Scientific scope - themes


Lethica is a network of 96 researchers and teachers, assembling 17 full professors, 37 associate professors, 11 CEERE members and 18 assistant professors, PhDs and scholars affiliated to the University of Strasbourg Research Units, and finally 13 associate or full professors belonging to other French or European academic institutions. Lethica’s members are committed to exploring the following questions: how do the arts and literatures inform and reconfigure past and contemporary ethical debates? How do they contribute to publicize their main issues and thus foster general public understanding? How do they reveal continuities or, on the contrary, significant breaks and differences between various cultures and historical periods on crucial ethical debates?

As an Interdisciplinary Thematic Institute bringing together scholars in visual and plastic arts, drama and film studies, French and Comparative literatures, studies in European and Eastern languages and literatures, theology, sociology, philosophy and medical studies (especially geriatric medicine), LETHICA has selected four major contemporary issues, which will be explored in the long term, alternatively or consecutively, and which will give way to joint interdisciplinary programs and specific topics of investigation. Those four major themes are the issues of “Triage”, “Moral revolutions”, “Transparency and Secrecy”, and “Case making and caring”.

Lethica thus intended to address pressing societal challenges, such as the spread of a sorting paradigm (“triage”) from military medicine to emergency medicine, humanitarian aid and a number of economical, social and geopolitical relations; the proliferation and acceleration of moral revolutions, as a consequence of globalization and mediatization, as well as the subsequent multiplication of ethical conflicts within or between western and non-western societies; the public and democratic call for transparency, which tends to be constrained by political strategies and economic interests; the expansion of new paradigms and ethical issues (vulnerability, durability) regarding new situations and conditions for human and animal life (bioethics, animal ethics). In the international context of the COVID 19 pandemia, of recurring terrorist attacks, of disputed democratic elections, Lethica’s selected topics are more than ever relevant ones, and they will be explored in the next 8 years according to four general perspectives, as sketched in the original project : “historical approaches”, “intercultural outlooks”, “artistic research” and “ethics-therapeutics joint” (see more about these four perspectives here).

Topic 1 : Triage

First elaborated in military circumstances (during the Napoleonic wars and then the First World War), in order to separate the injured soldiers from those mortally wounded, triage has progressively become a major paradigm of emergency medicine as well as of humanitarian aid, employment strategies and educational policies. As a series of codified processes meant to rank, select, prioritize or neglect patients and/or eligible profiles among targeted populations, triage actually raises not only sanitary, economical, political or social issues but also ethical ones, since it bluntly displays that human lives are not always considered in equal terms. Who shall, for example, be provided with vital resources when these become drastically reduced? To whom should rare or specific cures be made available? And on which criteria should one discriminate among candidates with similar backgrounds and potentials when economical or educational opportunities are limited?
Anthropological and sociological studies of various protocols implemented to give access, for example, to kidney-failure dialyses, organ transplantations or AIDS treatments, have proven that triage procedures did not end up with the same results whether or not the medical staff had made personal contacts and knew the biographies of their patients. Personal narratives, therefore, tend to play a significant part in the triage decision-making, as V-K. Nguyen (2010) has proven in the case of AIDS on the Ivory Coast or more recently S. Laacher (2018) in the case of refugees claiming political asylum to the French National Court in charge of examining their rights. The ethical issues raised by triage procedures have also been staged in many fictions or testimonies, such as the literature of the camp experiments under the Nazi or the Soviet regimes; furthermore, one can observe that nowadays, many youth fictions and their cinematographic adaptations such as Hunger Games (by S. Collins, 2008-10) or Divergent (by V. Roth, 2011-2013) precisely deal with triage scenarios, which are also developed in movies on planned unemployment or economic lay-offs (e.g. L. & J-P. Dardenne’s Deux jours, une nuit, 2014 ; K Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, 2016 ; or S. Brizé’s La loi du marché, 2015 & En guerre, 2018). Moreover, as a contemporary paradigm bound to rule many aspects of our lives and of our relations to others (migrants, climatic refugees, victims of biohazardous or disease outbreaks), triage is now frequently incorporated to “serious games” and “tabletop exercises” inspired by novels, storyboards or past historical events (such as the Spanish flu outbreak, just a century ago) which lead to new political, economical and sanitary policies (Zylberman, 2013). The way fictions actually impact our present and preordain our future raises important ethical issues.

Topic 2: Moral revolutions

We are accustomed to think about “revolutions” as major changes of regime, paradigms, norms and customs in the realms of politics, sciences, or technologies, but large mutations of moral feelings and behaviors can also occur in a short time, at the end of which things look new and we treat each other differently. Yet, since ethics are primarily concerned with better living, moral revolutions should be considered as living by new principles and practices which end previous forms of discrimination or marginalization. How can we thus change moral codes proven to be unfair?
More specifically, how do we reduce the role of class, race, gender, age or even health in shaping hierarchy? How can we also change our predatory relationship to other living species and to our ecological environment? How do we finally turn private moral sentiments into new public norms, respectful of the various forms of vulnerability that also define our human existence?
Moral revolutions can be studied in their artistic and literary expressions using the various methodological approaches structuring LETHICA: from a historical viewpoint, arts and literatures shed new light on former moral revolutions such as the abolition of trade and slavery (Appiah, 2012), but intercultural perspectives will also help to understand how moral revolutions, such as the suppression of the death penalty, spread rapidly in many countries over a few decades; the artistic research perspective can highlight the effect of literary and artistic processes in moral revolutions, while the linking of ethics with therapy can help outlining the goals and consequences of such changes.
Many contemporary issues can also be revisited as ongoing moral revolutions, such as gay marriage, gestational surrogacy, medically assisted procreation, handicap policies, ethical debates on euthanasia or more generally end of life procedures, from the suffering foetus to the condemned person; conditions of incarceration or confinement of inmates, migrants, refugees and, beyond the human realm, “the sequestered reality of factory farming, in which hundreds of millions of mammals, and billions of birds, live a squalid, brief existence” (Appiah, 2012 : 12). On all these topics, LETHICA can build on the solid epistemological foundations established by M.-J. Thiel’s and the CEERE’s “Paths of Ethics” series of volumes at the University Press of Strasbourg.

