How Much Should Philosophy Influence Public Policy?
Andrew I. Cohen joins us to talk about his book, Philosophy, Ethics, and Public Policy. Can practical commitments undercut a philosophical argument?
This week Andrew I. Cohen discusses his new book, Philosophy, Ethics, and Public Policy: An Introduction. We talk about philosophy as a careful, methodical approach to thinking about issues.
Is philosophy particularly powerful compared to other academic and scientific disciplines? What counts as public policy and how does philosophy influence it? Is it a good idea to “politicize” philosophy?
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and The Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today is Professor Andrew I. Cohen, Professor of Philosophy at Georgia State University. Today we’re talking about a new book you have out called Philosophy, Ethics, and Public Policy: An Introduction.
So let’s start with those terms. I mean in the first chapter of the book, you walked through these three things, through philosophy, ethics and public policy talking about just what they are before moving on to how they interact.
So maybe let’s just start there. What do you mean by philosophy within the context of the book?
Andrew Cohen: I suppose I would think of philosophy as this discipline that encourages us to challenge fundamental assumptions and it also has a sort of method of helping us to get clear about what we think, the definitions of important terms and understanding what really matters.
Trevor Burrus: So does that take someone like a French post-modernist and make them not a philosopher?
Andrew Cohen: Try to have a capacious understanding of philosophy and not – hoping not to rule out too many people who would see themselves as practicing the craft.
Trevor Burrus: I’ve defined philosophy before as a – the attempt to think clearly about difficult issues, which is fairly capacious but at least distinguishes it from other types of I guess less clear and more muddled thinking in some ways, which is a lot of what your book is about.
Andrew Cohen: Well, I think the simple definition that you’re giving is actualy quite good and it’s also showing that philosophy is not something that’s restricted to a bunch of people that get degrees for stroking their chins pensively. It’s something that any responsible person can do despite thinking carefully about things that matter to them.
Aaron Ross Powell: So then within philosophy, this is a book largely about ethics. So what is – what’s ethics?
Andrew Cohen: Ethics is this part of philosophy that helps us to understand what counts as right and wrong and helps us to understand in what consists various better or worse lives. Philosophy might also have something to do a little bit with value theory and understanding the basis of evaluative judgment such as good and bad and I think it’s a very important tool for the policy makers toolkit because people care about living well.
They care about doing the right thing and philosophical ethics can help to illuminate these sorts of things for policy makers and for any sort of conscientious person who’s trying to figure out what sort of position she or he might have about important policy controversies.
Aaron Ross Powell: We talk about ethics though. We’re not talking about one thing as in the case whenever we talk about philosophy. We’re talking about a school of different theories. So if – I mean even people who aren’t trained in philosophy know if there’s one thing true about philosophers, it’s that they disagree with each other.
Andrew Cohen: They certainly do.
Aaron Ross Powell: And so whereas – and that’s fine in the academy when you can build a career around teasing out a particular agreement and disagreeing with your colleagues about it. But policy, the state, what government does and doesn’t do, that stuff we – I mean we have to make decisions about that.
So how does – does the disagreement among philosophers get in the way of applying philosophy fruitfully to public policy? Do we need to decide which particular theory of ethics is correct before we can get much use out of this stuff?
Andrew Cohen: It can get in the way and I acknowledge that as a potential constraint on how powerful a tool philosophical ethics might be in a policy-making toolkit. But I think it can also be quite illuminating because it can help us to understand what we mean when we’re thinking about notions of right and wrong and when we’re thinking about what the appropriate limits are for state action or what are the requirements for state action.
We can appeal to the tools and the concepts of philosophy to gain clarity on these sorts of things and also to understand what is at stake and why it is that people disagree. So I think – I hope that reflecting on these sorts of concepts and tools that ethics provides us can help us to understand a little bit about why there are such controversies.
I don’t pretend that it’s going to resolve things because people are a contention bunch and philosophers are certainly no exception. But sometimes we can clarify the terms of the disagreement and maybe make a little bit of progress by understanding why it is that people disagree.
