Summary: However applicable utilitarianism is to the development or assessment of ethics and public policy, in the end, it probably adds little to successful navigation of the political process.
In 2010 Professor Peter Singer delivered an oration to the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA).
His topic was ‘Ethics & Public Policy’. Professor Singer advocated a utilitarian or “consequentialist” philosophical framework for the development of public policy. His view is that the soundness of a policy is to be judged by its results, outcomes or consequences.
Professor Singer traversed many areas in his oration- from living in bushfire prone areas, internet censorship and electronic gambling, to dealing with climate change and world poverty.
The IPAA described the annual oration as “an annual provocative lecture which seeks to challenge the accepted norms of the public sector and build thought leadership in public administration”.
But the idea that outcomes should influence public policy is not really a “challenge to accepted norms”. Ask anybody without the slightest background in politics, philosophy, or ethics, whether the outcomes of a policy are important and the likely answer will be “why off course!”
Utilitarianism holds that actions, or policies, should be judged by the amount of pleasure/pain or good or bad effects the action or policy has on the greatest number of people.
Utilitarianism contrasts with what is known as deontological or duty ethics. Duty ethics holds that actions or policies should be judged by the extent to which they adhere to duties or general principles. As formulated by Kant, the guiding principles are that human beings should never be treated as a means to an end and that an action (including a policy) should be judged on the basis of whether it should become a universal law. Kant thought these issues should be decided through strict application of reason. Religious approaches to policy formulation are also often deontological. But they are based on duties that are deemed to arise through adherence to God’s will- sometimes with reference to scripture, sometimes with reference to so-called “natural law” – law that is said to be consistent with purposes apparently determined by God.
The American philosopher John Rawls also adopted a deontological approach towards policy formulation. For Rawls policies should be considered from the starting point of a “veil of ignorance”. This is from an assumption that nobody knows what his or her class position, status or natural ability will be within the social order. Rawls believed this approach would lead all reasonable people to favour policies promoting greater justice or equality. This is because the veil of ignorance means that anybody could happen to be born into difficult circumstances or with an unlucky dip into the gene pool.
Human rights approaches to policy formation are also deontological to the extent that they posit a list of inalienable rights. This is so even though rights may conflict with each other and that it might be argued that adherence to human rights will also generally result in the greatest good for the greatest number.
Yet when it comes to policy formation everything lies in the way any philosophical approach, whether utilitarian or deontological, is applied.
While most people would say “yes of course” to the simple proposition that a policy’s outcome is relevant to whether it should be adopted, Professor Singer’s application of utilitarianism leads him to favour policies on abortion, animal liberation, euthanasia, and sex with animals, which, whether right or wrong, would hardly elicit the uncontroversial “why of course” response from most members of the public.
Notwithstanding this, utilitarianism is already part of our political ethos. Bureaucracy constantly refers to its preference for “evidence based policy” and most policies are subject to cost-benefit analysis and actuarial assessment before their consideration by Government. These assessments arguably have their own biases and both cost-benefit and actuarial calculations can only ever be as good as the soundness of the assumptions that they rest upon. But they clearly purport to predict and measure outcomes.
But there is another critical step that public policies invariably need to navigate. Politicians and their advisers also typically consider the likely consequences of a policy in terms of the reaction of the media and those who are now commonly referred to as “key stakeholders” (better known as “pressure groups” before corporate speak became so dominant). This is where “real politick’ and a stricter adherence to utility can come into conflict.
From Government’s point of view it is not of much political use to have a policy for which good outcomes can be demonstrated in strict utilitarian terms, if the wider public perception of the policy is that it is a poor policy. And because “key stakeholders” are often organised, and often have good access to media, they can influence the way policy is presented to, and ultimately perceived by, the wider public.
So however applicable utilitarianism is to the development or assessment of ethics and public policy, in the end it probably adds little to successful navigation of the political process. And it is the political process through which all public policy must pass before it can be implemented. The utility of a particular policy is no guarantee of its success because:
- politics is about controversy as to the consequences of policies and how those consequences are to be measured;
- politics is a competition between conflicting interests;
- it is not always possible to accurately predict the consequences of a policy at the point when Government is required to adopt a policy position;
- even if it is were true that public policy could be developed in a “pure” context where rational calculation of consequences can be undertaken, much political debate necessarily occurs at a heated emotional level where information has already been filtered by the time it reaches the public;
- while people might readily say “of course” when asked whether the consequences should guide public policy, they will often react to policy announcements in ways that reflect morally absolutist, rather than utilitarian, ways of thinking.
With climate change, for example, the debate is very much one about how consequences are to be measured. This is also an area where fierce competition between conflicting interests has come to the fore.
