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November 14, 2010


Paul Sagar

I don't understand what you think is "Humean" (let alone "to the core") about this split. Are you getting at a fact/value distinction, or a "inherently-unreliable inductive reasoning" distinction?



lying by abusing words is not clever or new,

see G. Orwell 1984 and Animal Farm.

Will Davies

Paul - a "fact/value" distinction. OK, the 'core' is an unnecessary rhetorical flourish.

Dick Pountain

There's another distinction, equivalent to fact/value, that better describes this: equitable/fair. "Equitable" is objective and can be described by an algorithm - "fair" is subjective or emotional and will vary between different participants. When different interest groups are involved some must perceive the same deal as fair, others as unfair - but an "equitable" formula can be thrown in their faces to refute such intuitions.

Ian Christie

Thank for this post.
Surely the point about trolleyology is that it demonstrates how extreme and rare situations do damage to neat ethical theories. No-one, whether utilitarian, deontologist or virtue theorist, comes out unscathed. And in most of life the trolleyologist's dilemmas don't arise. They do, however, in extremity - as in wartime or the aftermath of some catastrophe. And in those circumstances, everyone is agonised (or can claim to be) but knows that 'hard choices' have to be made.
I may sound like Naomi Klein and her Shock Doctrine here, but it suits neoliberal politicians in the wake of the Crash to describe their (and our) circumstances in similar terms. This turns the Crash into something akin to a natural disaster, and the policy response into disaster relief and reconstruction. It then becomes a luxury we can't afford to go too deeply into the reasons for the Crash, and the possibility of a quite different policy response based on values that challenge the premises of neoliberalism.

Josh Booth

A great post Will, and one that neatly points to the source of the conservative assumptions behind a ‘politics of fairness’.

I think the essence of the problem - with both trolleyology and the coalition’s ‘fair’ cut-coordination - is that the decision-making they require takes place in an arena almost completely detached from the scenario they seek to address. Trolleyology does this deliberately; politicians do it thanks to a system that does this for them.

One of the main deficiencies of ‘trolleyology’ is that we’re given a description of the situation (a trolley will either kill 5 people or 1 - no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’) and told to deal with it. There’s no sense that we might find a way to untie the one guy on the left fork of the track, then flip the points and save everyone. There’s no sense of possibility here.

People nearly always try to turn to alternatives when they first consider philosophical ‘trolley’ problems. That is until they learn how to do analytic philosophy. John Holbo, who blogs at Crooked Timber, made a great podcast where he interviewed his 9-year-old daughter about some classic trolley problems. “How is that guy gonna be fat enough to stop a whole trolley?”, she asks. “Why isn’t that trolley driver doing anything?”, “How did [the people on the track about to lose their lives] get there?”. We might ask similar questions of our government but, like the philosopher-kings who pose the trolley problems, they would probably stick their fingers in their ears and say “that’s just how it is”.

Trolley problems ask you to deafen yourself to the possibility that the facts could change in ways that at first seem unlikely. I think this is what makes their approach - and that of the coalition - inherently conservative.

The cuts must fall as Osborne says they should because of the facts: raising higher-band taxes would drive the wealthiest out of the country; coming down hard on the city would only result in the flight of hedge funds; business leaders must be listened to because they know what is good for the economy. The government knows all this because it has asked: it has fact-found, and all that’s left to do is plug these facts into a moral formula that fits people’s preferences. Fairness fits the bill.

But what about the unlikely, but possible, chance that the wealthiest would agree to shoulder a greater burden? Couldn’t their preferences change if, for instance, they were forced to come face-to-face with some of the people most reliant on the public sector who are going to be the real losers from these cuts? Just like Holbo’s daughter, politicians could try to persuade the trolley-driver to do something by engaging with him rather than taking the stance of a detached, godlike administrator whose only option is to flip a mechanical switch.

I think this detachment is at the heart of the issue - and at the heart of the fact / value distinction you observe in the No.11 / No.10 split. New Labour and now the coalition have been driven by the misconception that the task of representative politics is to make policy from a detached and disengaged position. The idea is that you can have moral algorithms (values) into which statistics (facts) are placed - that there is a stark distinction between principle-based practical reasoning and a knowledge-gathering exercise. A conception like this seems to have been behind Blair’s philosopher-king “sofa government”, detached from fact-crunching Whitehall and connected to the preferences of the electorate through focus groups, polls, and The Sun.

But what if the task of representative politicians was to facilitate a politics that engaged people in a process of exploring possibilities? This could be a politics which assumed that if people were engaged in a process of moral deliberation, they could change their own preferences - the ‘facts’ on which policy is based - which might in turn prompt them to deem alternative moral judgements acceptable. Even the most affluent might start to feel uncomfortable with policy based on the conservative moral principle that we should get what we deserve.

This could be a politics that denies a clear distinction between ethics and knowledge-gathering because both are bound together in a process in which people revise their political outlook.

Suppose we ask the trolley driver why he hasn’t applied the brakes, or we ask a bystander to untie the one guy on the left fork of the track while we flip the switch. We might be told that these aren’t possibilities, but why should we trust the problem-poser? Why should we believe that a more engaged, more deeply democratic politics wouldn’t produce better solutions?

In the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal, the coalition has had the opportunity to put a different kind of politics at the centre of its strategy, linking this to how it goes about its programme of cuts, its welfare reforms and its regulatory reconfiguration. Your analogy between trolleyology and the coalition’s approach unfortunately illustrates how this kind of thinking has yet to permeate the walls of No.10. Or, for that matter, No.11.

(Cross-posted from the same article at OurKingdom)

Will Davies

Thanks, Josh. This reminds me of various institutionalist and 'interpretivist' traditions of policy studies, which refuse to accept means and ends as separate. I think you're absolutely right.

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