Philosophy and Public Policy
Dame Mary Warnock, DBE. Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy, St Hugh's College, Oxford.
There is a common use of the word ‘Philosophy’ to mean, quite generally, theory or principle. In this sense every public policy, whether a policy of government or of a commercial company or of a national charity, must have a philosophy, if it is capable of being rationally described and defended. I want to talk, however, about philosophy in a narrower and more professional sense, the sense in which it is an academic subject, taught and practised in Universities; and to consider the relation between this sort of philosophy and public policy, at the present time.
In order to understand that relation, we need to look very briefly at its history. There was an old tradition according to which the role of philosophy was precisely to direct public policy. Plato wrote the Republic to argue, for the right of philosophers to be kings, and to show how, in the real world, philosophers would order the state. Nearer our own time, there was thought nothing odd in Bishop Berkeley’s writing a paper with the engaging title ‘Essay towards preventing the Ruin of Great Britain’. Bentham and John Stuart Mill wrote largely with the purpose of changing public policy, or of providing it with a sound theoretical foundation: The Principle of Utility laid down that the rightness of an act was to be judged according to whether or not the act, by its consequences, produced a balance of pleasure over pain, that is whether or not it was conducive to happiness. This principle was used by Bentham primarily in the sphere of public policy. An ‘act’ meant, first and foremost, a kind of act, such as theft or fraud, both of which could be shown to be wrong by consideration of their tendency to cause pain; or else it meant a legislative act, a law which itself must be judged by the same standard. What would its consequences be for society at large? Bentham’s best known work was entitled The Principles of Morals and Legislation, and it included, besides a description of the method of calculating pains and pleasures, quite specific recommendations on punishment and sentencing policy. In J.S. Mill’s hands, utilitarianism became more high-minded, and less easy to apply: distinction was now drawn between what a civilised and educated man would count as pleasure or happiness, and what would satisfy an uneducated man. Priority was given to the judgement of the educated. This meant that Mill gave a place of supreme importance, in public policy, to education. And he argued, on Utilitarian grounds, for universal compulsory education, if necessary paid for though not actually provided by the state, and for other specific measures such as provision for the proper education and enfranchisement of women. At the end of the 19th century and at least up to 1914, then there were very many philosophers who, whether they accepted or rejected Utilitarianism, were as deeply concerned as Mill with actual policies, of central and of local government. To them it was self-evident that moral philosophy was an essential part of philosophy as a whole, and that the point of moral philosophy Was, ultimately, to improve the lot of individuals both by providing them with good legislation, and by persuading them of their democratic right to be involved in the process of government.
In the 20th century, however, philosophy began to become an increasingly specialised academic subject. And as this happened, so philosophers began to detach themselves more and more from the world. The high point of this detachment came after the Second World War in the 1950s and 60s, the age of the so-called ‘linguistic’ philosophy. But it had begun before this. The work of Bertrand Russell provides an illustration. His philosophical writings were academic, and had nothing to do with either morals or politics. His political writings were popular, and bore little relation to his philosophy in either style or content.
To return to the 1950s: Oxford at that time became to some extent the centre of philosophy in the English-speaking world. There were (and still are) more philosophers practising their trade there than in other universities. The war was over and people came back full of ideas for their new books. The cleverest undergraduates were, many of them, attracted into the subject as well. There was a strong feeling that the way was open for a fresh start.
The war had in fact frustrated what might have been a philosophical revolution. For in 1936, Ayer’s book “Language Truth and Logic” had introduced logical positivism to Oxford and to England, the philosophy which, taking the natural sciences as its model, claimed that any propositions which could not be shown by observation to be true or false, were strictly speaking meaningless. Thus only statements of fact were admitted. Metaphysical, religious or moral statements must all go. This was a new broom but not a durable one. Even before the war it was rejected by most philosophers in Oxford; and yet the desire to make a clean sweep was there. The sweep was started before 1939: after 1945 it was well away. Although logical positivism was dead, there was still a great gulf between the old guard, whose philosophy in the post-war view was little more than rhetoric, and the new force, headed by Ryle, Austin, Berlin, Hart, Hampshire, all seriously concerned with a new kind of philosophy, devoted to a new and intensive examination of the nature of language. At the same time, the works of Wittgenstein were becoming generally known, and his preoccupation with the nature of meaning, and with the way words are used, was more than just marginally influential. It pervaded all philosophy.
