Saturday, August 04, 2007

What Can Political Philosophers Learn From Bioethicists?

One of the interesting things about working in the interstices between two disciplines is that it makes it easier to see the blindspots that characteristically blight those working in each. What is obscured from one's view by one disciplinary paradigm is revealed in plain view by the other. With this in mind, my next two posts will aim to show suggest what political philosophers could helpfully learn from bioethicists, and (next time) what bioethicists could helpfully learn from political philosophers.

The most important thing that political philosophers could learn from bioethicists is how to go about applying abstract normative theories to the real world. Before you've actually tried to do this, it's easy to assume that theory construction is the hard part, and that application of the theory should either be an afterthought, or even left to nonphilosophers. To pick a somewhat arbitrary number though I hope not too inaccurate number, I would estimate that currently 90% of the intellectual effort in analytic political philosophy goes into theory construction.

There are two main problem with this approach. First is that it is simply false to claim that it is easy to apply normative theories to concrete reality. Any normative theory we will attempt to apply will either be consequentialist or nonconsequentialist. If it is consequentialist, then we face two problems: first, how to operationalise our account of the maximandum (e.g. how do we measure pleasure, or preference satisfaction or whatever we think the good to be). And second, how can we be in an epistemological position to be even tolerably certain that Policy A will create a greater balance of good over harm than any of Policies B, C or D? (This difficulty has been brought home to me by work on the ethics of intellectual property. Most people assume that, for example, patents are justified on consequentialist grounds: i.e. that it is better than any other policy for society as a whole if we allow inventors to claim a temporary monopoly on the usage of their invention, in order to encourage further research. However, the research that would support such a claim has simply never been done, and so we are simply not in a position to say whether patents are in general justified in consequentialist terms. More on this here.)

Nonconsequentialist approaches are also very difficult to apply, but for a different reason. Nonconsequentialist approaches face the difficulty that the principles which political philosophers tend to defend are not nearly specific enough to guide policy making in a determinate fashion. (Norman Daniels writes about this problem interestingly and honestly in Justice and Justification. As you'll probably know, Daniels was a student of Rawls. He decided to apply Rawls' Theory of Justice to Healthcare, initially thinking that this would be a rather easier task than it in fact turned out to be. As Daniels soon discovered, Rawls' theory as it stood said nothing about health and healthcare, other than making the very unhelpful assumption that the contractors would be healthy over a normal lifespan! So Rawls' theory needed to be extended and specified: but it wasn't even clear to Daniels where he should place health in a Rawlsian system - as an additional primary good; to be covered by the opportunity principle; or by the difference principle. And once he decided to account for health with the opportunity principle, a whole host of other problems of specification presented themselves).

The second objection to the lack of focus on application, is somewhat more polemical. Making the world a more just place simply ought to be part of what political philosophers take themselves to be doing; and they can only do this if they focus on solving problems as we face them in the real world. (As Dewey put it in The Need for a Recovery in Philosophy, "Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men.")

Just to make this point a bit more contentious, I now present the Parable of the Bridge Builders.

Arthur was a goodly man from the town of Strife. One day he decided to build a bridge so that the residents of Strife could more easily cross over the river to the Promised Land. So he called all the town's bridge builders to assemble, and arranged for each of them to put their case.

First up were Pragmatic Builders. They said, "We won't try to build you the best possible bridge, but we'll build you a solid and sturdy bridge that can carry people over to the Promised Land, come rain, come shine. And to make it easier, we'll build on the foundations of the old bridge, and use the same types of timber that have been used before."

Next up were Ideal Theory Constructions. Their foreman (a good but diffident man called Rawls) said: "I don't want to build you the best bridge that can be made now, out of the materials to hand. I have a plan for the very best sort of bridge there could possibly be, given the nature of the human beings it must carry, and the sorts of materials we might plausibly be able to use." He handed over a 587 page book containing his plan.

Last up were Fact Free Builders. Their foreman, a clever witty man named Cohen said: "I want to go further. It's not enough to give you a plan for the best sort of bridge, given human nature, and the sorts of materials we might be able to use. I'm interested in the very best bridge, period. And the very best bridge cannot depend on any facts about what human beings are like, or what materials are available."

On hearing this, Arthur said to the builders: "I see how the Pragmatic Builders' bridge might help people cross the river to the Promised Land. But I don't see how yours will help".

Rawls said, "Building good bridges is very hard. In order to understand how to build good bridges, we need to abstract from some of the problems we face in building real bridges. Once we understand how to build ideal bridges, then we should perhaps be able to say something more plausible about how to build bridges designed for the real world."

Cohen said, "I'm interested in the ideal bridge. Of course, given the kinds of people we are, and given our circumstances, there may be good reason to go for the Pragmatic Bridge now. But it's important that we be aware precisely in what ways the Pragmatic Bridge falls short of the Perfect Bridge".

On hearing this, Arthur retained the Pragmatic Builders, as the people were crying out to reach the Promised Land.


Jasper Yate said...

This to me is one of the bigger questions in philosophy in the way that I see philosophy; where does intelligent thought meet life. To me it is not necessary for a person to be an expert in certain pedantic studies of this or that, but to be a legitimately intellelectually indepentent person who choses to think for the better of himself and for others.

