30 Years Ethics Institutes

About Ethics Institutes and Other Institutions.

In March 1990, I gained employment as a research assistant in a small research group at Tübingen University that was formally installed in July 1990 as the Inter-Facultary Centre for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities (under the leadership of Dietmar Mieth and Klaus Steigleder). At that time, it was fairly unusual for philosophers to work on ethical questions that arise from contemporary challenges, such as those involved in climate change or the life sciences. Many philosophers had doubts about the necessity of concrete engagement with such contemporary moral questions and were not willing to engage with them. However, a significant number of researchers in other disciplines were convinced that one they needed to address such moral questions, but did not know how to go about doing so. I saw the work of the Centre as an ambitious pioneer in critical refection on environmental changes and developments in the life sciences in close cooperation with physicians, biologists, veterinarians, lawyers. At the same time, I was convinced that such an endeavour would necessarily require a serious engagement with fundamental discussions in moral philosophy. But a methodology for such an interdisciplinary discourse was not obvious.

Between 1991 and 1993 I was responsible for the organisation of the first post-Graduate college for Ethics in Germany, a college that, during the 1990, made more than 60 PhD-projects possible on a broad range of topics in ethics (and former members of this college are now inhabiting numerous prestigious positions in ethics). I organised many colloquia, workshops and meetings for the PhD-students and did my best to create a collegial and inspiring environment for the college (while writing a PhD myself in the weekends). In 1993 I became managing director of the Centre (succeeding Klaus Steigleder). In carrying out this new function, the scope of our work became much broader, and in our first European project, the Network for Biomedical Ethics with 30 European participants, a serious challenge was presented by the fact that fax and telephone were the only media of communication widely in use. The Centre grew significantly in the 1990s and before I left Tübingen by the end of 2001 it had received excellent results in an assessment of its work.

In 2001, Utrecht University advertised for a research active professor in philosophical ethics who would be willing to set up and direct an Ethics Institute. I thought that this was an excellent opportunity for me, and various colleagues in Utrecht thought that I would fit well in the then Faculty of Philosophy. At that time, there was a Centre for Bioethics and Health Law in Utrecht, located in the Faculty of Theology, but this was directed by Robert Heeger and Egbert Schroten, both of whom were close to retirement (as was the professor for practical philosophy, Willem van Reijen), so a new Centre was opportune. In 2002, preparation for the new Ethics Institute (EI) began with a committee consisting of Ton Hol, Frans Brom and myself (which was necessary because, while I could understand Dutch at that time, I could not speak it). The idea was to absorb the Centre for Bioethics into the new Ethics Institute while broadening the scope of its research and placing it in a wider and stronger academic setting. The EI started in 2003 with broad teaching activities in ethics in various schools, a Masters-programme in Applied Ethics (assisted for a few years by Erasmus Mundus scholarships), and with Frans Brom as teaching director and myself as research director. My main focus was to offer a research perspective to the young collaborators at the Ethics Institute and numerous PhD-projects became possible with support by a generous grant of the University (under the former Rector Willem-Hendrik Gispen). At the same time, I was not only Director of the EI – which was in the beginning an independent unit within the university – but also head of the group for practical philosophy in the Faculty of Philosophy, which was very challenging. There was also much discussion about the best integration of the EI in the University, and these discussions took place while the entire University was undergoing serious restructuring. The EI was established with high expectations from the university, but the unit was still fragile, and the first research assessment not really a success while the academic climate became more and more competitive. I must confess that I had serious doubts for many years that we would survive in this environment. It was clear to me a strong embedding in the university structure was a prerequisite for success. Therefore, a fusion between the EI and the group for practical philosophy was necessary and the EI would have to become part of the new Department of Philosophy (which later became the Department for Philosophy and Religious Studies) a fusion that did not start as love on first sight. Several members of the EI were not really happy to join with philosophers and not all practical philosophers were keen on close collaboration with applied ethicists. But it seems to be clear that this fusion would be the only way to create a stable construction: For applied ethicists this construction ensured an embedding in an excellent academic environment and for the philosophy group it ensured a real engagement in topics of the contemporary world. I am convinced that the current excellent standing of the EI and of philosophy in Utrecht owes much to this fusion.