It is hard to convey the feeling of that time. The new style of philosophy lent itself to conversation. The exploration of meanings and the nuances of meanings could best of all be conducted jointly. Thus the excitement of Wittgenstein’s work hinted at by those few who knew him as a dark mystery, and only gradually officially available to the rest, combined with the sheer pleasure of conversation, meant that philosophy flourished, a heady mixture of gossip and analysis. But its role was far from practical; and this Was not just an accidental consequence of the tastes and preferences of the new exponents of the subject. On the contrary, it Was an essential element in the new theory.
The theory was anti-theoretical. Influenced especially by J.L. Austin, the new practitioners held that philosophy in the past had been tangled with named positions: realism, idealism, utilitarianism, positivism, phenomenalism and many others. The task now was to cut through all this, and show that all theories grossly over-simplified the way in which human beings actually perceive the world, make moral judgments in it, take decisions, or complain of their aches and pains. The role of the philosopher was not himself to make the judgments or take the decisions, but to show exactly what it was that other people were doing in performing these activities. You could no more expect a philosopher, in his professional role, to make a moral judgment when discussing moral philosophy, than you could expect him actually to have a headache when discussing the nature of the language of pain. Bernard Williams, talking about Wittgenstein and the philosophers of the fifties said “There was that strain which they all shared, of recovering the complexity of ordinary experience”. This had to be done by examining the language in which ordinary experience was reflected, and uncovering the vast numbers of distinctions drawn and expressed within the language itself. And so it seemed clear that philosophy had no subject matter of its own, no material except language itself. k distinction was drawn between first-order questions such as What shall we have for lunch? Ought children to be educated together, or in different schools according to their ability? Can euthanasia be justified? and second-order questions, concerned with the nature of the concepts and the words used in raising the first-order questions. To move between the two orders was to step outside the proper role of philosophy.
Understandably enough, it was in moral and political philosophy that this detachment was most marked (ad most often deplored by the general, non- philosophical public), though philosophy of science and philosophy of education were also notably linguistic,, or conceptually analytic. But nowhere is the difference between involvement and non-involvement so stark as in morals and in politics. Moral philosophy, far from attempting to establish a foundation on which all moral judgments and decisions should rest, was concerned almost exclusively with the language of morals, as a glance at the titles of books published in this period will show. In using the word ‘good’, did we describe things? did we grade them? did we express our favourable feelings? or commend them to others? These were the questions asked. As for political philosophy, on the whole little of it was practised. It was thought to be dead. As a separate study, it could wither away, once certain key concepts such as ‘rights’, ‘freedom’, ‘authority’ or ‘consent’ had been analysed. Significantly, the only truly original work on political philosophy at this time was undertaken by philosophers interested in the history of philosophy (such as Isaiah Berlin) or, in the law (such as Herbert Hart).
At the time of which I speak, the influence of what perhaps without arrogance may be called Oxford Philosophy was widespread and was particularly strong in the United States. But in the middle 60s, things began to change, though not all at once. The causes of the change are doubtless complex. For one thing a number of philosophers who had come over to England for at least part of their philosophical education were rising in their profession in the USA, and were becoming influential in their own right and in their own style. For another thing, and this is I think of the greatest importance, there was the pressure of external events. In the USP far more and sooner than here, the presence of blacks in great numbers, (and of Puerto Ricans in New York) made it impossible to relegate questions about rights to the level of ‘second-order’, It was of no use, if you were a philosopher, to hole yourself up and announce your programme of analysing the concept of ‘right’. You would have actual black students, actual civil-rights demonstrators, on your doorstep. And this was the beginning of student involvement of a highly political kind. It was impossible to remain neutral. While the Civil Rights programme coming into existence were seen to disadvantage some people (mainly poor whites),for the sake of those on whose behalf the programmes were made, urgent questions about the fairness or otherwise of positive discrimination came to be asked, largely by students themselves. And then there was the Vietnam War. All the old questions about the authority of government over individuals; when an individual was entitled to follow his own conscience against government, as well as new questions about what, if anything, could count as a just war...all these came to be asked with tremendous urgency. The neutral academic was as dead as the dodo. And all this time, the philosophical tide of influence was beginning to flow from west to east across the Atlantic, rather than the other way round.
