Specialization: Policy and morality

Philosophy et certa links to an interesting paper by Richard Sharvy titled “Who’s to say what’s right or wrong?  People who have PHDs in philosophy, that’s who”.

At some level this makes sense – philosophers (can) specialise in the study of ethics and morality, and as a result of this training they will have a better idea of what is “right or wrong”, and why it is so, then other people.  My impression of “rightness” and “wrongness” is that it is subjective – deciding what is wrong involves making moral judgments.

As a result, if we accept this, then when forming policy it is Philosophers that should be the ones forming the subjective value judgments required to qualify what the appropriate policy is.

The job of economists is to describe – we have to objectively describe what happens to a bunch of variables in society when one of them is moved.  However, if Philosophers are the experts when in comes to value judgments – they should be the ones that place a values on different variables, so when the economists model moves it can come to some sort of conclusion.

What do you guys think?  How do other disciplines fit into the policy creation process?

  • icehawk

    *sigh*

    Okay let’s pull out some Ryle and Nussbaum, not to mention a bit of Aristotle. Because (as is common with philosophy) the real problem here is that your question comes from an ill-formed idea.

    Figuring out right from wrong isn’t hard. It certainly isn’t the hard part in living a moral life. Moral judgements are not, in general, tricky. Oh sure there are moral dilemmas where our intuitions can get stuck – but you’ll find the people with PhD’s in ethics just as divided about what to do in such cases (though they’ll have sophisticated arguments for their answers).

    The mistake you’re making is to worry about “moral judgement”. This is part of an overall mistake – call it Descarte’s error – in over-emphasising the role “pure cognition”, the judgements of a disembodied mind. But learning a sophisticate system to judge right from wrong isn’t how you become more moral.

    Moral errors typically come not from errors in moral judgements but from errors in moral perception or moral discipline. That is, from not noticing things, not thinking of things, not considering consequences, or from keeping on doing it even though you know it’s wrong or giving in to temptation.

    Likewise govt policy. It’s the unintended consequence that wasn’t thought through or measured that will catch you out. Examples of moral failure in govt policy will come from the policy-maker who doesn’t think of the effect this policy will have on immigrants because none of their friend are immigrants and they just don’t think about them much, or from the policy-makers who don’t consider how this tax-change will reduce voluntary work and thus damage certain organizations that realy on them with flow-on effects that harm the most vulnerable in society, or from the policy-maker who knows there’s evidence that longer sentences don’t reduce this particular type of crime but doesn’t have the guts to push something they know the public will hate. That is where policy will go wrong.

    And epistemic failures *are* moral failures. If you didn’t know but you should have, then you are culpable.

    In summary: If you want to get the morally best outcomes then dragging in a Philosophy PhD to assign values to the effects you’ve estimated is probably a waste of a policy-maker’s valuable time. And their time *is* valuable. Making sure you understand all the effects of your policy right is much, much more important. So it’s vastly important to have competent, conscientious policy-makers, and to have them from a variety of backgrounds so that they think more broadly of consequences.

  • If we’re methodological individualists, we’re doing something wrong if we go to a panel of expert philosophers to decide on relative valuations rather than doing something like, oh, I don’t know, trying to estimate such valuations from actual individual choices. For example. So we could go to a philosopher to get a value for a human life (yawn and pointless) or go ask Kip Viscusi for the latest update based on individuals’ chosen risk-money tradeoffs.

  • The be clear, my primary assumption here is that in order to make good “moral” judgments you have to be good at making subjective value judgments – essentially they are two sides of the same coin (insofar as they require the same technical skills – not that they are the same thing).

    “Making sure you understand all the effects of your policy right is much, much more important. So it’s vastly important to have competent, conscientious policy-makers, and to have them from a variety of backgrounds so that they think more broadly of consequences”

    Understanding the impact of policy is no doubt a very important part of the process. However, is there not the potential to have someone specialise in making the normative judgments necessary to turn a description into a functional policy?

    If economists specialise in description, and philosophers specialise in formulating value judgments, is their not scope to get each group to focus on the bit they are good at and get better policy?

    “If we’re methodological individualists, we’re doing something wrong if we go to a panel of expert philosophers to decide on relative valuations rather than doing something like, oh, I don’t know, trying to estimate such valuations from actual individual choices”

    Completely agreed – insofar as observed choices do reveal the preferences of individuals. However, isn’t there a number of cases where revealed preferences alone do not give us enough information to inform policy. In this case, we require someone to make value judgments – the question then is, who can provide us with “expert” value judgments.

  • John

    I’m confused about what sort of issues a philosopher would decide the rightness /wrongness of. Take the DPB for instance: I have a visual image of a strip with colors such that at one end we have cases who deserve and at the other end they don’t (the result of an incentive effect) and in the middle the colors merge and you have to decide where to make the cut: too cruel/ create incentive.