In 2011/2012, I was much more successful with grant applications than I had expected. Several grants were won at the same time (among them a very prestigious Vici-grant from the Dutch Research Organisation). Overnight, the EI became an important player within the Faculty of Humanities, which had two immediate consequences: First, I was asked to join the Board of the new Strategic Theme ‘Institutions of Open Societies’ (IOS). Secondly, the former Dean, Wiljan van den Akker, decided that the EI would be one of those few areas in the Faculty that would receive several years additional funding. It was clear that the EI had now reached now a stable position in the Faculty and University, with embedding in the Strategic Theme providing the best interdisciplinary context for the EI. This also enabled us to hire two new professors: Rutger Classen as associate professor (who later became full professor) and Ingrid Robeyns as designated chair within the IOS-programme. Both were equipped for the IOS-context because of their specialisation in economic philosophy. Together with Bert van den Brink, an expert in teaching, Deryck Beyleveld (a part-time professor, seconded from Durham University in the UK), who is an excellent moral philosopher, Frans Brom (part-time professor) as our link to the policy world in The Hague, Joel Anderson, Rob van Gerwen, Annemarie Kalis and Jan Vorstenbosch as experts in philosophical anthropology and aesthetics,  teachers  like Mariette van den Hoven and Carla Kessler, and Franck Meijboom and Frans Stafleu as link to the veterinary faculty, the EI had developed in a way that I could be pleased with. It was important for me to have different approaches methodologies in the Institute in order to foster critical and sharp dialogue between different approaches.

The situation made it possible to recruit a wide group of assistant professors in the following years, culminating in an excellent research assessment in 2019. At the same time, it was important for me to facilitate a situation in which the group had many opportunities to participate in the decision making (regular staff meetings, planning days, a small management team), which for several years could easily be organised due to the funding of a managerial support in the person of Liesbeth Feikema. In 2018 the 4 TU-Centre for Ethics asked us to join for an application for a Gravitation programme (the most prestigious collaborative grant in the Netherlands) about “Ethics of Socially Disruptive Technologies”. The entire summer of 2018 Anthonie Meijers, Ibo van de Poel and myself worked hard to prepare the research programme and in 2019 we received this grant.

Within the Department of Philosophy (later: Department for Philosophy and Religious Studies) I served for 7 years as research director (2007-2015). This was not an easy time. Previously, the main task of a research director had been to evaluate the research output of researchers and to ensure that PhD-projects were finished successfully. Now, the research director was not merely a supervisor of the researchers, but also a facilitator enabling researchers to function successfully under quite complex side-constraints. Researchers needed an environment in which they could successfully apply for research grants and young researchers needed support to start a career at all. Of course, one can and should be critical about these developments (and I articulated my criticisms regularly in various forms). But at the same time as responsible research director you have to know that an Institute can only flourish if you help the researchers to deal with those circumstances in such a way that many of them are successful and no one becomes desperate. And you also have to know that institutes need people with different talents. The game of competing for research grants is not a game everybody can play. But that is not a problem if you ensure that within the staff there is sufficient diversity in talents. Consequently, my main focus was to establish an infrastructure for the management of external grants, a system for the open recruitment of PhD-students and PostDoc’s and a coaching structure for the preparation of grant applications (Albert Visser played an important role here). At the same time, we professionalized the structure of PhD-supervisions with the aim of creating an excellent environment for PhD-projects. Without the excellent support of Biene Meijerman this would not have been possible. When I started as Research Director, there was hardly any infrastructure for all these activities and hardly any regulations. When I left office, an infrastructure was established that was not perfect but had worked relatively well (and was excellently evaluated in the last research assessment). While I tried to establish meaningful structures within the department, I also tried to minimize the creation of additional bureaucracy on the level of the Faculty, an attempt for which I found a natural ally in the then Vice-Dean for Research, Keimpe Algra. A particular challenge was the fusion of the research institutes for philosophy and religious studies in 2015. Most contemporary philosophers do not react with spontaneous enthusiasm if a fusion is proposed with religious scholars. But in Utrecht this fusion worked smoothly. The pragmatic (and sometimes maternalistic) attitude of Martha Frederiks as Head of Department was certainly one of the reasons for this success. But – in all modesty – I think that the good cooperation between Christopher Baumgartner and myself, who jointly took the task as the first research directors of the new department was another reason. I guess that most colleagues did not even notice a significant change in their daily work.