Trevor Burrus: On matters of public policy, you do a very good job of explaining what policy is and what’s public policy and how these are different and your book is definitely geared toward an intro type of class or class that works on this. But a lot of people, when you use this word, it’s not clear. I will tell people I work in public policy and they don’t really know what that means. So what is policy and what is public policy?
Andrew Cohen: Well, I understand policy as any sort of effort by a state to shape our conduct, particularly through institutions or norms or rules and what makes something a public policy is that it is something that – at least as I understand it in the book, it is something that is done by the state and it is something that is promulgated transparently. People know about it and the state openly states that this is the basis on which it is pursuing various objectives.
Trevor Burrus: Now it’s interesting because one thing I thought when I was reading your book is that there are some schools of thought and maybe this jumps ahead to the philosophical different schools of thought you discussed. But they try to say that – maybe all things should be public policy because you could say, oh, a family has a policy of the wife stays home and works and the husband goes and earns money or things like this.
A lot of feminist philosophers have argued that that’s part of the problem is that we’re not doing that as a public policy too where the state needs to be involved in changing how the family works or different private – what we would call private decisions, changing how businesses, how policies about various things – and that’s a big part of the debate is where can public policy go. Is that really addressed in your book about the limits of private action and public action?
Andrew Cohen: Yeah, I think that’s a theme that comes up a good bit throughout many of the discussions of the particular policy controversies in the book. I suppose if there’s one sort of view that I am responding to, it’s this view that in the end, there has to be a policy and I’m really suspicious of that because I think sometimes in the end, maybe there doesn’t have to be a policy and we need to at least consider the possibility that a less ambitious policy or perhaps some form of policy silence might be an option worth considering.
We have to be careful when we understand what this means because the state is a rather jealous beast, a rather imperialist beast and I’m thinking very abstractly of the state because the state purports to tell us what we can do and what we may not do and it purports to certain judgment about any disputes about these sorts of things and I’m hoping to suggest that sometimes the state might be overreaching a bit or at least we should consider whether it’s possible that the state might be overreaching and maybe we can reap some sort of policy progress that might be more acceptable to more of us if the state were to try to do a little less.
Aaron Ross Powell: I guess while we’re on – I mean we talked about philosophy as being careful with the arguments we’re making and the terms we’re using. So I guess I have to ask. We’ve been tossing around this term “the state”. What do we mean by that?
Andrew Cohen: This is something that political philosophers like to build their careers on and maybe one working conception might be some sort of an entity that purports to either final arbiter of any sort of dispute in a particular geographic territory. It purports to tell us what we must and must not do regardless of whatever our private preferences might be.
It purports to have a certain sort of monopolistic status about pretty much anything that could happen in a particular geographic area. I’m not sure if it really does have that status but at least it pretends to have it.
Trevor Burrus: I imagine when you watch policy debates and we will get into some of these policies that you discussed in the book. For the listeners, the book is divided into specific policy chapters after discussing the methodology. But I imagine when you watch policy debates whether it’s a presidential debate or other types of political discussions on TV. Does it drive you crazy that you think that there’s a problem of clarity of being – exactly clear of what they’re discussing and what the philosophical premises are and it’s all just sort of muddled together in a non-productive kind of fashion?
Andrew Cohen: Yeah, sure. Sometimes I do have that worry but I also – I don’t want to be so pretentious as to think what these people need is just a good dose of philosophy. Sometimes these are just [0:10:00] honest people trying to grapple with a controversy and they’re doing it with the tools at their disposal and they’re negotiating with one another. So clarity can often help and I don’t necessarily think that you need to pull out a copy of The Nicomachean Ethics and then everything is going to be all peachy keen.
But I think philosophy at least in some respect can help us by clarifying for us just what’s at stake and helping us to understand some of the more possibilities as well as more constraints that might guide the formulation of public policy.
