"The Topic of Ethics Was Hardly Touched"

Interview with Prof. Rafaela Hillerbrand

28.3.2012 | Rafaela Hillerbrand discusses her field of technology ethics, her impressions of the German Ethics Commission on a Safe Energy Supply, academic neutrality and the plan to include technology ethics into the engineering curriculum. Hillerbrand is a junior professor for philosophy at the RWTH Aachen and head of the interdisciplinary research group Ethics for Energy Technology (HumTec).
AcademiaNet: You have completed two degree courses and hold two PhDs, in philosophy and theoretical physics. How did this combination come about?

Prof. Rafaela Hillerbrand: As an undergraduate, I simply studied the subjects that interested me most. Mathematics was my favourite subject in school, and philosophy has fascinated me for a long time; in school it was an optional subject. But I assumed that a mathematician's professional life would not be very exciting – I probably envisioned a financial consultant or accountant. This is why I studied physics and philosophy, but those happened to be two completely separate degree courses. When I started studying and during my studies, I never thought much about the professional career this combination would lead to. In the beginning, my main focus was on physics, but I became increasingly fascinated by philosophy. For a long time I was torn between my two subjects – the results of this conflict are my two PhD degrees.

Today you are a renowned expert for technology assessment, especially when it comes to energy technology. Have you planned to work in this field, or did this speciality develop gradually?

My current professional field has definitely developed over time. Early on in my studies, I was especially interested in questions at the interface between physics and philosophy. Often those were questions concerning the philosophy of science: for instance, how to interpret quantum mechanics. When I wrote my diploma and master's thesises, and later my two PhD thesises, I was interested in the issues of my respective fields of study: In physics, my diploma project was in the realm of particle physics, my dissertation was in statistical physics on turbulent flows. In philosophy, I was always especially interested in ethics. My professor and later dissertation adviser suggested the topic of technology ethics, for I would be able to combine my expertise from both disciplines, from physics as well as philosophy. And he was right: My enthusiasm for this field has remained ever since. During my postdoctoral research on risk analysis in Oxford, I was again able to combine my qualifications in physics, philosophy and ethics.

Prof. Rafaela Hillerbrand
Bild vergrößern
(© Peter Winandy / RWTH Aachen)

Prof. Rafaela Hillerbrand

Risk analysis is a crucial part of technology assessment. Today, at the RWTH Aachen, I still devote my research to technology assessment, together with my research group Ethics for Energy Technology which consists mostly of engineers and philosophy majors. Now, this topic allows me to bridge the gap to my original interest in epistemology – the science of knowledge. By trying to evaluate technology, not solely ethical questions are taken into account, but the reliability of empirical forecasts has to be evaluated as well, for instance in the controversial debate on global warming. At this point, epistemology can very well complement other scientific disciplines.

You were an invited expert at a hearing by the German Ethics Commission on a Safe Energy Supply in 2011. Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel has installed this commission after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in order to realign Germany's energy policy. What do you remember most about this hearing? And what can the field of technology ethics contribute to this debate?

What I remember most, apart from my own nervousness, is the debate's main focus on cost effectiveness on the one hand and security technology on the other. The topic of ethics was hardly touched upon. But when it comes to decisions about technology, ethics could and should have a crucial role. The very best technology is not necessarily the best solution. Usually, technological transformation of our environment takes place to enhance the well-being of humans. But it is important to ask: Whose well-being are we having in mind? For instance, if we talk about the technological transformation in Germany, we have to consider the needs of future generations and of people living in the Third World as well. Ethics can help to focus on different groups and aspects. But its role is much broader in my opinion: We have to return to the traditional notion of technology furthering human well-being. Any kind of sustainable transformation will only succeed if we discuss the fundamental concept of well-being. Technology helps us to transform scientific findings into a defined goal, but ultimately, the reflection and definition of this goal is a societal task and as such the task of ethics.

How do you manage to promote the academic discourse without being taken in by any political faction? In other words: Have there been any invitations you had to decline due to reasons of neutrality?

Actually it does not happen often that I have to decline invitations due to questions of neutrality. But it does happen when technology ethics is confused with technology communication. With the help of ethics, we can evaluate technology and justify which practices or techniques are preferable to others, always with regard to certain universal principles. For instance, when I was asked to conduct the accompanying research for a carbon capture and storage (CCS) project, I refused promptly. Evidently, the client, a state government, did not want to discuss the ethical question whether CCS is a reasonable or responsible technology. The government only wanted to take into account the population's fears, which from the start were assumed to be irrational, and incorporate them into its communication strategy. But in my opinion, it would be crucial to discuss the ethical aspects before a new technology is implemented.

Where does your passion for the field of technology ethics come from? On the one hand, this field addresses topics with possibly dramatic consequences. On the other, I assume it can also be a somewhat dry subject, considering all the relevant details?

How our society wants to organise our lives is closely related to technology development and design. Technological progress plays a pivotal role in shaping our lives. The question when and if this process can be called "sustainable" is not only of great practical relevance, but is also very challenging intellectually. And the subject is not half as dry as it may sound. Very inspiring for example is the cooperation with other academic disciplines. For me, the cooperation with an unfamiliar discipline – be it electrical engineering, process engineering, or sociology – is always like immersing myself into a new culture. There has to be a reason we talk of "disciplinary cultures". These daily challenges make my work endlessly challenging and never dull.

If you could make a professional wish: What would that wish be?

I would love to have more time for research! If this wish were granted, I think, everything else would fall into place. Under "everything else" I would include the integration of technology ethics into the engineering curriculum, just like the history of medicine and medical ethics are part of the medical training nowadays. This supplement to engineering training would not only be highly desirable in my opinion, but also of great importance.

You like to take pictures – what are your favourite motives?

I like to photograph cats, details of plants or artefacts, or mirror effects. I think it is inspiring to turn an everyday scene into an aesthetic image. This might be the reason why I also like to photograph industrial buildings and large-scale production facilities.

Dear Prof. Hillerbrand, thank you for this interview.

Interview Stephanie Hanel
Translation Susanne Dambeck
  (© AcademiaNet)

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