Lecture: “What is data/ethics?” — Thoughts on relational ethics and justice for a data-centric society

By Jarrett Zigon, University of Virginia

Tue 11 May 2021
15:00–16:25 (GMT)



Keynote speech for “Feeling Digital” Workshop

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In our contemporary data-centric society, it has become commonplace to demand that data-driven practices are done ethically. The conditions of a global pandemic have brought about an urgency for such a demand, as data surveillance and tracking are now considered a matter of public health and essential for a return to “normal life”. What is often missing from this demand, however, is the very question of the ethics appropriate to data. This is so, perhaps, because prior to the question of ethics, we have neglected to ask the even more fundamental question of data. That is, we have not yet asked: what is data? For it is precisely our response to this more fundamental question that leads us to our ethical starting point. This essay is a first step towards thinking about this question of data, and the kind of ethics appropriate to it. Invoking the Latin origin of data – datum: something given as gift – I draw from Jean-Luc Marion’s phenomenology of the given to sketch a relational ethics of the gift. Such a notion of relational ethics, I contend, is not only more appropriate to the givenness of data, but to the very idea of ethics as such. That is, to ethics as an ongoing process of living together well, the political motivation of which is justice.

About the speaker

Jarrett Zigon is the Porterfield Professor of Bioethics and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Virginia. His research interests include the anthropology of ethics, problematics of being human, questioning the political, ontological relationality, and thinking anthropology with philosophy. These interests are taken up from a perspective strongly influenced by post-Heideggerian continental philosophy and critical theory and are explored in his most recent books Disappointment: Toward a Critical Hermeneutics of Worldbuilding and A War on People: Drug User Politics and a New Ethics of Community.


Attendees must register in advance and will be sent a Zoom link around 7 May.

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