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Policy & Reality

by Rick Lewis

More than two thousand years ago, the philosophers of ancient Greece and ancient China occasionally became embroiled in the process of making the practical decisions which affected the lives of their fellow citizens. It didn’t always go well. The incorruptible Confucius was made police commissioner in the kingdom of Lu, but was fired, according to one version, for criticising the king’s work ethic. Plato sailed twice to Syracuse to advise its Tyrant on how to become a philosopher king. The first time, he was captured by pirates and sold in the slave market; on his second visit, he was thrown into jail by his employer. Ouch! Plato argued that the world would only really be put to rights when either kings became philosophers, or philosophers became kings. However, the only real philosopher king on record – the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius – had to spend most of his reign fighting barbarians on the frontiers. Despite these early setbacks, this tradition of philosopher involvement in public policy has continued, sporadically, ever since.

Those who have spent time in university philosophy departments might be terrified at the idea of philosophers having any influence on the processes of government, but the idea isn’t as crazy as it first sounds. After all, philosophers like to claim that philosophy is an activity vitally relevant to the problems of everyday life and not merely a subject of scholarly inquiry like, say, ancient Sogdian. If so, then surely it is a duty for them to apply their intellects and their theories to the problems of the wider world? Barring becoming a philosopher king or queen, there are two main ways to go about this; and Professor Michael Hand recently organized a series of seminars to discuss them. The first four articles in this issue were originally written as talks in that series.

The first way is to write about public controversies and moral issues (such as abortion, euthanasia, education etc) in books, in magazines like Philosophy Now and in newspapers, with the hope of influencing public debate. This is not without its dangers. Michael Hand tried his hand at that and nearly had it bitten off. He reflects on the experience in his article. A more direct way is to use philosophy to help specialists in other fields. Showing how philosophy can sort out questions about different types of knowledge, Mark Addis applied his skills to some problems in the construction industry. He recounts his experiences.

A more direct way is to sit on government committees whose purpose is to advise on legislation or on the application of rules to new developments. Several very eminent moral philosophers have done this, including the late Bernard Williams who at different times chaired committees on pornography, drug abuse and gambling (“I did all the major vices,” he cheerfully remarked); Baroness Mary Warnock who successfully chaired the committee that drafted the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act; and Baroness Onora O’Neill, who chairs the Equality & Human Rights Commission. In her article, Onora O’Neill talks about another matter of public policy, critiquing the current orthodoxy that research in science or the humanities should only receive public funding if it can be shown that it will have ‘impact’. She talks about the value of philosophical research in public life and the difficulty and importance of communicating that value.

David Archard in his article considers what compromises philosophers should or should not be prepared to make when formulating public policy recommendations. I think I can give a historical example of such a compromise. Christian theologians of the Middle Ages were asked to give their blessing to wars. They originally replied that killing was directly opposed to the core principles of Christianity. When it was explained to them that pacifism was not a workable policy option for medieval kingdoms, they responded with Plan B, which was Just War Theory – a set of arguments and criteria for when it is and isn’t justified to go to war. This proved so much more ‘acceptable’ that medieval Just War Theory is still important in the formulation of international law today.

Policymakers should at all times keep a really firm grip on the vital distinction between theory and reality (“Tractor production is up again, comrade?”). Luckily the nature of reality and the difficulty of distinguishing it with certainty from dreams and illusions has been a core concern of philosophy right back to Descartes, back even to Plato and his Allegory of the Cave. But now the problems have been complicated by a new factor – the possibility of convincing artificial simulations of reality. As Sam Woolfe points out, some philosophers and scientists have recently argued that our entire universe is probably a simulation, running on the supercomputers of some alien race. But our being a simulation wouldn’t stop us from creating our own simulated universes if our computer technology advances far enough. And then as Mikhail Epstein says, metaphysics could finally become an applied subject, with philosophers as designers of exotic but internally consistent new worlds. So in the second theme of this issue we look at dreams and simulations; at Immanuel Kant’s distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal worlds; and at the prospects for applied metaphysics. How do you even know that this copy of Philosophy Now is real? If it isn’t real, where are you getting all these crazy ideas from? So you’d better hope it is real, because otherwise frankly you’ve got serious problems.

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