Aaron Ross Powell: One thing I thought about when I was reading the book is – I mean the book is largely about how applying either specific sorts of philosophical thought or specific tools within philosophical thought can illuminate policy discussions, can make the conversations more productive, can get at these hidden philosophical antecedents. But does – is policy good for philosophy too?
I mean so if – if philosophy can help us choose between public policies, can policy discussion help us choose between philosophies, going back to this constant disagreement? Is it the case that participating in the policy debate is good for philosophers as philosophers too?
Andrew Cohen: That’s a good question and in fact there are some people who are deeply suspicious of recent moves among philosophy to begin to get into what’s called applying ethics or practical philosophy because a lot of people will think that there’s something a bit – there’s something a bit suspicious if not pernicious about philosophers getting into the business of applying what they do.
I’m not sure what to think about this because on the one hand, I think that a lot of what philosophy can do is lend power to the controversies and help us to understand why these controversies are so powerful and help people in the disputes to be clear on what matters and what is available to us and what ought not to be available to us.
But I’m aware of the challenge that comes down from certain persons, that think that – or just sort of politicizing philosophy and philosophers should – just go off into the corner and think careful thoughts about very careful things. But I think that that’s unfortunate because that just consigns philosophy to a lot of irrelevance.
There’s much that philosophy can do that’s very powerful and not just from the purely theoretical work that many philosophers do but when they begin to think about why these things matter in terms of the disputes that people have, actual flesh and blood persons and having the institutions that people actually build and sustain. There’s something that philosophy can really do when it can be quite powerful.
Aaron Ross Powell: Is philosophy particularly powerful compared to other disciplines? So a scientist would say – could say the same sorts of things, that if – it would be really good if people knew more science and if we applied more science to our policy debates. We would end up with better discussions and better policies. A historian could say and often does say the same thing. So for our listeners, I mean this is – your book is largely – because it’s intended for – it’s an introductory text that’s intended to some extent to convince people who aren’t already prone to philosophical thinking, to embrace philosophical thinking. But at the expense of time that could be put into these other things.
Trevor Burrus: Economics for example.
Aaron Ross Powell: Right, so economics. Like every academic discipline seems to – often acts as if it’s the most important.
Trevor Burrus: Except for scientists who study like the cell walls of amoeba and algae. At least they don’t think that that’s all – but the social science, they tend to think …
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, I mean I’m reminded of – I was an English major in college and my English professors seemed to think that their English training gave them authority to make pronouncements on every field imaginable.
Trevor Burrus: And you believed that too if I remember correctly.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yes, for a while. But – so is there – I guess is there a risk of overstating the value of philosophy simply because that’s what we’re trained in?
Andrew Cohen: There is that danger and I think there should be a certain humility about practicing any sort of craft because if the philosopher thinks that she or he is going to completely resolve policy disputes just by sitting in the armchair, that seems misguided and mistaken to me. You actually have to get out and poke around and that’s why the sorts of disciplines that you were mentioning are very important for lending clarity to policy disputes.
We need to hear from the scientist and the historians and the economist and all the other social scientists to sort out just what might work and what we know hasn’t worked and what might happen. These are important pieces of the puzzle of figuring out what we can do, what we may do, and what we must not do while we’re thinking about policy controversies.
Trevor Burrus: I wanted to go back to follow up on the previous question before Aaron’s last question about can policy inform our philosophy as opposed to philosophy inform our policy. I was listening to that and I was thinking of something that Aaron and I have discussed for a long time, which is how much of politics is preference. It’s maybe the kind of reasoning most people are going through as their first – finding where their preferences lie. They like this and they don’t like this. They like the idea of urban living or they like – they don’t like the idea of same sex marriage or things like this and then filling in the philosophical gaps after their preferences as opposed to doing it the other way around and building it up from philosophy to preferences. Do you think that tends to happen a fair amount?
Andrew Cohen: I think it happens quite a good deal. But one of the particularly compelling tools that philosophy can bring to the table is help us to scrutinize our preferences. Some people’s preferences are I dare say not as good as they could be. They might be defective or they might be based on faulty empirical understanding and perhaps even faulty moral understandings. So philosophy can help us to think carefully about the preferences that we’ve got and potentially even revise them.
