Claims about being “critical” as academics seldom explain what being critical actually means for us, or what it implies for our professional and personal conduct. Sometimes, it is associated with distanced observation “from above”, while at other times it is about descending from the Ivory tower and engaging with political problems for a good cause. In our article, we explore these questions through a discussion of critique and ethics vis-à-vis security.
What unites us as authors, apart from the fact that we see ourselves as academics in the tradition of critical security studies, is that we share a professional history of being involved in EU security research projects as experts in ethics. More specifically, we share a history of being sought out to guide ongoing research processes within these projects to keep them in line with ethical and legal principles and provisions – such as those of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights or the principles of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI).
EU security research usually combines a number of participants from the academic world (predominantly technical disciplines), the security industry, and the so-called end-users of such research (for example police, civil protection agencies, or border guards). The main goal of most EU security research projects is to find “smart” and “innovative” solutions to security problems, while at the same time producing potentially commodifiable products. Examples include systems for automated surveillance, data mining, or predictive policing for the sake of counterterrorism.
These systems can be deeply problematic from an ethical perspective and are often subjected to harsh criticisms in critical security studies. On the one hand, this warrants ethical engagement. On the other, it presents us with a tough “dirty hands” dilemma of either entering the projects to reduce the harm or staying away to avoid personal implication and possible co-optation.
In our article, we explore the opportunities for critique that such ethics work offers. The ethics part of EU security research projects is usually supposed to act as the first point of contact for all kinds of normative questions, including ones that speak to conceptualizations of threat and security and what security solutions should look like. This presents us with opportunities to engage with involved communities and, potentially, to spark reflexivity about security and the ways in which it becomes produced. In other words, these can be opportunities to “put critique to work” through ethics.
In this sense, ethics should not be misunderstood as a moral imperative, but instead as a reflection on values in concrete contexts. As we show through examples from our professional experience, this is however not so easy. Facing challenges of power, communication, conflicting interests and flawed expectations, ethics experts can end up legitimizing projects through their very participation without having a genuine impact. Based on an incremental account of these constraints, we propose a set of conditions that should be met for ethicists to exercise critique in EU security research.
In this way, we hope to inform a debate on concrete political measures that could be taken in this respect, as well as contributing to a broader reflection on the complicated connections between ethics and scholarly critique in practice.