Alongside my work within Utrecht, I had a strong focus on national collaboration. Because of the size of the country, collaboration is much easier in the Netherlands than I knew it from Germany. At the same time, I am convinced that for a small discipline, like philosophy, strong collaboration within the discipline is essential for the future. Intradisciplinary organisation is as essential as interdisciplinary embedding. By accident, the Netherlands Research School for Practical Philosophy was desperately searching for a director in 2005. With my background as organiser of a post-graduate college in Tübingen, I already understood how important it is to have organised structures to empower young researchers and to create an inspiring environment for them. I was therefore willing to do accept this position, despite the fact that my carrier in the Netherlands had started only 3 years previously, and my Dutch language skills were far from perfect. A research school is a combination of a structured teaching programme for PhD’s (and later for research master students) and at the same time a joint research forum for the entire community of a specific field. In 2005 there existed no research school for philosophy but only for ethics. The mid 2000s were not a good time to run a research school. Many rectors and deans wanted to get rid of those national structures because it was a time where policymakers thought that universities should compete which each other – a particularly strange idea in a small country like the Netherlands where collaboration is clearly the way to go. For the research school in the humanities this was a reason to join the forces and build a forum for research schools in the Humanities (LOGOS) that I directed for some years. I am sure that without LOGOS a such a research school forum would not have survived. The Research School for Practical Philosophy was a really important platform but Anthonie Meijers (the Chair of the Board) and I (as Director) had the impression that this platform could only have a secure future if we formed a research school for the entire field of philosophy. We made a first outline for this school in 2011 but it took us 2 years to convince everybody that this was really a good idea. The discussions around the formation of the school were difficult, but we were convinced that this was the only possible way to go. While this was initially opposed, there is now a broad consensus that this was the right way to go.

 After I completed my time in this intense national job for the research school, I served for some years as Chair of the Association of Directors of Dutch Philosophy Departments/Faculties and took responsibility for a national research and a national teaching assessment. At the same time, we successfully established criteria for the assessment of philosophical research output that are compatible with the standards of our own discipline and not dictated by external standards, like Impact factors. For a short while I also served as a representative of philosophy in the Dutch research council.

During the last 30 years, discourse in ethics has changed significantly There is no field of philosophy that has developed as much as ethics has. Ethicists now play a significant role in policy-making in companies and in public life. The number of subfields of applied ethics can hardly be kept count of, with a still growing tendency for more specialisation. No one could have imagined this 30 years ago when only a few scholars were interested in those discussion – and many people made fun of them. I am not really sure what to think about these developments. On the one hand, it is certainly good that the entire field is professionalised and that there are serious discussions about the academic standards that should apply in the field. On the other hand, I have some doubts about the level of specialisation. There is still an increasing number of subfields in applied ethics that do not see themselves as part of practical philosophy. And I am still convinced that there cannot be serious ethical research that is not systematically embedded in a philosophical discourse. At the same time, the development of practical philosophy into an increasing field of specialisation makes it more difficult for interdisciplinary researchers to keep track with this field. All of this is not really helpful to facilitate practical orientation about the moral challenges of the contemporary world. I wish that discourses in practical philosophy were more willing to engage in synthesizing views (instead of overspecialization), to engage in critical discourse between different approaches (instead of organisational structures within one approach), and that there was openness to question one’s own moral intuitions. In the terminology of Tristram Engelhardt: the challenge is not to come to terms with one’s ‘moral friends’ (those who share the same moral values and intuitions), but to find argumentative ground between ‘moral strangers’ (those with whom we have moral disagreement). If practical philosophy does not have the ambition to foster dialogue between moral strangers, I think it ultimately fails. At the same time, it remains a challenge to work towards a methodology for an interdisciplinary discourse in practical philosophy that makes it possible to understand what morally acceptable pathways with regard to the challenges of the contemporary world may be.

I have tried to contribute to such an ethical discourse, not only as researcher with a distinct philosophical position, but as one who has tried to shape working conditions that foster such a discourse. In hindsight, I am not sure that it was worse to offer so much of my research time to facilitate the working conditions in order to enable others to do their research. I should probably have focussed more on my own research. But I still think that organised structures for a discourse in practical philosophy where people with different intuitions, approaches, theories and values can constructively argue with and against each other is the right way to go.