Trevor Burrus: Well, let’s think about one of those preferences when we get to – first policy issue or same sex marriage that we wanted to bring up since it’s definitely a current issue right now, though the Supreme Court maybe – has seemed to resolve it. There’s still pushback and people trying to do various things about this especially on the freedom of association side.
But someone with the preference of being – saying, “Oh, same sex marriage. I’m against that because homosexuality is just disgusting.” It might be their entire preference and why they’re against it. How does that fit into your rubric of analyzing same sex marriages from a philosophical standpoint?
Andrew Cohen: One of the things that philosophy can help us do here is critique whether the judgment that some such activity is disgusting is an appropriate basis on which to form public policy. I’m prepared to allow this much that there might be reasonable persons who might have that view. But it’s not entirely clear that that is an appropriate basis for preventing people from pursuing this type of institution.
But things are very complex as we know because history is very complex when it comes to marriage and we can also talk about the sort of merits of having the Supreme Court lay down that one solution as it did recently.
But as you were talking about when it comes to having particular preferences on this, philosophy can help us to sort out whether merely having a preference is a good enough basis for formulating policy and it can also help us to understand the merits of having these preferences in the first place.
Aaron Ross Powell: So what are some of the philosophical questions that are at play in the same sex marriage debate?
Andrew Cohen: Well, one of them concerns basically whether or not this is an appropriate institution that the state ought to be governing. The state is very heavily involved in determining what counts as a marriage and many of us are familiar with the various lists that are [Indiscernible] about all sorts of benefits and burdens that come to people in virtue of being married and that are secondary to marriage being a recognized legal institution.
So the government is heavily enmeshed and has a strong interest in sort of sorting out what it means for people to be married. What philosophy can help us to do is sort out whether this is an appropriate way of organizing things that can help us sort of take a step back and ask ourselves. Wait a minute now. It’s true that there is a legal definition of marriage. But is this the best way of organizing things? Might there be a different way of doing things? Perhaps we can, as the chapter begins to suggest, privatize marriage as it were.
But there are sort of important trade-offs in thinking about these alternatives. We have to think about other involved parties such as the children. There are third parties who worry about the degradation of the value of their own marriage, if long standing norms of marriage are shifted.
We have to generally think as you were mentioning about other significant aspects of political morality that are at stake such as freedom of association and the freedom of contract.
Trevor Burrus: And the autonomy issue is something too. A question whether or not you have a right to the kind of legal recognition of marriage might be different than whether or not you have a right to just be with someone in a [0:20:00] non-legally recognized type of way, which most people probably would say to some extent you maybe have more of a right of than the state actually recognizing it.
Andrew Cohen: Yeah. And we need to – sort of philosophy can help us to I guess frame what these sorts of ethical and – ethical considerations are and the considerations in political morality and help us to understand why these are significant and what role the state ought to have in shaping our understandings of these things.
Trevor Burrus: Do you think that most people even think about these issues? It’s interesting when you start a lot of these is why is the state involved. Do you find that to be a somewhat rare beginning point in modern policy discussions?
Andrew Cohen: You mean …
Trevor Burrus: Starting with the question of – as opposed to presuming the stage to be involved and they should be doing something and starting with the premise of maybe the state should not be involved at all is not a terribly common starting position.
Andrew Cohen: I think that that’s not all that common. There are sometimes where you do see people wondering about that. But there is this sort of default assumption of now figuring out what the state ought to be doing. The state in many people’s views is very totalizing and once again as I mentioned, there are many people who think, well, we got to figure out what the state is going to be doing about this. This has to be resolved and the question is, “Well, why did we think about it in those terms?” Perhaps there are alternative ways of thinking about it that can help us to achieve something that might not just advance our welfare. It might even enhance our moral understandings of ourselves and others. It may make us all better off and it also may help us get along better with each other.
