‘The EU has let market thinking prevail for too long’

Democracy is under fire. “We have let ourselves be lulled into passivity,” says Philosopher Jeroen van den Hoven who advises the European Commission on ethics and technology.

Prof. Jeroen van den Hoven: "The EU is an exceptional community of values." (Photo: Van den Hoven)

Delta spoke to Van den Hoven of the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management a few days before the invasion of Ukraine. The reason for the interview was his reappointment to the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies. Even then it was clear that Europe needed to become less dependent on fossil fuels. And faster than forecast in the European Green Deal. Now, more than ever, it seems, the EU needs an ethical compass.

“We are facing a huge task,” says Van den Hoven. “How will we divide the burdens and benefits of the energy transition?” This is one of the hot topics, along with topics such as big tech, robotisation and bioethics, that Van den Hoven and 14 other philosophers and ethicists from EU countries are poring over. Their task is to advise the European Commission, upon request or on their own initiative, on societal issues.

Between spring of 2021, when your first term in office came to an end, and February 2022, there was no ethical committee. That was odd. Did the implementing body of the European Union not have a moral compass at the time?
“You could look at it like that. I have no idea why this was the case and whether it had happened before. Perhaps one day I will hear about it in the corridors of the Berlaymont (the building in Brussels which houses the European Commission, Eds.) We get together there regularly to meet and to talk to EU commissioners.”

‘We live in a world of disinformation’

There are a lot of topics on your plate. Apart from issues about the energy transition, your work is based on other existential and fundamental principles too, like safeguarding the values which underpin the EU. How important are ethical principles such as judicial independence, a free press and equal rights for minorities for the EU?
“We have always talked a lot about ethics in Europe. We have been laughed at for decades, with people commenting on the Europeans with their ethics and fundamental principles, and assuming that the purpose was to protect Europe’s internal market. But this is not what it is about. The EU is an exceptional community of values. The EU is founded on two binding constitutional treaties: the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights. These two treaties are the foundation of Europe.”

But has the EU not always prioritised market thinking?
“The EU has let market thinking prevail for a long time and it has not benefited democracy. Take the role that we have allowed big tech to play in Europe. The adage was always that something innovative was good. We let ourselves be lulled into passivity. We did not think enough about one basic question: are these innovations in line with our ethical principles? Big tech companies now have the monopoly over our data. In the 1990s, people thought that the internet would be paradise for democracy. But we now live in a world of disinformation, armies of bots and computational propaganda (political manipulation through the internet, Eds.).

“Big tech does well where there is polarisation as emotions sell. The EU is working on a package of measures to restrict the power of big tech (the Digital Markets Act that will take effect soon, Eds.). Over the last few years, ethical principles have been pushed to the fore at the European Commission. People had talked about it for decades, but the need is really being felt now.”

‘Innovation involves morality’

In terms of big tech’s hunger for data, what subjects will you work on?
“To my mind, the subtle and digitally enabled ways that citizens are manipulated is an important subject. This is also high on the EU’s agenda.”

What does this entail?
“Companies have possession of so much personal data that they can manipulate people who are unaware that they are being manipulated. Just take the data mining company Cambridge Analytica. (Using Facebook data, the company influenced the elections in the United States in 2016, Eds.) Manipulation can even go much further. Elon Musk’s Neuralink company is developing a technology that reads thoughts. Work is also being done on targeted dream incubation whereby you control people’s dreams by giving certain signals while they are sleeping.” 

What is your position if you write about these kinds of subjects?
“Innovation involves morality. This is how it should be considered. Innovation can cause problems, but it can also offer solutions for moral impasses. How? You can’t always pre-empt these, but by asking the right questions, you may hit upon enlightening ideas. This goes for how the internet works as well as for migration, food security and the climate. There are almost eight billion people on earth. We need all sorts of innovative technological solutions in areas such as clean tech and renewables.

“Our position is generally positive. For example, we ask ourselves the question what the potential is of digital innovation for democracy. How we exchange information with each other is the binding factor in society. Why do we not do this on platforms that we all forge democratically? After all, there are public schools and public libraries. The internet could have something similar. Wikipedia is already a good example. It is open, scalable and reasonably reliable. Municipalities are experimenting with online citizen participation. Barcelona has designed a system for participation in municipal discussions. We need to identify the positive examples and find the common denominators of successful projects.”

Another thorny issue is the effect of robotisation and artificial intelligence on the labour market. What problems do you foresee?
“Automation will erode the labour market.  Not everyone will still have a job. There will be a squeeze in the middle. There will always be jobs in the part of the labour market where human contact is needed, such as in the hospitality industry and health care. The same applies to the high end of the labour market where creativity and training are needed. But a lot of administrative jobs and factory jobs will disappear. If not everyone can work anymore, how do you divide the incomes? Would a basic income be a solution?”

‘Disasters come in all shapes and sizes’

And, is a basic income a solution?
“Part of the solution at the most. Work is a wonderful combination of a lot of things that are important for people. You are active, work on shared goals, you can use your creativity and expend your energy, you get recognition and are paid so that you can look after yourself. Labour and work give individuals a huge package of positive things. You cannot simplify this to only an income. If there is no work, you need to think about how people will fill their lives. You will then have to adapt to other models. People cannot sit on the sofa all day playing Nintendo. This is not an interesting life. We will be confronted with this halfway through this century. The lesson is make hay while the sun shines and spend some time thinking about it.

You want to make hay, but how much influence do you have?
“The European Group on Ethics has been around for 30 years. I believe that its influence is growing fast. Technology is becoming stronger and is having a greater impact. This is making society more confusing, and ethics is thus becoming more important. Companies, municipalities and governments are setting up ethical committees. They may sometimes be ethics washing, a marketing ploy, but they are sometimes genuine. People are tending to think more about ethical expertise. They have expertise about their core business, behaviour, communications, so why not ethics? Lawmakers will ask for it more often. Institutions and companies will have to do to their ethical homework. What this means will be different for each sector.” 

How do you see the impact of your Commission? You have been involved in it for a while as this a reappointment. Does the EU do anything with your advice?
“Last year the Science Advisory Committee – another advisory body that looks at science – and we jointly wrote a few pieces about the resilience of societal systems. The reason was the Covid pandemic and its disruptive effects on society. We insisted that the EU should think about the resilience of complex systems in general. This time society was hit by Covid, but disasters come in all shapes and sizes. How do you ensure that institutions keep going if a comet hits, a pandemic where everyone gets diarrhoea, or when there is a cyber-attack? You need to think at a higher abstract level. I believe that this message was received.”

With 15 members, can you reach agreement on advice?
“It’s going quite well in practice. And you can always include the minority views in footnotes. Up to now, I have not seen major differences in opinions even if we do come from different member states and sometimes retain slightly different disciplinary perspectives. We are all professors of ethics. We will always find a way.”

Editor Tomas van Dijk

Do you have a question or comment about this article?

Comments are closed.