Can Moral Philosophy Assist Economists in Providing Policy Advice?

The above critique of modernity calls into question the claim that moral and legal reasoning could imitate geometrical forms of argument. As indicated above, this particular idealisation of human rationality—this attempt to legislate how we are to think so as to achieve certainty, to privilege a particular class of stories and story-tellers—has been subject to quite destructive criticism. Contemporary philosopher Christopher Cherniak concludes as a result that ‘the pervasively and tacitly assumed conception of rationality in philosophy is so idealised that it cannot apply in any interesting way to actual human beings’.[40]

In the face of these philosophical and methodological conclusions, the extent to which economists can have anything special to say on public policy development as a result of their ‘economic expertise’ is deeply problematic.

It is, however, at this point that we encounter the superficially helpful suggestion that economists should turn to the study of moral philosophy if they are to offer relevant policy advice. This turn to moral philosophy is, however, no turn at all. It is where economists have been all along—albeit disguised behind mathematical jargon. They seem to have forgotten that Smith, their hero, was a moral philosopher who considered his Theory of Moral Sentiments his greatest work. Indeed, neoclassical economics is inherently utilitarian and hedonistic. An appeal from economics to utilitarianism is therefore no more than an appeal from Caesar to Caesar. It is simply a further appeal to the Enlightenment’s failed search for epistēmē in social, political and moral theorising.

The suggestion assumes that moral philosophy can produce rational answers to the moral questions raised by public policy questions, but it is that very concept of rationality that is in question. In any event, this search for basic principles of ethical action has run into the sand. The metaphysical and teleological superstructures that held the medieval and classical worlds together were dismantled by the Enlightenment project, which began as a rejection of religion as the guarantor of legitimacy and meaning. That project’s search for a replacement collapsed and left a vacuum. As MacIntyre concludes, ‘[I]n spite of the efforts of three centuries of moral philosophy and one of sociology, [we] lack any coherent, rationally defensible statement of a liberal individualist point of view.’[41] The project has privatised all sources of meaning and belief, ensuring that no other tradition can assert itself as the sole claimant of a shared and public conception of good.[42] Saul makes a similar point: ‘There is an ever-growing difference between theory and practice—that is, between theories of ethics and the ethical reality we know and understand. The result has been…the irrelevance of much of ethical theory to the ethical lives that people are actually striving to lead.’[43]

Importantly, why should we attach more weight to the pronouncements of philosophers on moral issues than those of other people?[44] There is little reason to believe that the academic practice of moral philosophy has any privileged authority to determine the style and method of thinking on moral matters, what the serious problems are and how they should be characterised.[45] The normative assumption underlying this form of justification is never justified. Apparently, we are somehow required by reason to accept certain basic moral injunctions; but where reason acquires this power to compel is never explained, it is simply assumed. This is a major problem:

Again and again over the last 2,500 years we have been subjected to the assertion that reason alone allows us to identify and use ethics. The intention has often been good. But the effect each time has been to turn ethics into a creature of reason…It is this assumption about intellectual form which is central to distancing ethics from real use.[46]

Despite their high claims, however, moral philosophers do not start from a blank slate when they begin their system building. They start from an impression of the everyday social reality embodied in culture, language and tradition. For example, at the end of the day, Rawls seeks to justify the norms that he thinks are the critical ones in his society and to legislate them. As Saul points out, however, his procedure—which identifies justice with fairness and defines a person’s good as the successful execution of a rational plan of life—is embarrassing in its naïvety.[47] Similarly, Yale philosophical theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff—noting that Rawls is trying to resolve the conflict in the American tradition between freedom and equality—questions how one could reasonably expect to extract principles from that American culture that could resolve that conflict.[48] Many other philosophers, including Nozick, could be accused of similar naïvety. In Nozick’s case, the fundamental premise that we are born with certain intrinsic rights, which override all other considerations, is simply not true. That is only something that some of us say in a particular cultural environment. The consequence was that at the end of his life Nozick was left wondering why what he thought worked in theory did not work in practice.