Aaron Ross Powell: One of the really complicated issues that’s a play in the same sex marriage debate – I mean it also comes up in – at least the chapter in your book on evolution and intelligent design. It’s the relationship between religion and these matters. What sort of role, if any, religion should play in either – I mean what the state does. Is it permissible for the state to say legislate religious morality or even what role they should play in the decisions of voters?
Is there something – if I – is there some difference in the moral status of me say voting for a given policy because I think that it has certain empirical effects or it aligns with certain ideological beliefs I hold or economic beliefs I hold versus supporting a policy because I think my god wants me to? And many of us – I mean most of us so that – especially among libertarians. We tend to think – you know, supporting something because it aligned with your ideological views. It’s just fine but religious views somehow shouldn’t enter into this.
Andrew Cohen: Well, there are a bunch of dimensions at work here. One concerns what’s an appropriate basis on which a person may express some sort of a political preference and then there’s this other one that talks about what the state ought to be doing and what are the appropriate bases on which the state can act or not act.
These might touch on different things. There might be some people who will say – just as you were suggesting that if a person wants to act on her own private preference to gratify some sort of an affiliation with a religious order and act on that when voting or advocating for policy, then, well, let her go, some people might say.
But others might say, well, actually you should think differently about that. Bear in mind that your preferences actually impact others and you should try to think about what you can do that you can justify to others. That then raises questions about whether religion is a proper basis for formulating political preferences.
Trevor Burrus: Well, it’s interesting –
Andrew Cohen: Sorry. Go ahead.
Trevor Burrus: It’s interesting that – I’m going to go off of Aaron’s question that you talk – you call your chapter, the other one, Evolution and Intelligent Design that Aaron mentioned. But you don’t call it education. It’s interesting that you use the specific question about state policy on that but it’s narrowing down on some part of education in general. Why did you approach it in that way?
Andrew Cohen: Because – partly to keep the chapter from becoming a whole book. So there’s just so much on the – education theory in general and even on the philosophy of education. Once I saw the scope of the literature, I thought, all right, this seems like a really important issue and here’s a current controversy on this. Perhaps the chapter can focus now really on that and that could be a platform for reflections more broadly about what education is for and what the state’s role might be in education and at least in the case of that chapter, what I was discovering when I was reading up on it is that – to talk about intelligent design seems to be problematic according to most scientists.
I dare say that most scientists would think that intelligent design, if it even counts as science, is really bad science. I’m prepared to allow that and I’m also prepared to say the scientists need to sort that out because I’m not a scientist. I can’t fully judge whether or not this counts as science or good science. It seems to me that it’s probably suspicious but they seem to say that it’s bad science.
But the philosophically-interesting part comes in when we say – suppose it is bad science. Is it something that people may permissibly include in an education curriculum? And walking through various theories and models of education, I was inclined to think it’s not clear that it’s forbidden for them to do that and it’s certainly not clear that it’s required for them to do that.
This might indeed be a case where the state doesn’t really have to say much about this but there are some controversies about this, about whether we can be sure that children, when they’re getting educated in intelligent design, are they being prepared for productive lives as citizens in a modern day nation state representative democracy with science as it is.
It seems like they’re doing all right. So teaching kids intelligent design I don’t think is akin to locking them in a cage in the cellar and depriving them of access to the outside world. It’s giving them a particular approach to understanding a scientific controversy.
On that topic because I thought this was one of the really interesting things in this chapter. It might be a good way for us to give an example to our listeners of what this careful, methodical approach to thinking through the issues looks like is you give – you ask the question. What is school for in this chapter? Because whether we should teach intelligent design to a great extent depends on what we think education and schooling is for in the first place. So you give these five possibilities.
Trevor Burrus: Of which I think the first point is that a lot of people maybe have never even thought about the question of what is school for and that there are different competing views on that.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah. So you’ve got these five – so I wonder if we might just go through each of the five and have you tell us how – the upshot of this is you think that none of these five either require or preclude teaching intelligent design. So maybe we just start with the first one. You can tell us why you think it doesn’t. So the first one which is the cultivate competence as a consumer and contributor to a post-industrial market economy.