There is an overwhelming body of scientific evidence that climate change is caused by human activity and that the economic and environmental consequences of not acting to reduce carbon emissions will eventually be worse than the consequences of acting. This was the essential finding of both the Stern and Garnaut reports. From a strictly utilitarian point of view this should provide a clear basis for pricing carbon and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
But the existence of a clear utility in favour of emissions reduction does not yield an automatic political solution. In the political sphere vested interests argue that there is still scientific controversy about whether climate change exists, or its causes, or how best to take, and measure, appropriate action. Opponents of action argue that Australia should not act too early because this will not solve the overall problem and will simply lead to export of jobs in carbon intensive industries. Then there are arguments over the relative merits of renewable energy, nuclear power, carbon sequestration, or geo-engineering as effective solutions to the climate change problem.
The problem of measuring consequences was acknowledged by Peter Singer himself in a telling response to a question from an audience member at the oration. Peter Singer was asked whether philosophers like himself could be usefully engaged to assist government in developing key criteria for measuring outcomes.
Professor Singer answered that he even found selection criteria problematic in deciding how to measure who might be the best person to employ within the university faculty. He stated that a better result was often achieved by following one’s instincts. One might not disagree.
But if it is too difficult to develop useful objective criteria for measuring the likely outcome regarding the best employee for a position in a university faculty, how much more problematic is any exercise that aims to measure the outcomes of public policy? Why should we expect that utility should always trump finely tuned political instincts?
A further complication is how to measure consequences or outcomes of a particular policy at the point when Government must decide to adopt that policy. This may not merely be a problem of “realpolitik”. It could be indicative of a fundamental difficulty at the core of the utilitarian approach. It is easy enough to say that a policy, or the most ethical course, should be judged in terms of consequences or outcomes. But even in the case where it is possible to reach a relatively “controversy free” measure of outcomes after the event, the assumption that it will always be possible to predict these outcomes at the time a policy or course requires adoption seems problematic. We might make best endeavours. But, even with relatively sophisticated modelling, that is all we can do.
Take the first Rudd government’s home insulation scheme. Here the government acted speedily to create an economic stimulus to maintain employment in the face of the global financial crisis. At the time it was adopted home insulation must have appealed as a scheme that could be rolled out quickly, creating jobs without long training lead in times and, at the same time, to assist with energy conservation.
It started out as an immensely popular policy with about two million home owners having taken advantage of the rebate. The huge number of people wanting the insulation was one of the reasons why some home owners chose foil instead of waiting for pink batts. Supply of the batts could not meet the demand. But foil is normally only used in new home construction where it is not dangerous. When it was installed directly over live electrical wires, and fastened with metal staples in existing homes, it electrified roofs and buildings.
With the benefit of hindsight perhaps these problems could have been avoided if the scheme had been rolled out more slowly and carefully. But surely the speed at which the scheme could be rolled out must have appealed as at least one of a number of legitimate measures of good outcomes at the time the Government was required to decide on the appropriate range of economic, job creating, stimulus measures.
Given the problems inherent in prognostication, flexibility in fine tuning policies is desirable. But in politics this luxury is often absent. Where a policy is carefully measured after its adoption and the measurement shows positive outcomes have not been maximised, the logical utilitarian response is to replace, or fine tune, the policy with something better.
University walls may shake as philosophers unite to praise the utility of the policy refinement. But elsewhere noise from the press gallery and the Opposition will more likely highlight the so-called policy “back flip”.
In any event the difficulty of coming up with ways of measuring outcomes is likely to itself generate significant political controversy. How does one measure the outcomes of a particular policy?
For utilitarianism the more happiness or pleasure generated by a policy the better. The more suffering or pain it creates the worse it is. But what constitutes happiness, pleasure, suffering or pain can itself be contentious- religious, cultural, genetic, class and family background may all influence views.
It is interesting that the founders of modern utilitarianism and the pleasure principle, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, were both British. Quentin Crisp once said (whether fairly or not) that for all the time that he lived in Britain he had the impression that the British “do not want to be happy; they want to be right.” And so it is with most political commentators, as well as many voters. Perhaps it is also the case that a sense of righteousness leads some people to feel gratification or happiness.
Political issues are typically reported in a style that resembles moral absolutism more than attempts to dispassionately measures happiness or pleasure against suffering and pain. This is particularly the case in relation to the sources from which most people obtain their “news”- commercial television and the tabloid media. This phenomenon exists in all areas of political debate. But perhaps it is most pronounced in debates over whether certain types of activity are “morally wrong” and should therefore be illegal, or are better addressed through harm minimisation strategies.
These realities makes it more important, not less important, for the utilitarian philosophers’ perspective to be brought to bear in considering the relationship between ethics and public policy. But political realities also mean that the philosophers’ capacity to influence the outcomes they regard as so pivotal, will usually remain at the periphery of the political processes through which social change comes about.