Acting for society

Prof. Dr. Peter Dabrock
Prof. Dr. Peter Dabrock im Ethikrat. (Bild: Dt. Ethikrat/R. Zensen)

Prof. Dr. Peter Dabrock gives an insight on the work of the German Ethics Council.

The FAU theologist Prof. Dr. Peter Dabrock has been a member of the German Ethics Council for the last eight years, four of them as chairman. In an interview he shares insights into the Council’s work, talks about its significance and shares the greatest challenges he has faced as chairman.

Prof. Dabrock, which role does the Ethics Council play in politics, science and our daily life?

As the Ethics Council is legally required to be unbiased and independent, during my term of office I did not feel under pressure to deliver ready-made solutions which could be applied immediately or have a direct effect. When you consider the nature of political advice, it would be rather unrealistic to expect politics to change direction immediately upon receiving opinions from the Ethics Council or to make a new law right away on the basis of them. It works quite differently in practice. Often, we have no influence over how the opinions we submit are received.

Can you give us some examples?

In the history of the Ethics Council, some of our opinions have had more of a direct impact than others, for example those on the circumcision debate or now in the coronavirus pandemic with respect to triage or easing lockdown restrictions. These statements have then been quoted by the media as a reference point during public debate. However, we do also provide opinions on legal initiatives which address those actively engaged in politics or opinions which pave the way for us to change our behaviour in the medium term, such as the soon to be published opinion on animal welfare. And some are aimed at areas which are important in the long term, such as the opinion we published on intervention into the human germ line. The freedom to have an impact in various different areas and to explore the issues in depth, taking all aspects into consideration, is what makes this institution so special. There is nothing like it in the political landscape in Berlin, or indeed anywhere else in the world.

How does the Council come to a conclusion?

The policy of including members from various different backgrounds and working together to explore all aspects of various controversial topics is what makes the Ethics Council such a special institution. The final result does not necessarily have to mean coming to a consensus, instead it often constitutes a corridor of opinion which can be shared by nearly if not all members of the Ethics Council in spite of their differing viewpoints. Within this corridor, however, there is space for various options and points of view. Instead of seeking harmony at all costs or encouraging disagreement, we strive to find a workable solution based on common ground which reflects the needs of a society which seeks social cohesion in spite of its plurality. A lot of intense groundwork has to be done before we can achieve our objective.

People around a table.
At the interface between politics, the public and the economy: Meeting of the Executive Board with Federal President Steinmeier on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Ethics Council 2018.(Bild: Dt. Ethikrat/R. Zensen)

Could you give us a brief outline of how the Ethics Council works?

It is intense: we always work on drafting two opinions at one time. The members of the Council split up into various working groups and meet once a month. The interim results of both groups are then discussed in the monthly plenary session. Generally speaking, it takes about a year to finish work on one opinion. The Ethics Council also has an office to support it in its work. Public events are held four times a year, and members of parliament are invited to attend a parliamentary evening once a year. The chairperson is expected not only to coordinate the work of the office but also to keep in close contact with the media, ministries, other scientific advisory bodies and the international counterparts of the German Ethics Council. There is no shortage of work.

You retired from office in mid April and are no longer a member of the Ethics Council. Will you miss the work?

It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t. It was the best post imaginable for me, believing as I do that ethics is not only a theoretical discipline but also as a way of actively shaping society. I always felt it was a special privilege and a responsibility to be able to act as an intermediary between politics, public relations and science.

Your last few days in office must have been particularly challenging for you.

The coronavirus pandemic is the largest health threat ever posed to the Federal Republic of Germany. I believed it was important for the Ethics Council to issue a clear and unanimous statement on it, as it is an area covered by the work of the Ethics Council. In addition, we were also approached by the Federal Minister of Health Jens Spahn and asked for our position on triage and the easing of restrictions coming out of lockdown. We couldn’t rely on our normal procedures for dealing with topics entailing such dramatic consequences. It was an unusual challenge for the 26 members of the Ethics Council to come to a common position within just four days. We had to substitute face-to-face working group meetings with video and telephone conferences. We had extremely intense discussions, but at the end of the day we managed to agree on a unanimous statement of opinion.

What do you plan to do in future?

My research has always been centred on the ethics of technical and (bio)scientific intervention in human life forms, even before and during my term of office in the Ethics Council. As progress in this field is extremely rapid, I will continue to work in this scientific area, but without the institutional background of the Council. I look forward to focusing even more on the topic of AI, which is of great importance for FAU, and AI in healthcare in particular. This is an area which society still needs to develop in detail as a matter of public debate. What we decide now will have a decisive effect on our future.

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In der aktuellen Ausgabe geht es um das Digitalisierungsprojekt „Objekte im Netz“, Fledermäuse mit Rucksäcken und die Herausforderungen für die Demokratie durch Bio- und Digitaltechnologie. Außerdem haben wir mit dem FAU-Theologen Prof. Dr. Peter Dabrock über seine Zeit als Vorsitzender des deutschen Ethikrates gesprochen. „Student des Jahres“ Sagithjan Surendra erzählt im Interview von seinem Jugend-Förderwerk und Dr. Axel Adrian vom Lehrstuhl für Strafrecht, Strafprozessrecht und Rechtsphilosophie erklärt, wie Künstliche Intelligenz im Rechtswesen eingesetzt wird.

FAU-Magazin alexander Nr. 113

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