Andrew Cohen: Right. And this is one sort of model of training – education is there to train people to just be good consumers and producers. It harks back to this idea of we’re trying to equip people to be buyers and sellers or perhaps even factory workers the older model might be in our current society. If that’s all that we’re equipping people to do – and let me just be clear. I’m not endorsing this or opposing it. I’m just saying here’s a model that seems plausible as an account of what education is for.
If that’s the model that we’ve got, it seems perfectly consistent to be thinking of education in those terms and having kids in science classrooms learn about evolution through the lens of intelligent design. They can still be perfectly competent consumers and producers if they went to a school where they learned about the emergence of life on the planet through the lens of intelligent design.
People in certain circles might regard their views as being unusual but I don’t think that hinders their ability to be competent consumers or producers. I think the same thing is going to go for the various other models. It’s not going to obstruct a person’s ability to succeed.
Some of the other models talk about a person being educated in order to cultivate autonomy or self-governance. There’s another model that talks about education as training people to become flourishing individuals and there are lots of rich, philosophical literature sorting out what it means to flourish.
There are other models that talk about equipping somebody to become a good democratic citizen and then there are those that emphasize the importance of allowing parents in communities to live their own lives according to their own deeply held values. None of these in my view seems to militate one way or the other [0:30:00] in favor of having intelligent design of the classroom or forbidding people from having it in the classroom. It seems like this is a sort of moment where perhaps you can reduce the controversy, the policy controversy by having the state not try to settle this once and for all and perhaps allowing parents and their communities to sort this out on their own.
That’s not ending the controversy because I think there’s still going to be a lot of really thoughtful and robust discussion about the merits of the intelligent design argument and other merits about including it in a curriculum. I would confess that if I were to find that that was going to be the way that my kids’ public schools were teaching them science, I would take them elsewhere. That’s an important option that might be available to people.
But the point is that having one particular way of doing this and having it settled once and for all for everybody, I’m not so sure if that’s the best way of resolving the dispute.
Aaron Ross Powell: What about an argument – so this might impact – say of the five it might – I could see it fitting within the second, third or fourth which are all about autonomy flourishing and development as democratic citizens that – I mean if intelligent design is bad science, then it’s probably not true and teaching our kids that it’s hard to – autonomy depends to some extent on being able to act on true knowledge.
That if you believe a bunch of falsehoods, you’ve been brainwashed say, then that’s going to undercut autonomy or that – going through life with your head full of falsehoods is not an ideal form of flourishing, that you would be better of if your head was full of truths or that the democratic citizens need to be trained to recognize claims that are true and claims that are false, so they can make the right decisions in the voting booth.
So if they’ve been – from an early age receiving education in something that’s bad science, patently untrue, that’s going to undercut that. So isn’t – that we have an investment in making sure that our children – are interested in making sure that our children learn true things?
Andrew Cohen: Yeah. I think that’s – those are excellent points and that’s why I think it’s a good idea to let people sort this out. So the question is, “Do we really know once and for all that there’s no merit whatsoever to intelligent design arguments?” It seems like there is a scientific consensus on it but I’m wondering whether that consensus and the significance of the issue at hand is so strong that there should – the state should resolve this for people.
It’s not clear to me that that’s the case. So what you were saying I think is spot on in terms of why it’s important that people should think carefully about the merits of these sorts of arguments and what they would want for their kids and what communities might want in their communities and how they would structure schools and this of course generates another interesting argument about how it is that education should be organized in a civil society. It could bracket that for a second but perhaps not for long.
The points that you’re raising are very good ones and this is why people need to think about what they want their kids to be getting in the classroom. Are these things false? There are lots of scientists who think that these views are deeply problematic. But if parents wish for their kids to be getting this, is it appropriate for the state to forbid them from doing that? I’m not sure there’s an argument for that. There are good arguments that would suggest that they ought not to be able to do that. But I’m not sure that they’re decisive.
