Tomorrow is good: never say that ethics is just a trend

The fastest way to get rid of a philosopher? Simple. Say that ethics is just a ‘trend .’ They will charge out of the room with such haste that the hyperloop will pale in comparison.

A while ago I heard a compliance manager talk about #metoo as an ‘ethical trend’. The #metoo movement created a culture of speaking out in the workplace more relevant and, as an employer, you have to take this into account. Research and consultancy from the Gartner company presented digital ethics and privacy as strategic ‘trends’ for 2019.

The benchmark Dutch dictionary Van Dale defines trend as ‘fashion’ amongst other things, in the sense of ‘the latest fashion’ or ‘setting a trend.’ This way, ethics is put on an equal footing with oversized shoulders, which incidentally will be completely on trend this autumn and winter.

At long last, widespread public concern

Who even actually thought up the term ‘ethical trends’? Take #metoo: at long last there is widespread public concern for structurally flawed and problematic situations that have been tolerated for far too long. If #metoo is just a trend, it will probably blow over at some point, just like skinny jeans are gradually disappearing from the streets in favor of flared trousers. Last season, sexually inappropriate behaviour at work was out of fashion. Yet come this autumn, sexism is back to square one.

In the book ‘How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life’, economist Robert Skidelsky and his son, philosopher Edward Skidelsky, are advocating the reintroduction of the moral dimension into current Western market thinking. As in, the loss of humanity is immense in a society that has an insatiable craving for profit at the expense of values, the common good and fundamental rights. Privacy is not a ‘strategic trend’, but a human right, as set out in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Respect for human rights is not a fad.

The yearning for friendship

Ethics and the notion of what a good life is have been central to philosophy for centuries. “Of all the ways to achieve absolute happiness in life that wisdom provides us with, by far the most important one is to find friendship,” said ‘trendsetter’ Epicurus. And he was right: anyone who feels connected to family, friends, loved ones and a social network feels happier. The opposite of belonging – feeling lonely and cut off from others – makes us deeply unhappy and leads to poorer health. Having good relationships paves the way to a good life, which runs contrary to individualism and self-interest.

“A life that does not look critically at itself is not worth living,” says the other trendsetter named Socrates. In other words, “vindica te tibi”- “spend time with yourself”, according to the wise sentiments of Seneca the trend watcher. ” Take a look at yourself and examine yourself in various ways and keep an eye on yourself; have a closer look at whether you have made any progress in philosophy or in life itself.”

Whoever continues to inspire centuries later on, has not launched a trend, but rather an indispensable guide to a good life.

About this column:

In a weekly column, alternately written by Bert Overlack, Mary Fiers, Peter de Kock, Eveline van Zeeland, Lucien Engelen, Tessie Hartjes, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally supplemented with guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions for the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous columns.



Major grant for research into ethically responsible technology

Researchers from Dutch universities are launching a major new research programme into the ethics of disruptive technologies. The ethicists, philosophers and technical scientists have received a grant of 17.9 million euros from the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. The research should lead to a better moral understanding of the changes that groundbreaking innovations like artificial intelligence and molecular biology have on society. The ten-year programme is a collaboration between the University of Twente, TU Delft, Utrecht University and TU Eindhoven, in which Wageningen University & Research, Leiden University and Utrecht University Medical Centre also participate.

New technologies are currently shooting up like mushrooms. They include innovations in the fields of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, nanomedicine, molecular biology, neurotechnology and climate technology. These technologies will have a major impact on everyday life and can contribute to solving issues such as climate change and the depletion of raw materials.

But they also raise moral questions that call for ethical reflection. Values such as privacy, freedom and equality, the boundary between natural and artificial, and the perception of freedom and responsibility are increasingly being challenged.


The researchers argue that these developments require a “reorientation in the field of the ethics of technology”. Within the programme they will be developing new methods needed to understand the new disruptive technologies, to evaluate them from a moral perspective, and, if necessary, to intervene in the way in which the technology continues to develop. An additional goal is to renew ethics and philosophy in a broad sense by investigating how modern technology changes the meaning of classical ethical values and philosophical concepts.

The programme is not only unique in the Netherlands but also internationally. The Dutch scientists, including TU Eindhoven professors Wijnand IJsselsteijn and Anthonie Meijers, are among the world leaders in their field.

Ethics of Socially Disruptive Technologies
Prof. dr. P.A.E. Brey (Universiteit Twente), Prof. dr. ir. I.R. van de Poel (TU Delft), Prof. dr. I.A.M. Robeyns (Universiteit Utrecht), Prof. dr. S. Roeser (TU Delft), Prof. dr. ir. P.P.C.C. Verbeek (Universiteit Twente), Prof. dr. W.A. IJsselsteijn (TU Eindhoven).
Participating institutes: Universiteit Twente, TU Delft, Universiteit Utrecht and TU Eindhoven, Wageningen University & Research, Universiteit Leiden, Universitair Medisch Centrum Utrecht


The research at TU Eindhoven will focus on the influence of biomedical and digital technologies on the self-image and self-understanding of people. Concepts such as autonomy, corporality, mortality and transcendence will be called into question by innovations such as genetic manipulation and artificial intelligence.

Take for instance stem cell research into diseases such as Parkinson’s, that increasingly makes use of hybrid human-animal embryos. What does this imply for the distinction between humans and animals, which for so long has determined our norms and values, and our legislation?

IJsselsteijn is very pleased with the grant. “Technical universities have a role and responsibility when it comes to the human, social and ecological consequences of technology. The grant underlines the importance of ethical reflection and accountability in technical innovations, and gives us the means to renew the ethics themselves where necessary”.

“Technical universities have a role and responsibility when it comes to the human, social and ecological consequences of technology.”


The project is the first in the field of philosophy to receive a contribution from the so-called Gravitation programme. The programme, which is financed by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, focuses on excellent scientific research programmes. The Dutch Research Council (NWO), the national science financier, supervises the programme on behalf of the Ministry. In this round, six projects received a total contribution of 113.5 million euros. The contribution will enable top researchers to undertake innovative research of a fundamental character for a ten-year period.