​Thinking creatively about human rights

Ethical thinking that is just as innovative as thinking in science and technology. This is what Professor John Tasioulas advocated during the second Van Hasselt lecture, which took place on Wednesday 23 November in the Prinsenhof.

‘The dynamics of big data and human rights’ was the title of the lecture by John Tasioulas, professor of politics, philosophy and law from King’s College in London. To be more specific: ‘the case of scientific research’. In his closing speech, Professor Karel Luyben, rector magnificus, said that he had not been aware that big data had such an influence on scientific research. “Most TU Delft students are given lessons in ethics”, he said, “but we will have to emphasise this even more in the future.”

Frans van Hasselt

As Mayor Marja van Bijsterveldt already stated in her introductory speech in the well-filled Van der Mandel hall, technology is always a means to an end, not an end in itself. “Students in every era have been faced with moral dilemmas.”

Here, she was not only looking ahead to the next speaker, but also referring specifically back to Frans van Hasselt, after whom this annual lecture is named. In November 1940 this courageous civil engineering student gave an impassioned speech against the dismissal of Jewish professors by the German occupiers. He was arrested and died in Buchenwald concentration camp in 1942.

Ethical dilemmas

Today’s students are also faced with ethical dilemmas. For example, developments in the fields of robotics, genetics and bio-engineering. Big data can be very useful in the fight against disease or crime, said Tasioulas, but how does that relate to privacy and security issues? In his lecture, he addressed the ethical impact of data science. Not only does everyone have the right to benefit from the advantages of science, for example, in the field of medicine, they also have the right to carry out science.

The right to privacy and the right to science might seem to be in conflict, but the one does not necessarily exclude the other. According to Tasioulas, human rights evolve along with the times. The (proposed) right to internet access, for example, is fairly new, and the right to a certain standard of life is under threat from climate change.

Human rights

Having argued his case solidly for a little over thirty minutes, he reached his conclusions: “The emergence of Big Data is a dramatic example of how scientific and technological innovation generates both enormous potential benefits and grave risks. In responding to the challenge of securing the benefits while minimizing the risks, we have to engage in ethical thinking that is just as innovative as thinking in science and technology. In particular, I have argued, we should not confront these developments with a dogmatic understanding of human rights that is fixed and unresponsive to changing circumstances. Instead, we have to think creatively about how the content of human rights – such as the rights to privacy and science – might need to be revised to meet the challenges of this fourth industrial revolution.”

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