of discussion that are frequently run separately: The ethics of risk, approaches to risk regulation, and risk perception. In the intersection of these topics lie a number of interesting and under-discussed issues that I work on, such as:
- How can principles of risk ethics be integrated into regulatory approaches?
- Are experts’ risk perception more rational than lay citizens’?
- What is a rational regulatory approach, and how does that related to risk ethics and risk perceptions?
- Should risk regulation be left to experts, or should the public participate (cf. the democratic legitimacy issues above)?
Genetic modification and food ethics
It is well known that there is an at-times heated debate on the use of genetically modified crops in agriculture. This debate is intermingled with broader debates on what kind of food production system we want. I participate in this debate by working on topics such as the following:
- Are the principles of organic farming motivated by ideals concerning environmental sustainability, or are they (also) motivated by controversial ideas about naturalness (natural food, natural farming)?
- Which ideals should we have for food production, e.g. with respect to environmental effects?
- How should we weigh concerns for the environment against a concern with feeding a growing global population?
- Can biotechnological solutions, including GM foods, realize ideals such as environmental sustainability?
Primary fields of research
Political psychology / moral psychology
Risk (ethics of risk, the precautionary principle, cost-benefit analysis, risk perception)
The ethics and political philosophy of biotechnology
General political philosophy
- Political legitimacy
- Distributive justice / inequality
- History of political ideas
- Normative economics, markets etc.
- Global justice
- Freedom / liberty
- Ethics of risk
- Environmental ethics
- Moral responsibility
- Ethical theory
- Applied ethics
- Value theory
- Methods of ethics / ethical argumentation
- Moral and political psychology
- Foundations of ethics (realism / antirealism, cognitivism / noncognitivism etc.)