  • “I’m confused about what sort of issues a philosopher would decide the rightness /wrongness of”

    So am I – that is why they are the experts and I’m not 😛

    “Take the DPB for instance: I have a visual image of a strip with colors such that at one end we have cases who deserve and at the other end they don’t”

    I would look at the issue this way. We can objectively say that in society a bunch of people will get the DPB, and some of them will deserve it and some won’t. We then have three assumptions to make:

    1) What does “deserve it” entail,
    2) What is the distribution,
    3) What is the size of the costs and benefits associated with each person that receives it, and the opportunity cost of the dollar.

    Once we’ve applied these assumptions, we get our result.

    Now, if we are interested in designing a scheme, and we are trying to figure out how hard to make it to get the DPB, we just have to realise we are trading off between a cost to those that would receive a net social benefit, and a benefit to society by removing those who are a net social cost.

    Furthermore, assume that for each increment of tightness we add to the scheme, the lost benefit increases and the prevented cost decreases.

    Once we have plugged in whatever subjective judgments we need, we then know we should design the scheme such that the lost benefit is equal to the prevented cost – however, the value judgments we make will influence where we think this point should be.

    As a result, in the above case we have already derived the economic model – now we just need someone to come along, give us some value judgments, and we can tell them how to make the DPB suit those.

  • Michael Kluge

    “Call in the philosophers!”

    To me it sounds like a sure-fire way to confuse the issse. If you consult philosophers on this issue, they won’t be able to provide you with a list or a formula of good & bad, they can only offer their educated opinions – which will be incredibly broad and probably cover every conceivable economic policy from (using your example) free DPB to any and all mothers all the way to no DPB. You could make equally strong philosophical arguments for all forms (or no) welfare. We can see this just by a quick summary of noted philosophers. For example, if you consulted Friedrich Nietzsche, J. S. Mill and Karl Marx – would ever achieve any consensus on welfare?

  • “For example, if you consulted Friedrich Nietzsche, J. S. Mill and Karl Marx – would ever achieve any consensus on welfare?”

    I completely agree!

    However, the question is, if someone has to make some value judgments – who is best placed to do it. If philosophers spend all day discussing value judgments – would that make them the group that is most able to create appropriate value judgments (where no objective mechanism is available to reveal what these judgments should be).

  • Michael Kluge

    Warning: this reply may be devoid of correct economic terminology.

    Well essentially yes, I think they would be best qualified to make value judgements with no objective mechanism. They would be best equipped to rationalize their value judgements and defend them from attack, but they will still be personalized value judgements based on a supposition of what is to be valued. You could gain some interesting perspectives by engaging a philosopher when it comes to economic decisions, but as philosophers can’t even come to a consensus on what is valuable or good, they’ll only be offering up dubitable opinions.

    I think outside of a vacuum, in reality where judgements have real consequences, that economists and sociologists would be best qualified to make value judgements that are going to affect the public, because they have studied and observed the results of previous decisions. An economist will also be better prepared to forsee the trade-offs that result from implementing their value judgements.

    I guess thinking about it, a synthethis of combining philosophical and economic ideas regarding value judgements in relation to policy could have some benefits so long as you can avoid the quagmire of doubt and confusion that philosophy courts.

    Also, from reading the linked article and thinking about the DPB example:
    In the article it expresses the philosophical conclusion that “the most valueable things are useless”. So regarding the implementation of the DPB, it is solely a utility decision. The economic policy is only a vehicle to try and achieve value, which leads me to believe that the philospher is best equipped to try and make a judgement about whether any value can gained through a utility and then it is upto the economist to make a judgement on how best to implement the utility to achieve value (because the value must have already been defined by the philosopher). Heck, I’m starting to confuse myself now. See what happens…

  • “Warning: this reply may be devoid of correct economic terminology.”

    Don’t worry, most of what I write is devoid of correct terminology anyway 🙂

    “I think outside of a vacuum, in reality where judgements have real consequences, that economists and sociologists would be best qualified to make value judgements that are going to affect the public, because they have studied and observed the results of previous decisions”

    I think economists and sociologists have the best idea of causation – but when it comes to applying value to the variables that are shifting I think both disciplines are relatively useless.

    Fundamentally, economics provides a frame, and it tells us that if A happens B will happen. However, economists aren’t the best at giving values to the benefits and costs associated with B – which is where philosophers may theoretically fit in, if they are the discipline that is best at forming value judgments.

    I agree that philosophers won’t agree with each other – hell no-one really agrees when it comes to normative statements. However, in this case philosophers may be the best of a bad lot 😉 . Philosophers at least discuss normative issues in depth, economists hardly do at all (as we are a descriptive discipline), and I am uncertain as to whether sociologists do either (or if they truly separate positive and normative strains of thought when discussing issues).

  • John

    I think there is a place for specialists in argument analysis: designing argument maps etc to guide debates. We need to layer them (professionals) between issues and the media and governing processes [I think?]
    There is a wiki at http://www.debatemapper.com as an example but I think that approach suffers from a lack of social interaction.

  • “There is a wiki at http://www.debatemapper.com as an example but I think that approach suffers from a lack of social interaction.”

    Interesting stuff, the problem may be that so much effort is required to get peoples opinions