Mark Hannam


Ethics and Public Policy (2nd edition)
by Jonathon Wolff
(Routledge, forthcoming)

Printable version

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There have always been rulers who sought advice from philosophers on how best to govern; and, there have always been philosophers willing to offer their help. In ancient times, Plato advised Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse and Kautilya was a counsellor to Chandragupta in northern India. More recently, Descartes went to Sweden to discuss philosophy with Queen Christina, and Leibniz was an advisor to members of the Hanoverian royal family, the Habsburgs in Vienna, and Czar Peter the Great.

During the twentieth century, while the practice of philosophy became a professional occupation, the public role of philosophers diminished. There are more teachers of philosophy than ever before, but their audience nowadays comprises students rather than queens or tyrants. Books by philosophers are largely read by other philosophers. Nonetheless, there are some who have engaged in the decision-making processes of modern democracies, through participation in working parties, official reviews and government commissions.

What is it about the way in which they do philosophy that enables some philosophers to influence the policy process successfully? I have been thinking about this question while reading the second edition of Jonathan Wolff's book, Ethics and Public Policy. I read the first edition back in 2010 and have been debating these questions with him for many years, which makes me – I admit – less an impartial reviewer than an interested party.

In the book's first edition there were eight thematic chapters – on scientific experiments on animals, gambling, drugs, safety, crime and punishment, health, disability, and the free market – together with a short concluding chapter. The second edition updates these, especially where there has been policy progress – for example, drugs and health – but also where, if anything, policy has become worse, such as gambling. In addition, there are four new chapters on risky technologies, the future of work, poverty, and immigration, together with an expanded conclusion.

The book provides a series of detailed studies of particular policy problems, the processes by which reform is achieved and the reasons why policy outcomes remain unsatisfactory in certain respects. In some cases, this is because fundamental differences in ethical view remain unresolved, in other cases because evidence is either disputed or ignored, and in other cases because there is insufficient funding available to make the changes that most people would support.

One of Wolff's main claims, is that the first step in dealing with a policy question is to understand the specifics of the problem: what existing policy is, why it developed in the way it did, what outcomes it is currently failing to achieve, and what might be done to improve it given the state of our knowledge, prevailing public opinion and the reservoirs of political will. This being so, making generalisations about the public policy making processes is unhelpful, because what works well in one case might not work at all in another. There is something deeply anti-Platonic about this view, namely that there is no pure form of public policy-making, no standard way for philosophers to contribute, neither in Syracuse nor in Westminster.

"Public policy", Wolff says, "needs philosophers more than it needs philosophy" by which he means that what is valuable in the policy-making process is less a set or arguments or ideals – the categorical imperative or the greatest good of the greatest number – than a set of skills, which, typically, someone trained in philosophy might be expected to possess. These include the ability to make important distinctions, to follow an argument to its conclusion, to weigh the strength of well-reasoned objections, and to see how the balance of evidence either supports or weakens the proposition under consideration. These are, undoubtedly, valuable skills: but to what extent are they primarily, or exclusively, philosophical skills?

Increasingly, modern democratic societies delegate policy making decisions to independent bodies, comprised of appointed experts. In part, this is an attempt to de-politicise complex, technical decisions, such as the right level for interest rates or the minimum wage, or the best way to distribute public money for academic research or the funding of the arts. It is also a recognition that in modern society there are very many decisions to be made, and that politicians require advice and guidance from a range of specialists to supplement their own judgements. There is, therefore, a strong case for the employment of unelected experts to support (and sometimes to supplant) the decisions of elected representatives.

Is philosophy a good training for such advisory roles? Possibly. However, looking at the professional backgrounds of those invited to sit on the Monetary Policy Committee or the Arts Council, or asked to participate in government reviews and commissions, the preponderance of lawyers, economists and accountants suggests that politicians remain unpersuaded of the intellectual prestige associated with the philosophic skillset. This might be because philosophers have acquired the reputation of being unwilling to tell rulers only what they want to hear. As the poet A. E. Stallings observes,

Stoic Seneca wasn't a hero
To take on a pupil like Nero
But I tell you, in those days
It took some cojones
To give his assignments a zero.

My own professional experience – in investment management – convinces me that an intellectual grounding in philosophy can be of significant value in developing scepticism about received wisdom, maintaining calmness under pressure, and recognizing that truth only ever comes in gradations. However, it also mattered – and mattered greatly - that I was able to make decisions in conditions of uncertainty. Unfortunately, sometimes philosophic training can cultivate the ability to see truth on both sides of an argument, rather than taking one side; and sometimes it can nurture a propensity to challenge the premise of a question in preference to answering it.

Wolff himself does not suffer from these tendencies to indecision and evasion; not at all. What is not clear, however, is the extent to which he is representative of his profession in this regard. To put the point another way, public policy needs a certain type of philosopher, namely a philosopher who is able to recommend without the comfort of being certain. I am not convinced that this feature comes as standard. I think there is a popular assumption that moral arguments make "people feel guilty about what they do, rather than changing their behaviour…", which suggests, unfortunately, a predisposition to believe that philosophers are not well-suited to the deployment of persuasiveness in the absence of certainty.

This matters for public policy. Wolff refers to the work of Jonathan Haidt, who argues that moral disagreement is based on a series of differences in the value ascribed to six pairs of polarities: care v harm, fairness v cheating, loyalty v betrayal, authority v subversion, sanctity v degradation, and liberty v oppression. Whether we are progressive ("liberal" in American parlance) or conservative will depend on the relative weightings we give to these values. As a description of modern political discourse this approach has some explanatory power.

Nonetheless, it is notable that three of these polarities – loyalty v betrayal, authority v subversion and sanctity v degradation – are almost wholly immune to rational criticism, or to persuasion based on reason. One is either loyal or not, subservient or not, respectful of what is commonly held sacred or not. These judgements do not permit of argument or compromise. Many participants in public policy discussions, therefore, do not consider themselves to be engaged in a rational conversation about what is for the best; they believe they are defending the values of loyalty, authority and sanctity against all challenges.

As the leading figures of the Enlightenment noted, such an approach rejects the idea of a widely shared faculty of rationality. It makes claims that policy makers must either respect or ignore, but which cannot be subjected to reasoned argument. If major policy decisions are determined by what the Queen or the Prime Minister or the Archbishop thinks best, then we are not just denying a role for philosophers in public policy-making, but also denying a role for reason in public life. This is not merely the rejection of thinkers, but of thinking per se.

Another way of putting this point is to note that the current reluctance to employ more philosophers in the public policy process suggests a presumption that the more controversial areas of policy – on drugs or gambling, for example - remain beyond the scope of rational discussion. Why seek help from a philosopher when the population prefers to retain policies built on established prejudices rather than reforms based on a balanced assessment of the evidence and the application of reasoned argument?

Does this mean that the study of philosophy will remain of purely "academic" interest? No, not at all. But it does mean that to become effective within the public debate, philosophers must employ their professional skills with some guile. Appealing to reason's intrinsically persuasive force – that is, claiming that the only acceptable form of coercion is the coercion of a correct argument – is unlikely to appeal to a public that is still deferential to traditional values.

To become effective, philosophical reasoning must become embedded in more popular discourse. This claim, which is I think the central lesson of Wolff's book, echoes the words of Lara Antipova, the heroine of Pasternak's novel, Dr Zhivago:

I think philosophy should be used sparingly as a seasoning to art and life. To be occupied with it alone is the same as eating horseradish by itself.

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© Mark Hannam March 2019

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