Jonathan Wolff, Alfred Landecker Professor of Values and Public Policy at University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government and author of Ethics and Public Policy: A Philosophical Inquiry speaks to the ENA Centre for Political Theory about philosophy and public policy.

He talks about his extensive public policy experience and what philosophers have to learn from engaging with public life and social movements.

Interview by Yiannis Kouris, Co-ordinator of ENA Centre for Political Theory.

In your book Ethics and Public Policy: A Philosophical Inquiry you analyse the connection between philosophy and public policy. The book draws on your experience in numerous public policy committees. Do you think that moral and political philosophy has a role to play in policymaking?

My starting point for this question is that all public policy questions have a moral component. Even the most technocratic cost-benefit analysis, for example, needs to start with a decision that certain things (and not others) are to count as costs and benefits. Sometimes things are measured simply because they are capable of measurement;  sometimes a conscious decision has been made to include some things and exclude others. For another example, consider this from Nick Tyler, who is a Professor in the Civil Engineering Department at UCL. He said that he wanted to get his students to ask deeper questions about the engineering process. So, for example, if they are commissioned to build a bridge he would encourage them to ask ‘what problem are you trying to solve by building a bridge, and is a bridge the right solution?’. Here we see what looks like the most technical issue has what will probably turn out to have moral foundations, and will, almost by default, take a stance on moral dilemmas about the environment, energy use, human behaviour and sustainability.

That said, we need to be careful about the ways in which moral and political philosophy can help this process. I’ll say more about it as we go on in this interview, but we need to approach questions of public policy in a cooperative spirit, and be humble about what we have to offer, rather than assuming that, uniquely, we have all the answers.

Do you believe that philosophers can improve their work by engaging with public policy and public life in general?

I’d be reluctant to generalise – there are many ways of doing philosophy of course – but it has certainly been true for me that I regard my work as being improved by engaging with issues in public policy. To give one example that’s been very important for me, many years ago I started to work on questions about distributive justice and disability. It had been neglected by John Rawls, but Ronald Dworkin tried to deal with the question of what level of redistribution was appropriate to compensate for disability, using the mechanism of a hypothetical insurance scheme to model tax and transfer. I was initially very impressed with Dworkin’s arguments and position, but talking to people who worked in disability studies, as well as philosophers of disability who were often also political activists, I realised that Dworkin’s way of framing the issue was very problematic. It considered people with disabilities as suffering from a type of misfortune for which they were in need of compensation, but this is demeaning and stigmatising. Instead, many people in disability studies argued for some version of the social model of disability in which rather than treating disability as a question of distributive justice it is closer to forms of discrimination. Once you take this view, it’s evident that we need to change the world so that people with disabilities find it a better fit for them, just as it is for others.

This made me rethink my whole approach to political philosophy. Instead of being fixated on distributions of resources and compensation we should also think about the ways in which we can change the world – in, social, material, environment, legal and cultural terms – to make people’s lives better, without necessarily even having to identify the people we will help. For me it’s vital not to think that philosophers know what’s best and can apply our knowledge, but rather we should be receptive to the ways that other fields can change ours too.

Can you explain the difference between applied and engaged philosophy?

I use the terms ‘applied philosophy’ and ‘engaged philosophy’ to mark two different ways of trying to connect moral and political philosophy with practical ethical questions. I’m really just describing two different styles of approaching the issues, rather than precise methodologies, and it’s a distinction I’ve observed and put into words rather than invented. The applied philosophy approach is to start with a reasonably well-worked out philosophical theory which one then applies to the world rather in the way you might simplistically imagine that a scientific theory is applied. Utilitarianism is the easiest example. The Utilitarian believes that they have the way to solve all ethical questions, and it’s simply a matter of working out the details when confronted with a particular case. Some Kantians also have this approach, as, no doubt, do some people who base their moral theory on religion, and so on. You can also see it by appeals to simple principles to try to work out the limits of free speech or other areas of freedom of action. It seems very rigorous and principled, as well as being clear and relatively straightforward and accountable as a methodology.