I myself, though I stand strongly against the naming of schools of thought, would sayI am on the side of the pragmatists, but also believe that that is the only place for a philosopher to be: If the philosopher is concerned with life as a human being and discovering truth or morality or whatever he's interested in within the context of human life than must he not also be concerned with that actual life that he himself is living for included in living as a human being, as well as rationality and such a level of consiousness as we believe we have, comes the perception of this world through our senses as a reality, and when one is interested in philosophy pertinent to human beings, that he must be concerned with his physical life and the physical reality presented to him by his human senses, and in turn accept the existence and relevance to himself of other living beings. This is fairly apparent to any philosopher interested in ethics or anything of the sort, but it seems that the thought process doesn't carry through much of the time and that people are in no mood to act on thought and accept that their idea is not "perfect" but that it is within their right as an intellectually independent individual to assert their opinion and attempt to change whatever it is that they seek to change in whatever way they see fit. Living a human life in this world is a large part experiencing emotions and senses and learning and feeling; theres no sense in waiting on what you're experience and learining has pointed out to you so far as the right thing to do. One of the harder things in life when raised in our times of hyper realities is to accept that perfection is an idea that is neither fully conceivable nor fully possible.

What 'poltical philosophers' and 'bioethicists' can both learn from the peoples who's lives they apparently seek to improve is that they are forgettig to experience and live their lives within their moralities and implement changes where they can. Think and learn and theorize, but when you have an idea spread it and if it doens't work or theres a hole other PEOPLE will fix it or discard it and you can keep thinking.

I think all philosophers need to get down off of their pedistals that they and society put them on and accept that they are the ones who are intelligent enough and able enough to "change the world", and that they themselves are the only ones stoping them from bringing the human community to the point where they'd like to see it.

David Hunter said...

There is a very nice post on a similar topic by Colin Farrelly over at In Search of Enlightenment called What Justice Requires, "Many-Things-Considered"

Worth a read. I have to say I agree with you entirely and particularly enjoyed the Parable. Okay now putting my devils advocate hat on for a moment though, here is a concern. One of the reasons theorists get caught up in trying to figure out what is best in theory is because working this out is very difficult, as no doubt we are all aware. So while we might agree we ought to do the best thing, we might think we ought to think hard about what the best thing to do is before springing into action, rather than take the risk of getting it wrong and being responsible. I've written about this here Killing me softly with his political theory: Social Change, Suicide and Political Theory and here Difficulties of predicting the effects of widescale interventions

Now of course not acting has potentially disastrous consequences as well. So what to do? I think while figuring out the best action is very difficult, figuring out some better or at least not bad actions is simpler. As such I think for now do things that we think will minimise harm and promote justice etc, while keeping one foot in the camp of the theorists, to make sure we haven't got it all horribly wrong.

But as I said, I agree, political philosophy does need to get out of Platos cave and be more focused on application than just abstract theorising.

Jasper Yate said...

Don't knoc the cave I love the cave.

You put it well about taking the best course of action at the time being given our knowledge, and I absolutely agree that discovering the 'right' way of doing things in the fasion which philosophers do so now; But I do also think that in taking these small actions that we see as a positive effect no matter what our final discovery of truth or morality discovers is part of appreciating the experience of being human in our lives and taking advantage of our apparent free will and doing what we see at the time being as 'right'. That may have been a little fuzzy, I mean: being human beings we are given the chance that no other living beings have of being conscious of the nature of the effects that we have on the planet we live on and the other humans that we live with, so that when we see an opportunity to improve upon the way in which as a people we think and live it is simply being human to consider and act - I may even consider this what living is based on. Considering this, it isn't satisfactory living in that cave trying to convince everyone that there's an outside instead of just doing what you can when you find somthing that may get just a few people in the sun.

Anonymous said...

By choosing an example of building something physical in the world, Wilson has stacked the deck in favor of pragmatism. Also, the example of building something in the physical world is so commonplace (we have, I suppose millions of bridges in the world)that pragmatism is not even put to the test, as it would be in constructing something never before constructed, say a several million occupancy old people's home on Mars. There, the pragmatist would have to come up with some theories about construction that would undoubtedly be experimental and not proven. Then, the pragmatist could defend his theory by arguing that " I think that my theory is the best, but of course only time and a lot of experimentation is likely to tell."

Wilson should have chosen an example like constructing a fair and efficient system or method or institutions or rules for punishment by imprisonment in a criminal justice system. Then, Rawls and others would have something to say about trade-offs, or no trade-offs between physical aspects of punishment by imprisonment and fairness aspects and efficiency aspects of punishment by imprisonment. Then, Rawls and the pragmatist would need to discuss issues like how free people are in making their decisions that may land them in prison; whether punishment should be generally proportional to the crime (taking into consideration the graph of prison terms for different offenses as measured about people's opinions about the relative seriousness of the offenses, etc.).

Why does Wilson bother to throw out a hypothetical so strongly slanted toward the point of view that he wants to adopt at the finish line?