Philosophy & policy


The write is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford and a graduate of Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
The write is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford and a graduate of Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

UNIVERSITIES around the world emphasise technical tools used for designing public policies. They will make sure that you understand concepts such as causal identification, cost-benefit analysis and economic theory. However, most policy schools do not put the same level of emphasis on philosophical training. Shackled by a form of scientism emerging after the Enlightenment, philosophy and its study now suffer from an image problem.

Philosophy’s application to public policy is underexplored, in large part because of the dominant perception that the scientific method alone holds the key to viable public policy. And yet, philosophy and public policy are deeply interconnected — a fact that decision makers ignore at the expense of society at large.

Let’s take the example of the standard training in economics to help decision-makers design evidence-driven policies. While these tools enable decision makers to measure the effectiveness of a policy, they are inadequate in analysing ethical implications. Questions of justice are supremely important and yet receive little philosophical rigour in the decision-making process.

Philosophy’s application to public policy is unexplored.

A natural consequence is that policymakers often rely on their own judgements. The example of the Covid-19 catastrophe across the world sheds light on this. The cash transfer programme in Pakistan, the furlough scheme in the UK and the fiscal package in the US all make strong assumptions about fairness. The recent global discussions about the introduction of wealth taxes are as much about equity as they are about economic efficiency. Concerns about the expanding role of government and potential erosion of individual privacy depend on how we define the boundaries of freedom. These are all tough philosophical questions that cannot be answered by relying on our instincts.

Another related problem is that there are deep connections between any sub-discipline in public policy, and philosophy. Let’s again take the example of economics. Whether you have utilitarian or Rawlsian view about justice, it has massive implications about how you model individual behaviour and, consequently, how you analyse the welfare implications of a policy. A typical researcher in economics will estimate the welfare implications of a policy, implicitly making an assumption of how welfare is defined (typically utilitarian).

Modern economists doing policy relevant work shy away from questions about the fundamental philosophical foundations of their models of individual behaviour. But that does not mean that that an understanding of philosophy isn’t absolutely crucial to their work. This holds similarly true for other policy-relevant disciplines. Without a solid foundation in philosophy, how do we as policymakers and researchers hope to design just policies and evaluate them in a way that reflects a worldview we agree with?

My own interest in philosophy came about as I went deeper within the field of economics. With my fourth year in graduate studies, I had learnt the ‘hard skills’ required to do policy analysis and have applied them to produce policy research. Sitting through the economics classes and applying these skills to produce research helped me understand their value — evidence and economic theory are extremely useful. At the same time, there was little in my training that helped me analyse the foundational assumptions and ethical implications of policies. It was this feeling of inadequacy, with a little guidance from my brother who studies philosophy, that nudged me to understand the basics of philosophy. And it was this same feeling that prompted me to write this piece.

Since the Enlightenment, the world has progressively placed a high level of importance on evidence — something that has also permeated the social sciences. Inspired by all the major scientific developments over the last few centuries, social scientists have aimed to ape their counterparts from the pure sciences and have taken up the gospel of evidence.

There is no doubt that this has been a wonderful development in social sciences. It is with evidence and evidence alone that we can hope to bring in some measure of objectivity to the social sciences. However, the same tools used in the pure sciences are inadequate to answer questions of justice and ethics. The beauty of the social sciences is that it not only requires tools that can objectively analyse of the causal impact of a policy but also tools that form our larger world view about what is right and wrong, just and unjust. It is high time that social sciences now turn towards the humanities for inspiration, as it turned towards the sciences for inspiration over the last century. It is time for public policy to take inspiration from philosophy.

The write is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford and a graduate of Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Twitter: @KhudadadChattha

Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2020