Trevor Burrus: Here’s a different take on that I think, which maybe does allow for a state power and force. You talked about flourishing and it made me think about first of all the question – we’re talking about religious education broadly speaking. Thinking about the puritans in 17th century Massachusetts and the beliefs about what was necessary for flourishing in terms of whether or not their beliefs about god and his punishment and things that might happen were going to be true especially if God punishes immoral behavior and possibly punishes the entire community for immoral behavior and therefore the whole community doesn’t flourish.
I think now we’re starting to see that in the environmentalism movement, if they were to say, well, we need to make sure that our children are taught about environmental stewardship because that’s on all of us and if everyone is not going to be an environmental steward, if they’re going to be – somewhat centers against the environment, then the cost of that in terms of global warming, other types of catastrophes in the environment are going to be put on all of us. So this is exactly why because of flourishing, the state needs to control education and make sure that the people are doing the right thing in the right way.
Andrew Cohen: Good. That’s a really good argument and that’s pointing to the possibility that there are these – what economists call externalities to seemingly private choices that if you’re educating people in a certain way, that they might wind up believing certain things and supporting certain institutions that could have negative impacts on everybody.
So this is where we need the help of social scientists and scientists to tell us what to believe about these empirical disputes. Even – once they do tell us these sorts of things, there may yet be room for robust disagreement and robust discussion about what to do even given what the scientists have told us.
Trevor Burrus: Now the follow-up question here which I had a general question but I think we can apply it to this specific situation is – the way you talked about the state action and the force. It’s like a balancing test to some degree. Yeah, it might be good to have everyone be a puritan but we’re kind of not sure how true that might be. We will give it a 90 percent possibility of being true to being false.
But we’re going to use force and that’s going to create other problems. So we have this error rate problem and you could tell an environmentalist. You could say we have – we know a lot about the environment but we’re not totally sure it’s true. There’s – you know, 90 percent true, 10 percent false and we’re going to use force and they’re going to say, well, yeah, but the outcomes are so bad that I don’t really care about the balancing test.
So I am willing to deal with a rate of error. I’m willing to have problems in one element where I use state force and some problems result from that because parents are fighting about schools and how it’s going to be and all this sort of community problems result from that. But we’re talking about environmental catastrophe. So any cost is really worth taking on in order to prevent environmental catastrophe.
Aaron Ross Powell: That’s why I’ve been arguing for years that we need stronger protection against alien invasion.
Trevor Burrus: Of course and asteroids too. Yes.
Andrew Cohen: That’s right. That’s actually what I was going to say.
Trevor Burrus: That was hilarious.
Andrew Cohen: It’s an interesting one but it proves way too much because there are so many risks afoot that these are conceptually non-zero that we have to be very careful about what we’re doing and not doing. It’s quite possible that the lives that we’re leading are really irritating an extremely jealous god who happens to want us to include a lot more parsley in our nightly dinners. We need to be careful not to upset that jealous god, whatever that jealous god’s reasons might be.
So no holds barred. We have to wind up using state force to hold more parsley in dinners. This is absurd. What we need to be careful about is to acknowledge that there are reasonable disputes about means and ends.
Aaron Ross Powell: Right. Well, the god could very well get particularly mad if the parsley is forced because it has to be freely chosen.
Andrew Cohen: That’s right. This might be a god who likes autonomy with respect to parsley.
Trevor Burrus: Exactly. Well, I think the – we have time I think for one other of your policy parts of your book and you discuss reparations and restorative justice, which is an interesting chapter. First of all, what is – what do those two terms mean and the way you describe them in the chapter in your book?
Andrew Cohen: Well, this chapter is talking about a cluster of issues that come up with reckoning with messy histories. History as we know is pretty ugly. The pages of human history are dripping with blood and subjugation and oppression and increasingly over the past I would say 20 or 30 years or so, people have been coming to terms with this and they’re trying to figure out how we should confront these messy paths and how to acknowledge them while getting on with our lives together.
