Value beyond numbers: the “engaged philosophy” approach to policy
- 17 July 2019
- Posted by: Helen Nicol
- Category: News
Here’s a fresh blog post from GO Lab regulars Leigh Crowley and Mehdi Shiva, in which they apply insights from a recent chapter by academic Jonathan Wolff (sadly not open-access) on the difference between applied philosophy and engaged philosophy. Here’s a snippet:
Even when the cost of delivering a service to the homeless is higher than the predicted savings there can still be a strong moral imperative to provide support despite financial losses. It is in these muddy waters where economic analysis and moral considerations mix that the skillset of the engaged philosopher is able to support in identifying and articulating the moral dilemmas that underlay policy debates, and potentially chart a path forward with the identification and evaluation of possible solutions.
Before possible policy responses to homelessness can be considered comparisons across time and space should be used to develop an understanding of how the problem came into being, additionally comparisons can help prevent the same mistakes being repeated. Economists approach this task by building data models that attempt explain trends based upon analysis of past policy outcomes, while an engaged philosopher seeks to provide a deeper contextual understanding of homelessness causes and consequences. Wolff cautions that even when a problem is well-known “real understanding requires an appreciation of not just what is being publicised in the headlines, but the underlying position regarding law and regulations, as well as facts of behaviour”. Failure to fully appreciate the issue at hand will ultimately lead to bad policies. By cutting through messy political debates and potentially simplified economic analyses the engaged philosopher is able to clearly articulate the current state of play as well as the underlaying political and moral arguments.
Crowley and Shiva are in essence arguing a fairly simple point: that perhaps some decisions on policy should be informed by factors and understandings beyond those which are easily quantifiable in a cost-benefit analysis. (There’s something of a theme developing here, isn’t there?) In some respects — and with no insult intended to Dr. Wolff, nor to Crowley and Shiva — it’s astonishing that we actually need to make recourse to academic philosophy in order to argue that there’s a moral case for supporting homeless persons without any expectation of directly recouping the money spent on doing so… but that’s where we are in 2019, it seems. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Still, the more theoretical and empirical evidence we have in support of doing the moral thing, the better, right? Right — so read Crowley and Shiva’s piece in full, and add another argument to your arsenal.