Program on Science, Technology and Society at Harvard

Harvard Kennedy School of Government | Harvard University

Jasanoff on science, technology and human rights for the 75th Anniversary of the UDHR

December 11, 2023

Sheila Jasanoff contributed to a recent essay collection by the Harvard Kennedy School Carr Center on Human Rights Policy commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The complete publication, entitled “Making a Movement: The History and Future of Human Rights,” can be found here, and Jasanoff’s essay on science, technology and human rights is copied below.

The relationship between science, technology, and human rights is embedded in the oldest myths of Western civilizations, from Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden because they ate the forbidden fruit of knowledge to Prometheus’ fateful decision to bring fire to humankind.

Implicit in these stories is a paradox that lies at the heart of moral inquiry in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS): how can we ensure that expanding the frontiers of knowledge and toolmaking will emancipate rather than hurt or enslave humanity? STS embraces the notion that knowledge and technologies which are good for humanity should protect the fundamental pillars of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)— dignity, liberty, equality, and brotherhood—not diminish or compromise them.

One strand of concern in the field of STS, therefore, centers on points in the development of science and technology where potentially harmful consequences get embedded into the very facts and designs that emerge from making and applying knowledge. These can be extraordinarily diverse. The causes
of rights-endangering development that reduce equality or damage brotherhood can range from deliberate acts to carelessness or institutional blindness. For example, promoting crop biotechnology based on scientific demonstrations of safety may seem justified from the standpoint of feeding the world population or fighting climate change. Yet, the failure to consider the impacts of a technology that favors industrial-scale agriculture at the expense of small farmers may have disproportionate effects on people’s economic rights, as well as their right to a safe and healthful environment. Through ideas
such as “responsible research and innovation” or “upstream risk assessment,” STS seeks to identify the reasons for designers’ possible narrowing of vision, and thereby to build a wider concern for human rights into the early stages of technology development.

STS, however, is also concerned with problematic shifts that may occur when developments in science and technology impinge on the qualities that make us human. In this respect, the field tracks the UDHR’s focus on dignity and liberty. Will the expansion of research on lab-created embryos or the generation of machines that displace human interaction reduce our respect for human dignity and the freedom to develop our personalities through our own choices? These concerns draw STS into exploring the theoretical foundations that justify the rights protected by the Declaration—as an adjunct to more conventional traditions in moral and political theory.

Last but not least, STS is concerned with the future, as both science and technology operate in human lives to articulate and empower destinies not within the reach of our predecessors. As long as inequality remains a stubborn foundation of our social world, the capacity to imagine and confect alternative futures is not equally distributed around the world. To give voice to human aspiration—an urge that surely animates the UDHR—one should note explicitly, as STS does, that the right to anticipate good futures is itself an ethical obligation that we owe to one another as members of the species that we call “human.”