For these reasons, then, and doubtless many others, the relation between philosophy and public policy is radically different now from how it was thirty or even twenty years ago. Once again, a glance at a philosophy book list in a publisher’s catalogue will suffice to assure you of this. There are books on Lying, on Neonatal Infanticide, on whether embryos should be used for experiments, on Lead Pollution, on whether Animals have Rights, on Secrets, on what sort of people should exist in the future. Gone is the distinction between the first and second order. Philosophy, like a small child, is ‘into everything’. Nor are moral philosophy and political philosophy alone in being pressed into service. The nature of the mind, the concept of the person, even the way in which we perceive the world about us and classify it, are all discussed in the context of practical application. Philosophers now ask how we should educate children, how we should plan for the future of the world, how we should contemplate our own death, or the birth of babies. And of course with this new engagement on the part of professional philosophers in the affairs of the world, it is becoming more and more reasonable to expect that public policy, the framing of party programmes or the construction of new legislation should all be backed not just by ‘a philosophy’ in the wide sense, but by philosophical theory in the narrow and professional and hitherto academic sense: hence an increasing employment of philosophers as party advisers, leader- writers in political journals, chairman of committees set up to advise Ministers on matters of legislation. In the 50s, a philosopher would with partly sincere modesty have said that he was no more fitted than the next person for any of these roles, (except perhaps in the negative sense that he might be less muddle-headed than others). Now it is different. We philosophers have to be very careful not too readily to accept the mantle of the sage.
Whereas in the 50s and 60s, then, almost nothing spilled over from academic philosophy into public life, except sometimes a certain style, a few words or tricks of speech passed on by young civil servants fresh from university to their masters, today there seem to be several questions truly and centrally philosophical, which nevertheless need to be answered in the sphere of public policy. Of these genuinely philosophical questions, there are two that appear to me urgent at the present time. I shall try to say something about each in turn.
The first question is so fundamental and so simple that I feel almost ashamed to raise it: What is the public good? How are we supposed to decide what is for the good of society and what is not? Who is the expert to whom we may look for an answer, or is it part of our human rationality that each must find the answer for himself? This question, or set of questions, takes us back to Utilitarianism. As I said just now, Bentham and Mill thought of the Principle of Utility, the criterion of the Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number, as a firm, strong and indisputable foundation for good government. Any law and any institution must be examined and justified according to this yard-stick. Does it or does it not increase the sum of human happiness? a lot of people assume, often without very much thought, that some such principle must be used wherever any measure of government is proposed. And of course often it seems to work. If I am making a lot of money by selling watered milk, or pills which I advertise as able to effect wonder cures of rheumatism or cancer, but which in fact slowly poison those who take them, then the intervention of the criminal law, making my activities into punishable crimes, though it will diminish my happiness, will greatly increase that of my customers, and such legislation is perfectly justified on utilitarian grounds. But notoriously there are problems. I don’t want to go, in detail, through the well-known objections to the formulation of the Principle of Utility in terms of maximising happiness. But I must mention some of them, since it is from the inadequacy of utilitarianism, as popularly expressed, that my first question, and perhaps my second, rises. In the first place of course the concept of happiness is itself vague and unsatisfactory. Everyone knows that seeking happiness is often counter-productive, and that human happiness comes in unexpected forms. Even if, as Bentham and Mill would wish, it is translated into terms of “a balance of pleasure over pain”, this is not really very much better, indeed new doubts may be introduced. Substituting instead some such words as ‘welfare’ or ‘satisfaction’ has its own difficulties, but at least it sounds a bit more serious. It has a seductive sound of economics about it.