For his part, Habermas rejects the idea of value-free inquiry, and instead advances a critical dialectic-hermeneutic approach to social and moral theorising.[49] He distinguishes between practical and technical instrumental knowledge, seeing the practical as the sphere of fully human activity—knowledge of which can be reached only by open human discourse. He believes that there is a crisis of legitimacy in the contemporary capitalist world arising from the fundamental conditions of capitalist societies and the social-welfare responsibilities of mass democracies. While this is a continuing problem for political and social discourse—as political and social theorists have always recognised—this particular crisis lies at the heart of the popular dissatisfaction with economic fundamentalist policy prescriptions. Habermas, however, retains his faith in rational discourse, believing that norms and institutions can be justified through rational discourse and consensus linked to the intention of a good and true life. For Habermas, legitimacy rests on rational justification. He therefore searches for the ideal speech conditions under which rational consensus can be achieved through unrestrained universal discourse. The ideal speech community, he postulates, can then provide a critical standard against which to judge the consensuses reached in practice. In this he is attempting, like Rawls, to define an ideal situation in which agreement can occur. Habermas and Rawls value freedom, rationality, equality and knowledge as essential preconditions for achieving consensus and valid moral principles.

Since we do not live in such a world, we cannot know what would command agreement, and consequently what ethical principles to recommend.[50] Both accounts, however, are important in reminding us that such judgements, to be legitimate, must rest on social consensus. They point to the fundamental importance of maintaining the health of our democratic traditions and institutions in the hope of approaching a basis on which we can all accept the legitimacy of the government’s normative decisions. Let us face it, however: our public political discourse is in disarray. In particular, our federal parliament has degenerated into a farce devoted to the manipulation of the electorate, with Question Time a circus involving childish point scoring on all sides. Worse, ill-conceived, rapidly drafted complex legislation is rammed through the parliament with the minimum of examination. We deserve better! More broadly still, dishonesty in public discourse, the manipulative exploitation of the public’s fears for political advantage, the demonising of political opponents or other individuals and groups and using public funds to finance political propaganda all threaten our traditions and institutions. As Hitler, Goebbels and Stalin taught us, such conduct is part of a slippery slope that ends in tyranny and death camps.

Accordingly, we need to look to the quality of our public discourse and the real reform of our democratic institutions. I believe, for example, that there is a strong case for a constitutional bill of rights. We should also limit the present excessive power of the prime minister and the Executive. An elected presidency might make sense in providing an additional check to the accumulation of excessive power by the prime minister, as would fixed terms for both houses of parliament and proportional representation in the House of Representatives. In addition, we need to increase the accountability of ministerial staffers. Other highly desirable changes include an independent speaker in the house, a greatly strengthened committee system in the house, senate scrutiny of appointments to the courts and statutory bodies and the restoration of some autonomy and balance to the Australian Public Service. Re-establishing an independent Public Service Board and restoring tenure and appeal rights at senior levels would help the last. In addition, we need to find some way to better balance the influence of central coordinating agencies over other departments. This could involve, in particular, a reduction in the size and influence of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet so that it operates more as a coordinating agency rather than as a super department second-guessing and overseeing all others. Similar concerns apply to the excessive influence of the Departments of Treasury and Finance and Administration. Accountants make good servants but poor masters.

Finally, as a community, we have to stop our governments using public funds for party-political advertising. Such conduct is of questionable morality as is systematic pork-barrelling in marginal electorates.

This democratic need is reinforced by the realisation that in practice there are different and incompatible schools in moral and political philosophy, each claiming rational justification.[51] Moral and political justifications take many different forms and people give many different justifications for these judgements. It follows that moral disagreements are the essence of political debate. These conflicting moral and political traditions are embedded in our moral vocabulary, culture and tradition: ‘[W]e live with the inheritance of not only one, but a number of well integrated moralities. Aristotelianism, primitive Christian simplicity, the puritan ethic, the aristocratic ethic of consumption and the traditions of democracy and socialism have all left a mark on our moral vocabulary.’[52]

Weber made a similar point when he claimed that modern people lived in a world of warring gods, presiding over highly organised but incompatible value systems. The extraordinarily powerful demands of kinship, economics, politics, art, love and science are inconsistent.[53] Indeed, Steven Tipson points out that such moral ideas change their meanings and social usage over time within all cultures.[54]

These incompatible traditions—when taken with the Enlightenment’s privatisation of morality—mean that moral values are now often taken to be a matter for individual choice. The practical result is that arguments alone can give no definitive answer to moral questions, and all such philosophers do is disguise the answers they want to give as the verdict of philosophical inquiry. Thus, ‘expert’ policy advisers are in a position to pick their school of moral thought to suit their rhetorical and ideological purposes, hiding their choice behind a cloud of impressive rhetoric. Hausman and McPherson warn us also of the many dimensions of moral appraisal and against reducing these many dimensions to one or two.[55] In practice, however, moral discourse seems to be afflicted with a very bad dose of reductionism.

