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Philosophy and Public Life

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The Acceptable Face of Philosophy

David Archard asks what compromises philosophers should be prepared to make in order that their ideas will be listened to.

In the very engaging memoir of her life’s work on various public bodies, Nature and Mortality (2004), Mary Warnock notes that during her drafting of the committee report that led to the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act on reproductive ethics and scientific research, there was a critical point when she realised that her insistence on the language of morally right and wrong was misplaced. She recognized that they needed to talk instead in terms of what was acceptable – a usage she had previously rejected as fundamentally mistaken. In essence she had come to believe that her responsibility was not to recommend what she and others on the committee thought was morally justified, but rather, to find a set of recommendations that could win the support of the government, Parliament and the general public, and so what was acceptable to them.

Warnock did indeed steer the committee to produce a report that led to the drafting and passing of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. That Act created a regulatory body, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. The Act and the Authority are widely admired throughout the world as models of their kind. Nevertheless, not everyone was impressed. Some philosophers, such as Michael Lockwood and Richard Hare, criticised the report for its imprecision, its fudging of key questions (such as the issue of the ‘special’ status of the embryo), and for the poor argumentation offered in support of its major conclusions.

It might be thought that philosophers risk such failings whenever they try to make public policy. For they must do so in concert with non-philosophers, and within a particular social and political context which dictates the limits of what is possible. Philosophers might wish to defend some particular policy, but they need to persuade others it is the best – something they will probably find it very difficult to do – and they often have to recognise that what it is possible to get adopted as policy is far below what they would sign up to as intellectually respectable. For these kinds of reasons some philosophers have expressed deep scepticism about the value of entering into the business of attempting to formulate real-world public policy. The price of doing so, they argue, is the sacrifice of intellectual integrity and relinquishing the dispassionate pursuit of the truth, wherever it leads, that is the hallmark of good philosophy. For instance, American philosopher Dan Brock sees ‘truth’ and ‘consequences’ as the two completely incompatible imperatives of philosophers and policy-makers respectively (see ‘Truth or Consequences: The Role of Philosophers in Policy-Making’ in Ethics 97, July 1987).

Yet to give up in this way on influencing policy seems too quick and easy. After all, moral and political philosophers do make recommendations as to what would make for a better world. They have specific ideas as to what ought to be allowed and what should be prohibited in particular matters, such as abortion, euthanasia, drug use in sports, genetic enhancement, the conduct of war, and countless other issues. They present these ideas in good faith after much conscientious deliberation. It would seem odd, to say the least, if a philosopher making a particular recommendation had nothing to say about getting the best possible policy on the matter.

Moreover, philosophers are used to ‘all things considered’ reasoning. In a world where everyone was philosophically trained and amenable to the reasoning of philosophers, policy might indeed be straightforwardly read off from the conclusions of the best articles in the best journals of applied ethics and political philosophy. But in a world where that is not the case, the best policy, all things considered, may be the one whose recommendation takes account of various factors, including the fact that most politicians and law-makers are not philosophers. It should be added that non-philosophers, especially those in the social sciences, frequently express annoyance at the other-worldly assumptions of philosophers who are happy to make recommendations in ignorance (and often in straightforward defiance) of facts about human nature, existing social arrangements, and the political situation. And it’s true that a healthy dose of informed realism would make for better philosophy – and should philosophers play their proper role, for a better world.

Making Philosophy Acceptable

So what can and should philosophers say about real-world policy-making? The answer is, a great deal, although surprisingly little has been written on the subject by philosophers to date. The topic of philosophy and public policy is relatively underdeveloped, though there is a burgeoning literature on the topics of ‘non-ideal theory’ and political realism (as opposed to abstract moralism). Much of this is a response to the work of American ethical and political philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002), if only starting from the observation that this philosopher of such massive influence within his subject did not in his lifetime make much difference to how his political world was configured.

Here I want to concentrate on just one issue, which is broached by Mary Warnock’s use of the distinction between ‘right’ and ‘acceptable’. Was she right to change the orientation of the report she helped to author?

One way of thinking about ‘the acceptable’ is to view it as an aspect of the real world that sets limits on what it is possible to achieve. What is unacceptable becomes impossible. Thus, a policy would be impossible to implement if it was hugely expensive, or if its adoption would mean other valuable policies could not be made to work. In another use of ‘unacceptable’, if large numbers of people opposed the policy and were resolutely against making it work, then it would be unfeasible to implement it. Indeed, if sufficient numbers of law- and policy-makers were opposed to it, the policy would not even be adopted.

In this way of thinking, the acceptable is one of the set of factors that define what is possible. And the philosophical policy-maker should try to find the best possible law or policy, rather than an impossible ideal, for instance. Thinking in this kind of way, Mary Warnock was wise to insist upon the acceptable rather than the morally right. However, there is another way of thinking about the acceptable, that does not see it as a fixed element of the world like the amount of resources that can be devoted to particular ends. Rather it sees the acceptable as something that can be changed by various processes, including philosophical reasoning. This way of thinking does not set the ‘acceptable’ and the ‘morally right’ in opposition to one another, as if one defended either the acceptable or what is morally right. Instead one might try to change what is seen as acceptable precisely by moral reasoning about what would be best.

Richard Hare criticised Mary Warnock’s report in exactly these kinds of terms. Those who produce recommendations for policy-makers should, he said, strive to influence them in the right direction, rather than tailor those recommendations to what the policy-makers already think of as acceptable. As a case in point, Hare cited the famous Wolfenden Report from 1957, which recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Here, against the grain of contemporary popular and parliamentary thinking, a commissioned report made use of recognisably philosophical principles (ones indebted to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty) to recommend a particular change in the law. There is evidence that the arguments in this Report helped change the climate of public opinion, making it possible to eventually reform the law on homosexuality in the UK.

None of this is to say that philosophers can simply recommend whatever they happen to think dispassionate reason dictates. Every applied ethics philosopher will have her favourite example of the craziest or most implausible proposal one of their number has seriously suggested in print. And some policies will not be adopted or implemented whatever the weight of good philosophical reasons in their favour. However, the point is that philosophers who are committed, as they should be, to changing the law for the better, or to seeing the best possible policy measures put into practice, should not see the ‘acceptable’ as a fixed constraint that defines the sphere of possible measures. Rather, philosophers can help change law and policy in good ways. An important part of doing that involves changing the minds of non-philosophers about what is acceptable.

© Prof. David Archard 2013

David Archard is Professor of Philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast. He is the author of several books and numerous chapters and articles in applied moral, legal and political philosophy. He is also a Member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.


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