Let us accept one of these more neutral terms. There still remains the question how you are to know, except in the obvious cases like that of the criminal activities referred to just now, that a particular measure will maximise welfare? How far into the future are you to look? Our knowledge of ecology should make us very cautious about prediction in the long term. Yet many public decisions have to be made in the light of a time span of at least a hundred years. And again if a measure grossly diminishes the possibility of welfare or satisfaction for one person, say by depriving him of life, but greatly increases the welfare of many others, perhaps some yet unborn, is such a measure justified? And whose welfare is to be counted? If millions of hens live in appalling conditions, and hate it, is their suffering to be weighed against the satisfaction of all those who enjoy cheap eggs and cheap chickens? Do only humans count? All these difficulties are familiar enough. Although they are difficult to answer, it is not enough to say that they all represent extreme objections such as could never arise in real life. For they could and do. Yet, on the other hand, it is extremely hard to reject utilitarianism as unworkable since in many cases it seems to supply the obvious criterion for distinguishing good from bad, whether what is in question is law, custom or institution. Perhaps Utilitarianism goes wrong not only by its dependence on the concept of happiness (which we tried just now to replace) but also by its insistence on numerical assessment of outcome. Yet if both these features are removed, what is left? Nothing, it seems, but a vague though unexceptionable injunction to decision-makers to Act for the Best.
Thus, because of these weaknesses in Utilitarian theory, it is necessary to consider the proposition that one can determine whether or not a society is better or worse off (and not merely financially) without actually counting heads or tangling with individual satisfactions and dissatisfactions. Something of this kind seems to be assumed by welfare economics. It is possible to believe, for example, and I daresay most of us do believe, that a society that supports good, independent universities, where there is research and teaching of a high quality, is better, and better off, just because of this, than a society whose universities are few and of a low standard. Similarly most people would agree that a society where everyone is educated as of right is better off than one where education is only for the privileged. A society where music flourishes is better off than one without music. The examples could be multiplied.
But the difficulties now become obvious. As long as there is agreement about these good things, we certainly need not count heads or find out exactly how many people in society benefit from them and how many do not. That they should exist is enough. But as soon as there is conflict, as soon as some of the good things must be given up in order that others may continue, then the question arises, by whose decision are these things deemed to be good, and especially by whose decisions are they placed in order of merit? The notion of a good society now stands in need of definition, or criterion. Where is that criterion to come from? The quick answer would almost certainly be “from utilitarianism”, always the first philosophy to suggest itself. But, except in its vacuous form, ...Act for the Best... we have seen its difficulties.
The point I am making could, I’m sure be made in other ways. It is essentially simple. When there is general agreement about values, government can go forward without any philosophical foundations, except the most rudimentary ones. Any old principle will do. We can fall back on ‘philosophy’ in the widest sense; for where there is general agreement, people are not going to look into a principle too critically. But when consensus breaks down, consensus, that is, on the nature of the society that people want, then justification on a more carefully thought out principle is demanded. We are in such a situation today. A theory is needed by reference to which governmental decisions can be explained and justified. And the theory must be more than a vague ‘philosophy’. It must be seen to be actually and professionally philosophical, ready to stand up to criticism by other professionals. Government, then, needs professional philosophers, and this whether the current government is to the right or to the left. There used to be a general belief that any roughly ‘liberal’ government, and especially any government to the left of centre, had a built-in philosophical justification for its measures, derived from the great concepts ‘Liberty’ and ‘Equality’. I doubt if this, by itself, is enough today. Even a left-wing government needs to go back, constantly and explicitly, to the fundamental concepts, to show that particular measures can be justified in terms of them. and certainly a right-wing government, whose values would, in the past, have derived from tradition and unexamined sentiments in favour of order and of individual autonomy, now urgently needs a theoretical backing.