This appeal to moral theory leads to a reliance on theoretical stories to explain moral values rather than real reflection on experience. At the heart of many such theoretical accounts remains the Enlightenment idea that social life is logically secondary to an unconstrained non-social life in which what people do is a matter of their individual ‘natural’ drives and choices. This psychological vocabulary presupposes an established web of social and moral relationships.[56] Moral justifications are always justifications to somebody who accepts the relevant standard.[57]

Indeed, MacIntyre[58] points out that contemporary moral philosophy is characterised by radical disagreement, interminable arguments and incommensurable premises. There is no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture. We have competing and conflicting theories. For example, there are deontological theories such as those of Rawls, Nozick and Gerwith, which focus on the individual and usually take duty or rights as the basis of morality. We also have teleological theories, which judge actions on the basis of their consequences alone. From this teleological perspective, we can know whether something is right only if one knows the fundamental aims or ends that our activities are to promote.

The arguments MacIntyre cites are logically consistent, but their premises are such that there is no way of weighing their respective claims.[59] These premises employ quite different normative concepts, so that their claims are of different kinds. Furthermore, there is no established way of deciding between these claims in our society. The invocation of one premise against another is pure assertion and counter-assertion. The different conceptually incommensurable premises of rival arguments can be traced easily to a wide variety of historical origins, but we should not underestimate the complexity of the history and ancestry of such arguments. We need to recognise that the various concepts that inform our moral discourse were originally at home in larger totalities of theory and practice in which they enjoyed a role and function supplied by a context of which they have now been deprived.

This has led MacIntyre to complain that moral philosophy is often written as though the history of the subject were of only secondary and incidental importance. Some philosophers have even written as if moral concepts were timeless, limited, unchanging, determinate species of concept necessarily having the same features throughout their history. The history of ethics demonstrates, however, that moral concepts change as social life changes. For example, the list of virtues in the Nicomachean Ethics reflects what Aristotle takes to be the code of a gentleman in contemporary Greek society.[60] To understand a concept is always to learn the grammar that controls the use of such words and so to grasp the role of the concept in language and social life. There are, however, continuities as well as breaks in the history of moral concepts. The complexity is increased because philosophical inquiry itself plays a part in changing moral concepts.

Consequently, it is not clear that an investigation of how a concept is used will yield one clear and consistent account. Furthermore, if part of our ethical knowledge is tacit—as argued in Chapter 2—it might not even be possible to articulate the concepts successfully. Moreover, the current state of moral philosophy involves a whole range of interconnected, different views. The parties to these different views will not agree that they can be settled by empirical inquiry into the way in which evaluative concepts are really used. The ordinary use of moral concepts could on occasions be confused or even perverted through the influence of misleading philosophical theory. For MacIntyre, therefore, it is important for us to discover the narratives we inhabit, recognising that competing groups inhabit incommensurable universes of discourse.[61]

For his part, Rorty questions whether we already possess the moral vocabulary necessary to determine whether we are doing justice to others.[62] He argues that since Kant and Bentham, moral philosophy has identified moral perfection with doing justice to others, taking for granted that we already possess the necessary vocabulary. From this perspective, the problem is to split the difference between Kant and Bentham— between the categorical imperative and the utilitarian principle as formulations of ‘the moral law’. This reduction of morality to the moral law has twin roots in the Christian and scientific traditions. On the one side, it is an attempt to update and make respectable the Judaeo-Christian idea that all the laws and the prophets can be summed up in respect for one’s fellow humans. On the other hand, it is an attempt to secularise ethics by imitating Galileo’s secularisation of cosmology, finding nice, elegant little formulae with which to predict what will happen. Consequently, when Aristotelians, Kierkegaardian Christians, Marxists or Nietzscheans argue that there is more to moral philosophy than that—that we might not yet know the words that will permit us to deal justly with our fellows—they are said to confuse morality with something else, something religious or aesthetic or ideological. When philosophers protest that what is needed is not rules that synthesise the utilitarian principles and the categorical imperative but rather a morally sensitive vocabulary, they are seen as doing something rather odd and ‘literary’, not to be confused with moral theory.

