The moral philosophy of evidence-based policymaking

Public policymaking is a morally loaded enterprise, and evaluation of policy includes philosophical thinking.

10 . 08 . 2020

So-called evidence-based policy (EBP) idealists consider themselves as ideologically neutral in all matters but one. Their only political view is that public policy making should be instrumentally rational. In other words, the means should suit the chosen ends.

Suppose that one policy goal is that carbon emissions should never exceed a certain threshold, and that there are two alternative ways to reach it; higher taxes on pollution, and a trade market on carbon allowances. EBP idealists are indifferent to the content of the two policies. Unlike, for example, socialists and libertarians, they have no ideological preference either for or against taxes and markets. They would choose simply whichever would be the most effective.

Is instrumental rationality always desirable in the policy process? Perhaps not. It is certainly desirable in the battle against climate change, which is a political struggle for a better world. Yet it may not be desirable in politics that take the world in the opposite direction. Rational or not, society should not implement policies that lead to moral decay.

A question of context

Suppose that it is a policy goal in a country to map the spread of COVID-19. The instrumentally most rational way to achieve this goal is to use GPS tracking. Citizens in the country can voluntarily download a COVID-19 app and allow it to track their movements and social interactions.

Independently, this could be an  unproblematic policy. However, taking its social context into account, the policy may be questionable. The same country may have given far-stretching emergency powers to the Government that are difficult to roll back when the crisis is over and which granted the police extensive rights to take preemptive measures against potential troublemakers. Considering the context, the COVID-19 tracking policy risks leading society into the direction of rights-infringements and the rise of a police state. An instrumentally less rational policy could be desirable in this case in order to avoid moral decay.

This is a challenge for EBP idealists. Their ideological view is that instrumental rationality is valuable in the policy process, yet there is good reason to believe that it may be undesirable. EBP idealists need to distinguish between situations when instrumental rationality is desirable and when it is not.

Doing so requires contextual analysis, which requires social interpretation, which in turn requires substantial ideological commitments. And that is precisely what EBP idealists like to avoid; they want to be politically neutral.

Policy decisions are never morally neutral

Neutral contextual analyses are impossible for at least three reasons. First, policies cannot be assessed as isolated phenomena. They are always part of a set of policies, and it is never clear which set a policy is a member of. More precisely, there is no value-neutral way to describe the set of policies that should be considered in a contextual analysis of the particular policy one is  evaluating. This is a matter of delineation.

The examples I used included the COVID-19 tracking policy, the government's emergency powers policy, and the police’s preemptive measures policy. Examples of policies that are not included in the set may be, for instance, the closing of schools and temporarily raised wages in healthcare. Delineating the set, i.e., choosing which policies should be included and which should not, requires value-sensitive judgement. This cannot be done neutrally.

Second, all public policies have symbolic values attached to them. Such  values are rarely, if ever, ideologically impartial. There is no neutral way to describe the meaning of policies, i.e., how they should be understood in terms of social and historical significance. For instance, to some, the COVID-19 tracking policy may appear to be a respectful and fair way of distributing the “costs” associated with learning about the virus; a display of tolerance in a liberal community. To others, the policy may instead appear to be weak and overly cautious; a symptom of a disoriented generation. The meaning of a policy can always be traced back to some value-laden judgement of society.

Third, there is always a “next” policy, the one that comes after the present, as all public policies open some doors while closing others. Analysing policies involves taking into account which doors should be open and which should not. For instance, the COVID-19 tracking policy may enable future policies such as large-scale surveillance and public data collection. According to some, such future policies are undesirable, and the door to them should remain shut. According to others, such policies would instead be desirable, and enabling them is therefore a move in the right direction. It is never entirely clear which doors a particular policy opens and which doors it shuts. Future policy possibilities could be unknown when policy decisions need to be made, and some precaution may therefore be necessary.

Identifying future policy possibilities, deciding which of them are desirable and not, and taking reasonable precautionary measures, requires value-sensitive judgements.

Public policy is morally loaded

To summarise, instrumental rationality is undesirable if it leads society into the wrong direction, and this is a problem for EBP idealists. They need to make substantial value-laden commitments that allow them to make contextual analyses of public policy making, so that they can determine when instrumental rationality is desirable and when it is not. Counter to their ideological views, EBP idealists cannot remain neutral about the contents of public policy; they need to be political.

Public policymaking is a morally loaded enterprise, and evaluation of policy includes philosophical thinking. Both theorists and practitioners should be aware of the moral and philosophical dimension of policymaking and equip themselves with the skills needed to treat moral problems with care. Moral policymaking cannot be reduced to a matter of instrumental rationality. It is far too important.

Jesper Ahlin Marceta is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Faculty of Law at Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University. 

This post is based on his recently published paper: The evidence-based policy movement and political idealism in the journal Evidence and Policy, which is intended to stimulate discussion about current debates on evidence-based policy (EBP).

Featured image by Artem Kniaz on Unsplash

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