science-based art

Symposium: Ethics and the Arts, June 28th 2012

From June 26th till June 29th 2012 Erasmus MC Rotterdam will host the 11th conference of the International Association of Bioethics:

THINKING AHEAD, Bioethics and the Future, and the Future of Bioethics. This conference will discuss key issues relevant for the future, including future technologies in health care, ethics and research in developing countries, synthetic biology, enhancement, life-prolonging strategies, environmental issues, the moral responsibility for future generations, food and ethics, and public health.

Symposium 45 will be about the Arts and Bioethics (Bio-Art):

Ethics and the Arts, June 28th 2012

Organising Group: Centre for Biomedical Ethics (CBmE), Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore

Chair: Professor Paul Ulhas Macneill

Centre for Biomedical Ethics, National University of Singapore, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, Dean’s Office, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, Website:


‘Art and ethics’ has been given a prominent position in the last two World Congresses of Bioethics: in Riejka, Croatia in 2008 (where there was an art exhibition, a performance session, a feature film, and academic papers), and in Singapore in 2010 (where there were two ‘Art and ethics’ Symposia and academic papers). A discussion of these events has been has been published (Macneill P, Ferran B. Art and bioethics: shifts in understanding across genres. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 2011; 8(1):71-85. Continuing work on this theme has led to the forthcoming publication of a book Ethics and the Arts (in 2013 with publisher Springer) which will be a collection of original essays on the theme of ethics and the arts. The proposed Symposium will take some of the themes from this book and relate them to the Congress theme and subthemes (as discussed below).


The Ethics and the Arts Symposium will explore a relationship between ethics and the arts from: the perspectives of the various arts and how they relate to ethics; and how an appreciation of ethics through the arts can inform bioethics. There has been continuing debate about the relationship between art and ethics through the history of philosophy. In recent times, with changes in media, a nexus between art and ethics has become more evident. Photos of victims of the holocaust, of a naked child running from a napalm attack, frame our thinking about the holocaust and the Vietnam war. Explorations in the arts of ethical issues (for example: movies on the theme of genetic manipulation) contribute significantly to public understanding. Furthermore, explorations in the arts (such as a documentary on the criminally insane, or artists manipulating living matter) have implications in thinking through ethics more broadly. The Symposium will take a few of these issues and explore them briefly, and from these particular contexts discuss broader ideas and theoretical considerations arising from ethics and the arts, before opening to discussion with the audience. The panel comprises three authors of chapters from the book and the discussion will focus on the following topics from the broad area of Ethics and the Arts.

Topics for discussion:

The arts and morality
Ethics, aesthetics and politics in documentary-making
Presence as ethics in theatre performance
Bio-art and bio-ethics
Implications for the future of bioethics

Relationship to the theme and subtheme of the Congress:

The Symposium relates directly to the theme of the Congress: and in particular to ‘the future of bioethics.’ The focus of this Symposium will be on the arts and ethics. However, the presentations will explore a number of ideas that challenge ‘mainstream bioethics’ and provide an alternative approach to conceptualising bioethics for the future. Some of these ideas are that:

- Ethics is an aesthetic practice

- Ethics has a performative aspect: understandings from the training of actors and theatrical performance can augment our understanding of ethics

- There is a ‘nexus’ between ethics and all the arts including photography, film, and literature: in that images from the arts are a part of the social context of bioethics

- New media will play an increasing role in the evolution of ethics and bioethics

- Bio-art and the exploration by artists of themes that are relevant to bioethics—such as technological augmentation of the body, and manipulation of life-forms—has an influence on how these issues are perceived

- Literature, film and documentaries (and all the arts) create both an affect and an effect that influences discussions of issues in bioethics. These media play a role in the conception of future technologies of health care, genetic manipulation, synthetic biology, and enhancement therapies (to name just a few issues) as well as influencing the tone, or emotional affect in the way in which these issues are experienced and understood.

This Symposium will challenge bioethics at both a substantive and a process level: by suggesting that the arts play a significant role in the framing of substantive fields; and (at a process level) by challenging bioethics to be more encompassing of the arts as a valid means for investigation and discovery.

Style of Interaction:

The Chairman for this Symposium was a previous Congress Organiser (Sydney 2004) and in that Congress and in subsequent Arts Symposia, he has championed an interactive style of symposia. This was true of the presentations in Rijeka—and in particular following the performances in the Performance Session and following the movie ‘Romulus My Father’—and it was true of the two Arts Symposia in Singapore. It is fully intended that the style of this Symposium will be interactive—both between the panelists and with the audience. The intention is for the presenters to communicate with each in advance of the Congress and be conversant with each other’s materials—and in a good position to address some of the more over-arching themes that come out of their particular arts focus.


Paul Macneill
Debora Diniz
Ingeborg Reichle