For Rorty, the difficult moral cases are ones in which we grope for the correct words to describe the situation, not ones in which we are torn between the demands of two principles. The fiction of real moral and political questions being resolved by finding the morally relevant features of the situation—those that can be described in the vocabulary in which classical moral principles are stated—should not be taken seriously. We should not think of our distinctive moral status as being ‘grounded’ in our possession of mind, language, culture, feeling, intentionality, textuality or anything else. These numinous ideas are simply declarations of our awareness that we are members of a moral community, phrased in pseudo-explanatory jargon. This awareness is something that cannot be further ‘grounded’; it is simply taking a certain point of view on our fellow humans. It is the ability to wield complex and sensitive moral vocabularies that counts as moral sophistication. What makes the modern West morally advanced is not a clear vision of objective moral truths but its sense that we are creating morality—a moral text—rather than discovering nature’s own moral vocabulary. What needs to be emphasised is that the moral vocabulary does not stand alone, but, in any culture, is supplemented greatly by endless narratives, which aim to explain the way in which the vocabulary should be used.

This emphasis on the existing moral vocabularies stands as a healthy correction to the Platonic system-building tendencies of Western rationalism. Indeed, Wolterstorff argues that we must carry on politics without a foundation. There is no neutral or coherent set of principles—no single story—that can adjudicate such conflicts as that between freedom and equality. Rather, Wolterstorff seeks a unity that emerges from dialogue in a society characterised by religious, moral and philosophical pluralism.[63] In this same spirit, American developmental psychologist Norma Haan looks to the construction of an empirically based, consensual theory of everyday morality.[64] This morality of everyday life is not a capacity that resides exclusively in individuals; it is social exchange in itself. For Haan, several Platonic ideas have obscured the simpler features of everyday morality. For example, it is assumed that for a moral theory to be adequate, it should provide clear and absolute guidance for all the important problems of living. Consequently, formulations of everyday morality have usually been depreciated as being relativistic and inferior.

In the spirit of Toulmin, Haan argues that such absolute claims attract human beings because they seem to deliver the security of moral clarity. Associated with this is an assumption that we can know a complete morality only when it is presented by a higher authority or by morally elite figures. The consequence of this way of thinking is that leaders can then employ morality and manipulate guilt as an instrument of political control. People’s deep commitments to their various groups make them highly vulnerable and responsive to this form of manipulation. Leaders’ public judgements of moral merit quell the efforts of the disadvantaged to promote their own good: those of lower status are guilty, intrinsically unworthy and have not earned the right to expect more. For Haan, however, everyday morality has no source other than the experience and agreements of people themselves. She therefore questions whether moralities must be in the form of complete, formalised systems, rather than the more proximate forms that emerge from the details of human interchange. In such a morality of everyday life, specialists are not needed. Under the influence of Piaget’s work, Haan believes that the mind is active, rational and constructivist, and that morality must, therefore, be inductive and creative rather than compliant and rule deductive. She questions whether it is realistic to consider ‘moral character’ as a fixed faculty; rather, she sees moral responsiveness as a sensitivity and skill in social interaction. This would seem to require an ability to access the appropriate social text.[65] In this connection, psychology is moving towards the explicit recognition that humans are thoroughgoing social beings from birth and that infants are far less egocentric than previously thought.

When social interaction is taken as the pivotal feature of morality, a different view of moral processes, decisions, guidelines and individual capacities emerges. Moral dialogues occur continuously as major or minor events throughout the life of every person. People have a clear and strong expectation of engaging in moral dialogue as a means of organising the patterns of social thought and interchange. Consequently, moral dialogue can be regarded as the prime moral structure. The question of why people are willing to consider others’ moral claims has some empirical answers. Haan[66] considers that people are willing to consider the moral claims of others for the following interrelated, empirical reasons:

This interactive view puts citizens and society in the difficult role of working constantly to achieve moral agreements. In order to be moral, people must really and authentically participate in building the morality they endorse and use. In particular, for Haan, a just society cannot exist without an interactive morality requiring equitable participation. The more remote justice is from the real experience of people, the less sensible it is for them to accept society as morally legitimated. This is a position very close to that advanced by Habermas—shorn of its Platonic tendencies. It also has much in common with the evolutionary account of the development of moral order advanced in Chapter 2. It is not, however, a position that rejects critical analysis, but it gives far greater weight to other forms of prophetic proclamation.