Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Three deep questions for evaluating policy

1. If not, then what?
2. And what will happen then?
3. Is this promoting of Good?

1. If not, then what?

Most public policy discussion is critical - people are generally much better at diagnosis than treatment. indeed much discussion is purely negative.

If not, then what attempts to evaluate the position from which someone is arguing - which is usually not explicit, and indeed may not be known to the person making the argument.

The idea is that rigorous discussion cannot proceed unless there is a statement of basic assumptions. It says: OK I know what you do not like, do not want, think ought to be destroyed - but what do you advocate putting in its place?

A clear example is Christianity: we have had a couple of centuries of detailed diagnosis of the problems of Christianity - its flaws, failures, hypocrisies, inconsistencies, harms and miseries.

But if not Christianity, then what is the alternative? If we don't have Christianity what will we have instead - and is it better? Is the substitute going to be free of problems - free of flaws, failures, hypocrisies, inconsistencies, harms and miseries?

Another relevant maxim here is - No matter how bad things are, they can always get worse. Life in Russia under the Tsar was - no doubt - bad; but no matter how bad it was, Communism was worse. Those who thought (as so many apparently did, within Russia and abroad) 'things can only get better' if we rid ourselves of the Tsar... were pretty soon shown how very wrong they were.

2. And what will happen then?

(This comes from Thomas Sowell) The idea is that when somebody advocates some change, then it is essential to look beyond the introduction of that change - because every significant change will alter incentives; therefore every significant change will lead to some further change. It is this further change which needs to be evaluated - not just the first step.

When 'no fault' divorce was advocated this question was not considered. No fault divorce can be advocated on grounds such as improving short term happiness of at least one of the parties, cheapness and convenience, removing the dishonest and embarrassing need for parties to fake infidelity, the difficulty of objectively assigning blame etc.

But matters don't stop there: it could easily have been predicted that by making divorce not just easier and less expensive but a merely a matter of unilateral preference; this would (and did) have the effect of completely destroying marriage as a contract (because a contract which can be discarded at the preference of just one of the parties is not a contract at all).

Furthermore, because law just-is moral - and there is no such thing as moral neutrality - then no fault divorce converted divorce from a bad thing to a 'human right'.

No fault divorce meant no-victim divorce - because neither party was blamed nor defined as guilty, then there was no innocent party in a divorce. Being divorced became more shameful than divorcing - because actively divorcing was a strong statement of personal development and growth, while being divorced was merely pathetic, dumb, a thing that happened to losers.

And divorce became merely a matter of money - instead of having a guilty and innocent party, there are now just financial winners and financial losers (and everybody loves a winner, don't they?)

3. Is this promoting of the Good?

One of the many evils of moral concepts such as Human Rights is that people fixate upon violations of freedom, sufferings and miseries of particular types of person in particular circumstances  - and introduce policies to enforce certain rights, freedoms, and removes some causes of human suffering without considering whether this is a Good thing, or not?

Whether something is Good cannot be evaluated by some process of identifying and adding or subtracting human happiness and suffering - not least because these are incalculable.

But we can reflect on whether something is a Good thing or not; and, in particular, it is often very clear that something being decriminalized, defended or advocated on the basis of the supposed effects on human gratification is not a Good thing.

Consider abortion. The debate about the permissibility of abortion, the rules and circumstances, procedures and possibilities - has become vastly complex, with all kinds of special cases being introduced. But it should be made clear at the very outset, agreed upon, and this should inform all subsequent discussion - that abortion is itself not 'a Good thing'.

Nobody actually regards abortion as a Good thing - a cause for celebration; something to be promoted, maximized, done as much as possible, in as many situations as possible, as the basis of a good and healthy and admirable society. (Or, at least, those who do believe this never admit to it.)

Or, as another example, the past fifty years of the sexual revolution has proceeded on the basis of decriminalizing, de-pathologizing, defending the rights of, promoting the self-esteem of (etc.) a whole range of groups who want to have non-traditional sexual relationships outwith a monogamous marriage between husband and wife.

Yet for all the vast mass of argument that unconventional sex, cohabitations and promiscuities are 'not necessarily' and 'not always harmful' to the immediate state of happiness of the parties directly involved - and may even enhance their pleasure, fun, excitement etc... Despite all this, nobody argues that these revolutionary freedoms and rights and lifestyle references are actually, actively, positively a way to create a Good society.

Nobody actually comes out and says that it would be Good if there were no marriages but only a sexual free marketplace with no-strings sex of any and every imaginable kind between anybody who fancies it at that moment; happening all the time, in all places, in public - as much as possible, the more the better...

This is, in fact, where Western societies have been and are heading - but nobody actually promotes this as a Good thing. Indeed, I don't believe anybody at all actually regards it as a Good thing - and those few who really would like to create such a society wish it precisely because they know it would be a Bad thing: and because they are actively seeking evil.

Anyway, I offer these three maxims as possible ways of thinking more clearly about policy.

But, of course, that itself depends on the meta-ethic that clear thinking abut policy is itself a Good thing - and that rests upon some master ideology or religion which either frames and constrains all discourse or any kind between persons - or else there is no real discourse at all - but merely a maelstrom of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Which is the current reality. 


Adrian H said...

Great post. One nitpick, though: no-fault divorce was preceded and driven by the increasing divorce rate, rather than vice versa. In a certain sense no-fault divorce was a pragmatic way to handle the overwhelming load of divorce cases that were clogging the courts (at least in the US).

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adrian - Well, that's one interpretation, but I don't want to get into specifics. With law it is only slightly what is on the books, and mostly how the law is implemented - eg. current immigration 'laws'. A change in law often precedes the statutes.

EVIList said...

"(This comes from Thomas Sowell)"

Actually, it comes from Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson, who in turn took the idea from the French economist Frederic Bastiat. But you likely may have known that already.

"Nobody actually regards abortion as a Good thing - a cause for celebration; something to be promoted, maximized, done as much as possible, in as many situations as possible, as the basis of a good and healthy and admirable society. (Or, at least, those who do believe this never admit to it.)"

This is plainly false; please see for example the article "No-one is for abortion!" (part of Fran├žois Tremblay's Pro-Abortion Series (not to be confused with the Pro-Choice position)), as well as Chapter 5. Abortion: The 'Pro-Death' View in Prof. David Benatar's book Better Never To Have Been (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Pavel Petrovich wrung his hands. "After that I don't understand you. You insult the Russian people. I don't see how it's possible to reject principles and rules! On what basis can you act?"

"I've already told you, Uncle, we don't accept any authorities," Arkady intervened.

"We act on the basis of what we recognize as useful," Bazarov replied. "Nowadays the most useful thing of all is rejection -- we reject."



"What? Not only art and poetry . . . but even . . . it's too awful to say . . ."

"Everything," Bazarov repeated with indescribable composure.

Pavel Petrovich stared at him. He hadn't expected this, and Arkady even blushed with delight.

"But allow me,"Nikolai Petrovich began. "You reject everything, or, to put it more precisely, you destroy everything . . . But one must also build."

"That's not for us to do . . . First, the ground must be cleared."

* * *

"Well , then? Are you taking action or what? Are you preparing to take action?"

Bazarov made no reply. Pavel Petrovich gave a little shudder, but then gained control of himself.

"Hmmm! To act, destroy . . .," he continued. "But how can one destroy without even knowing why?"

"We destroy because we're a force," Arkady observed.

(from Turgenev's Fathers and Sons)