For how is government, any government, to show that what it does is not the result of mere whim? How is it to persuade people that the ideal of society towards which it is working is not a mere partisan vision, designed to suit its own book and to keep itself in power? How are members of government, to prove that they are not themselves playing the tyrant, of the fancy philosopher king? Today, when there is a general demand for open government, for explanations, and for rational argument in favour of decisions, government needs a philosopher who will somehow convince people that there is a good reason for the measures that are being taken. Increasingly, and very properly, everything must be argued for, nothing will be accepted as a wiser decision from above.
Let us consider, as an example, the case of possible legislation to control Broadcasting, when satellite and cable television are both readily available. ..Y I have no idea what sort of controls, if any, there will be. But clearly within government there are those who think that some control, however distanced and light, will be necessary, and there are those who deplore this, as a form of censorship and the inhibition of free enterprise. The argument turns on whether or not bad broadcasting will necessarily drive out good, and if so, whose business this is.
Immediately we can see here an issue where judgments of the good and the bad, judgments about the sort of society we want to live in, have to be made. Do we want a society that is, in matters of broadcasting and publication, totally free; or do we want one less free, but more decent? The philosophical question is who is to make such decisions and with what justification. We might fall back on Mill’s view that weight must be given to judgments of the educated and the civilised, against those of the uneducated and the uncouth. But consider the difficulties. The wider the spread of education the harder it is to draw a sharp line between those who are ‘educated’ in his sense and those who are not. Moreover, even if such a distinction could be made, it would not resolve the problem. For in matters that immediately affect them, everybody believes in their right not only to have opinions but to influence outcomes. Paternalism, decisions taken for the sake of ‘the public good’ are less and less readily accepted. This of course is precisely the situation that Mill wanted. Universal education would lead, he thought, to universal concern with the public good. The drawback is that, contrary to his expectations, the spread of education has brought about not greater agreement about values but less. To be concerned about the public good is one thing. To agree where it lies is quite another. This is something that the utilitarians had not foreseen.
What politicians want, then, is that philosophers should step in and fill the void. They want philosophers to provide them with arguments to show that they, the government, are entitled to make decisions, without having recourse to belief in divine right. They want it proved not only that they are entitled to legislate, but that this legislation is good for society. They want to be able to argue that their paternalism is directed towards a goal which, rationally, has to be accepted. At the same time philosophers, with their newfound engagement in real questions of value, are ready enough to step in. The danger now is that they will sell their souls; that they will become corrupt, the poodles of a political party. It is a danger that did not threaten the more modest, pedantic and remote practitioners of thirty years ago.
My second question must be dealt with more briefly. It concerns the relation between public and private morality. Increasingly, where issues of public policy are at stake, and where increasingly there is the sense that people will not accept decisions handed down .arbitrarily from above, governments are in the habit of establishing Advisory Committees, whose role is either to advise on new legislation, or to monitor the working of existing legislation. The employment of such committees is perhaps a sign of the need that governments feel to provide theoretical justification for their acts. Unable or unwilling themselves to derive their favoured position from an acceptable set of philosophical principles, Ministers increasingly hope that advisory committees may be able to do so for them. For it is essential to the idea of such committees that they should include ‘lay’ members, people, that is, who are seen to be free of all vested interests, and who approach questions of right and wrong from a supposedly pure, uncorrupted position. Often such ‘lay’ members include at least one philosopher, thought not only to be unprejudiced, but to be able to demonstrate his lack of prejudice and the logical necessity of his conclusions by argument. He is there quite specifically to provide the theoretical backing that the politicians need.
The philosophical question which, I believe needs to be considered is this: how are such committees meant to operate? What is the foundation of their authority? Members of such advisory committees frequently have strong personal moral feelings that cert in of the practices they are concerned with, whether the broadcasting of violent or obscene television programmes, or the use of animals in experiments, the riding of noisy motorcycles or the hiring of surrogate mothers, that such practices should be altogether prohibited because they are surely wrong. Often these members have no arguments to deploy against these practices; nor do they mind whether or not a majority of people agree with them. They are unmoved by considerations of ultimate utility. Quite simply, they hold such things to be contrary to all morality, and wish them to be outlawed. The philosophical question is this: what is the status of such feelings?