Topic 3: Transparency and Secrecy

The growing ethical demand for transparency in political life, health issues, economical policies, expert reports and educational assessments is both an inheritance of the Enlightenment (Alloa, 2018) and an extension of heterogeneous practices in fields of knowledge which define scientific and artistic modernity – from medical imaging to glass architecture for example. Yet it faces considerable challenges with the corollary practices of secrecy, whose unveiling has led to many public scandals over the last decades (Wikileaks, Panama papers, sexual abuses of minors by Catholic clergy and so on). Beyond the classical ethical debates on what should be confessed or concealed, exemplified by the famous B. Constant vs I. Kant’s controversy (should I obey the moral imperative to always say the truth in front of a killer seeking a friend hidden in my place?), arts and literatures often deal with the issues of transparency and secrets in very innovative ways. For example, the success of detective stories goes together with the rise of a new paradigm of inquiry in contemporary documentaries, cinematographic or literary fictions (Demanze, 2019), or even art exhibitions. The critical and unveiling uses of narration actually collide with the expanding practice of storytelling (Salmon, 2007) and with the “Governance by numbers” (Supiot, 2015), meant to quantify and reveal objective facts while actually manufacturing consent to fictitious appraisals of reality. The same goes
with the lexical euphemizing spread by management terminology (Hazan, 2006; Grenouillet, 2015), to hide or even semantically reverse conflictual realities (such as naming “job preservation plan” what is actually an economical layoff). A similar tension between transparency and secrecy can be found with the tech companies’ collections of “big data” whose exact uses remain non-transparent, while they are supposed to be “open” and accessible according to various laws on Computing, Freedom and Data protection. These very same data can actually be made both visible and invisible by manipulating algorithmic processes, and in the era of expanding “fakes”, artistic and literary fictions therefore face the delicate ethical challenge “not only to show the invisible, but to show also how invisible is the invisibility of the visible” (Foucault, 1994 : 524). Yet they are themselves bound by some ethical limits: to what extent must they pledge their allegiance only to truth? Can they really show/say everything, and take an ethical stand by offending public morality or, on the contrary, by moralizing society?

Topic 4: Case Making and Caring

Case study is an integral part of both medicine and literary and artistic productions. On the legal level, as on the moral level, case study aims to determine the action, even to define a recurrent practice: associated with its ability to “being problematic” (Passeron, Revel, 2005 : 16), the case, by the reflection it generates, is what potentially determines a new norm. As such, the case is a figure closely related to ethics, insofar as it articulates particularity and generality and supposes choices, often in terms of a dilemma. A case raises the question of the value and the criteria determining the hierarchy of values. It leads to defining what we care about first. Case making and caring are thus strongly connected.
As a rhetorical figure (one may think of casuistry, and its role in the examination of conscience), the case is an interdisciplinary object. It solicits for this reason a set of practices and discourses of which literary works can be the crossroads. Novels are for example valuable analytical tools because they articulate, in a complex dialectic, the singularity of a character to the exemplarity of a story. The case, “which presents itself as both the discursive exposition of a theory and its narrative representation” (Carlino, Wenger, 2007 : 15) is also a figure of thought: placed by André Jolles (1930) among the “simple forms” (alongside the example or the sample), the case has the particularity of making the emergence of exemplarity problematic by “asking a question without being able to give the answer” and by “imposing the obligation to decide but without containing the decision itself” (Jolles, 1972 : 151). In this perspective, literary fiction, because not directly subjected to praxis, often dramatizes the issues raised by a case, for pathetic purposes, but also ethical ones (Leichter-Flack, 2013, 2015). This connection between ethos and pathos makes the literary case a laboratory for thinking about the scale of values, their historical evolution, and their articulation to a decision-making process. By the plurality of norms that it mobilizes (be they medical, legal, social), a case therefore has
to offer an angle of interdisciplinary analysis to the ethical problems it poses. Studying the link between case and care will make it possible to associate researchers in theory of literature, philosophers, historians of mentalities, possibly jurists, but also and mostly medical practitioners. The medical case narrative plays indeed a central role in therapy, but also in the development of a science of mores (from the legal field to possible moral revolutions). It also gives form to an ethical and philosophical questioning, in which literature and fiction can both be a relay and a thinking experiment (Salaün, 2010; Macherey, 2013). One should therefore study how fictional cases do participate in ethical debates (e.g., in medicine, or in the field of mores), and how reciprocally narratives, in medical case reports, can be the basis for ethical reflection.