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Ethics, Culture and Biotechnology


Admission requirements

Intended for all BA and BSc students registered for the minor Responsible Innovation.


Digital and bio-based technologies are often claimed to make our lives easier, healthier and more efficient. Yet, their implementation in practice often entails important ethical concerns. For instance, when sensing technologies penetrate the bodily boundaries, becoming ingestible, implantable and embeddable, the body turns into a networked platform, whose integrity and safety can be compromised (in case of a hacking attack). Likewise, biometric information tracking or affective computing commodify and expose to surveillance the very physical conditions of human identity.

Furthermore, biotechnological practices (such as genetic modification) that involve manipulation of living beings present a challenge to traditional notions of nature and the human body. This is particularly true of synthetic biology, a form of bioengineering which includes both the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems and the re-designing of existing natural biological systems. These developments pose pressing and urgent questions. Firstly, who has the right to re-design life? This is ultimately a question of legal and moral ownership and of the commodification of life and nature. Secondly, what limits do we, as a society, wish to impose on biotechnological innovation involving nature and the human body? And what notion of 'being human' or human dignity and of nature are these limits based on?

The starting point of this course is that digital and bio-based technology is testing accepted ethical and aesthetic values concerning the human body and nature to such an extent that we need multiple perspectives in our search for a theoretical and practical position on these new challenges. In particular, we will consider the contribution of art in this debate. We will discuss how artworks that engage with biometric sensing and practices of manipulating living matter enable the artist and the beholder to actively experiment with new ways of being, behaving and constituting subjectivities in relation to technological developments.

Course objectives

At the end of this course students should be able to

  • Describe key ethical issues in digital technology related to the body;

  • Describe key historical and cultural issues in biotechnology and its products;

  • Identify individual and social barriers that play a role in the application of (bio)technological innovations;

  • Identify various perspectives and values in the public debate surrounding technological development (such as posthumanism and transhumanism);

  • Reflect upon the role of the industry and the entrepreneur in addressing ethical issues regarding a technological product involving living matter and human body;

  • Develop debating skills and critical reading skills.*

*) The final course outline may differ.


The timetables can be downloaded here.

Mode of instruction

  • Lecture

  • Seminar

  • Research

  • Attendance in this course is mandatory. In case of no-show, the tutor should be informed about your absence prior to the actual seminar session. Moreover, this course cannot be successfully completed by students that were absent more than twice

Assessment method


In the final session of the course, students will give in smaller groups oral presentations about an artwork that relates to a (bio)technological issue.
At the end of the course students also will need to hand in an individual written paper (2000 words +/- 5 %, excluding footnotes and bibliography).


  • Oral presentation (40%)

  • Paper (60 %)
    The final mark for the course is established by determining the weighted average. To successfully complete the course the weighted average needs to be a passing grade (5.5 and higher).


If the end grade is insufficient, it is possible to take a resit examination for the paper assignment. The faculty rules relating to participation in resit examinations can be found in article 4.1 of the faculty Course and Examination Regulations (OER).

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

Scientific and professional papers and teaching cases, to be provided or indicated via Brightspace.


Students need to register for the minor at their home university and for each individual course through My Studymap Login | Universiteit Leiden


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar

  • For practical questions, contact the minor coordinator Lotte Pet


The final course outline may differ.