Nevertheless, the applied methodology has many problems. For example, what do you say to someone who doesn’t share the same theory? What are your arguments? Probably you don’t have anything that would convince someone else if they don’t already agree, so your rigorous theory starts to look like dogmatism. Another problem is that very often the implications of the theory are not plausible. John Stuart Mill has to spend an entire chapter in On Liberty walking back what he calls the ‘obvious limitations’ to the harm principle which he set out with such apparent confidence earlier in the book. If mere offence is no harm, for example, what can we say about public indecency, which is a topic Mill raises very coyly and immediately drops, falling back on the prohibition of offence, which is a wholly new, problematic, and untheorized, element. And, as we saw in the example of disability, starting with a theory may not equip you with the appropriate concepts to explore a particular problem.

The engaged approach, by contrast, starts by examining the problem in detail before offering a solution. Why is this issue drawing people’s attention now? What’s at stake? What are the values engaged? Does the public debate really capture the underlying conflict of values, or is more work needed to draw out the intuitions that lead people into conflict? And we need also to have a good appreciation of what do we actually do now in law, regulation and practice, recognising that in public policy normally we need to give arguments to justify change from the status quo, rather than exploring different positions in a vacuum. I also recommend examining the history of the area under consideration, to see what policy options have been tried and failed in the past, and also seek comparisons with other countries who may well face the same problems. After that, we can go deeper into the philosophical arguments, working out which of our many values are most relevant to the conflict we are considering. And here is the philosophical hard work: trying to explore whether there are good reasons to favour one policy approach over another, or if there are ways of ensuring that most people can still have most of what is what is important to them, and so on. There are no formulas here, but we can draw on patterns of argument that have been used elsewhere, and this can involve philosophical theories. This way we will at least enrich the public debate, even if we don’t have an answer for everything.

What advice would you give to a philosopher that is willing to engage with public policy?

In many ways I’ve been very lucky; that almost all the public policy work I’ve done is because someone asked me to do it. But at the same time, to a degree, you make, or at least contribute to, your own luck. First, you have to be visible in order to be asked. This can mean writing for the academic journals, to get the reputation as someone who is a serious scholar in a relevant area, but also blogs, commentaries, and so on. It can help to spend time with people from other disciplines and in policy so your name is familiar to them when they are looking for help.

And this leads to a second point. Many people have asked me how to get policy makers interested in their ideas. But this is the wrong way of thinking about it. You need to start from the problems that policy makers have right now, and how you might be able to help them. Don’t tell people to take on a whole new theory or approach, but see what’s bothering them, and try to be constructive.

Third, if you do get an opportunity, make the most of it. Be constructive. Be someone that people want to work with so you get a reputation that may spread beyond the current assignment, whatever it is. And learn from specialists in other areas. For example, I was on a committee looking at the regulation of recreational drugs, and I learned more about the effects of different drugs on the brain in a ten-minute discussion with a specialist than I could have done researching on my own for a week. This will help you contribute to the overall discussion with greater confidence.

But at the same time, getting involved with the details of policy is very time-consuming. You have to be prepared to drop other projects to concentrate on what is urgent and important at the moment. Many philosophers are doing this with their work around COVID, which for me is currently taking up a huge amount of my time, but of course was never part of my plans.

Has your involvement with policy making affected your philosophy and in what way?

I gave one specific example above, talking about how talking to disability theorists and activists changed my entire approach to political philosophy. But on top of that, working on policy issues has made me much more reflective about methodology. When philosophers have to fill in the ‘methods’ section on a grant application, most of us feel very uncomfortable. Many of us have swallowed the myth that philosophy is the discipline without agreed methods; and as soon as a sub-discipline develops a method it becomes something else, such as psychology or sociology or economics. Or sometimes people make a vague appeal to reflective equilibrium, which is another myth as our ideas never really end up in equilibrium. There are methods in philosophy, but we have tended to be very unreflective about them, which means they rarely get subjected to critical scrutiny. On the whole I’m fine with that; I’d rather get on and do my work than talk and talk about how it is to be done. But, as I’ve explained above, I have now developed an account of methodology in connecting moral and political philosophy with real world questions, and I find myself discussing this quite a lot now.