Legislators, as opposed to committee members, have to be more cautious. They have to take into account the probable effects of legislation. Will laws be enforceable? Will imposing a total ban on a practice in fact ensure only that it goes on underground where no regulation is possible? Will a law that is seen to be unreasonably strict or repressive be openly disregarded, to the detriment of the general respect for law? Moral sentiments cannot be expressed in legislation. Yet morality cannot be divorced from sentiment; without moral feelings there would be no morality at all. And legislation, though it cannot express feelings, cannot be totally divorced from morality. And so it must to some extent follow and encapsulate those feelings that are at the heart of morals. The relation, then, between morality and the law, always a thorny philosophical problem, arid certainly not neglected in the past, needs now to be addressed again, in the light of our present position.
And now this second question can be seen to be very like the first. Where there is no consensus about values, no agreed ideal of the kind of society it is good to live in, how can legislation be justified? How can it be made to seem not arbitrary, not the result of a particular moral opinion, not yet wholly pragmatic, but properly related to moral beliefs in general? The law, of course, is binding on everyone in society, and is therefore the embodiment of some sort of common moral position. To work successfully as such, it must set out a broad framework for what is morally acceptable within society. In recommending legislation, an advisory committee must be recommending a kind of society in which no-one need feel positively ashamed to live, even if, individually, some of the members might wish that it were different. But within the broad limits of legislation, it must be recognised that there is room for different, and perhaps much more stringent moral rules. What is legally permissible may be thought of as the minimum requirement for a tolerable society. Thus in establishing the framework, moral sentiments must be taken into account but cannot be the only consideration. It is not irrelevant if someone says “I should feel ashamed if this were permitted in society” (abortion on demand, for example, or the unrestricted use of animals in drug and cosmetic testing). It is important that people should discover, by thinking about it, what are sticking points, what are, in their view, barriers which must never be crossed. And it is essential that philosophers should recognise the role of such strong feeling, even if not supported by any reasons, in the very centre of morality.
But to say that philosophers should recognise the role of feelings has certain consequences. For feelings differ, and may be equally strong in different directions. The very fact that it is feelings, not arguments, that are in question entails that conflicts may be inevitable in matters of morality, and can never be eliminated. This is not to say that compromise may not sometimes be reached. but equally it may be the case that a measure of legislation which seems fair and reasonable, an expression of good public policy, and which is perhaps the best compromise that can be reached, may conceal strong and unresolved private disagreement.
Politicians, then, even if tempted to use philosophy to clarify their policy decisions and to justify them, should not expect too much. There are issues which not only have not been settled by rational argument, but which never can be so settled. Philosophers likewise, quite eager these days, as I have suggested, to enter the fray, should not become over-confident. Bernard Williams, whom I have quoted already, himself quotes a philosopher who said “there have always been two different motives for doing philosophy...curiosity and salvation”. It seems that nowadays a large number of philosophers are after salvation, not for themselves alone, but for the world at large. They may, however, be disappointed.
To sum up: the two related questions which, I have suggested, must be answered by philosophers are these. What is to be the criterion of the Public Good? And what is the role of the moral beliefs of the individual in the determination of public policy?
If philosophers are to continue directly to engage professionally in the public arena, I think they must take certain precautions. First, they must be able to explain how moral theory can provide general justification for measures of government; secondly they must be able to explain how personal morality can be reflected in legislation, especially in a society where there can be no presumption that moral beliefs, however strongly held, will be uniform. Finally they must make sure that they are not themselves corrupted. In raising the questions I have, I have aimed to put up a small warning flag. Let us hope that philosophy does not enter the great world with such whole-hearted enthusiasm that the virtues of its cloistered days are forgotten.
© The Ditchley Foundation, 1984. All rights reserved. Queries concerning permission to translate or reprint should be addressed to the Communications Officer, The Ditchley Foundation, Ditchley Park, Enstone, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire OX7 4ER, England.