So there have been various moves in quarters both among nation states and among corporations and even among private parties to deal with the past and figure out how we can sort of reckon with it, acknowledge that people have been victims and move on with our lives. So this chapter is a way of sorting out some of the philosophical problems that come with understanding what it means for there to be a historic justice or injustice I should say and how to deal with that, what constrains there might be on trying to remedy the injustice.
Trevor Burrus: And what are some of those philosophical problems that deal with historical injustices?
Andrew Cohen: Well, many of the historic injustices that we talk about [0:40:00] go back several generations and often the original perpetrators and victims are dead. So now you’ve got people, living people, who are descended from these original parties and they are trying to figure out what these historic injustices mean to them. One of the most prominent examples might be talk about reparations for African slavery in the United States.
These are very fraught controversies and there are lots of people who complain about this because they think that this sounds to them like a cash grab and they’re worried that they are not complicit in any sort of historic injustice because – to sort of use a bit of a metaphor, their grandparents got off the boat in the 20s. So they had nothing to do with slavery in the United States and there are important countervailing arguments about this, which will say, well actually, there’s a bit of complicity in a long history of underdressed injustice and people need to come to terms with that.
So part of the problem here is understanding how it is that this counts as an issue, it counts as a controversy nowadays.
Aaron Ross Powell: One of the difficult issues that runs through this conversation and runs through a lot of the other controversies that we’ve talked about is this nature of harm because as I’m thinking about this, we could say, look, yeah, my family came here after slavery. So I didn’t benefit from it and these – all of the people who were enslaved are dead and their descendants didn’t live through anything nearly as bad as slavery.
But is there – there’s a sense where – could there be an ongoing harm in that my failure to give the reparations is to some degree a symbolic action, a lack of taking seriously, say the harm that slavery did? And so the people who were part of that legacy and are perhaps marginalized feel like I’m continuing to marginalize them. I’m continuing to do harm to them.
Andrew Cohen: Absolutely.
Aaron Ross Powell: So in the intelligent design or the question of same sex marriage, there are also these weird issues of harm because the people – the opponents of same sex marriage say, look, it’s not that my marriage is necessarily going to be destroyed by gay people getting to be married. It may not even be that you’re going to come and force my church to marry gay people but that living – the very act of living a country that allows for this ungodly sin is harmful to me.
But we tend to – we being people who disagree with those arguments tend to say, look, that’s – either that’s not real harm or that’s not the kind of harm that matters in the moral calculus or in the policy calculus. So how do we tease out what kind of harms count for answering these questions?
Andrew Cohen: That’s I think a nice good prelude to the challenge of understanding the concept of harm and what the criteria of understanding somebody as harm should be. Just as you were mentioning, there are some persons who will count as harms things in their midst that they take to be objectionable, that they take to be harmful. One good example of that sort of a complaint might be somebody who would object to interracial marriage as a type of abomination.
Many of us nowadays might think, well, wait a minute. If you object to that, then don’t get interracially married as it were. It’s not a harm to you that this is going on. But to understand how people might be so upset by this taking place that they might think that people shouldn’t be in a position to do it and this is where a little bit of philosophical reflection can help because we can actually talk about whether that sort of thing happening in one’s midst as it were counts as the sort of harm that the state should notice and I think on many plausible accounts of political morality it’s not.
Aaron Ross Powell: I mean as you say that, it occurs to me that someone could even – the argument you even made that your book itself is harmful. I mean we talk about – it may be not living on a college campus now. We may be hearing about only the worst and most egregious examples of this, but they kind of run amok political correctness that someone could say, “I’m a member of a marginalized group and you’re telling me that what I need to do is take a step back. Think about this carefully in a detached way. Consider all sides. That’s not taking seriously the harms that I have suffered. It’s putting me in my place. It’s a harm. It’s a direct attack and you need to stop telling us how to think and stop challenging our beliefs.”
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, Andrew. What gives?
Andrew Cohen: That’s good. Well, I hope neither I nor my book is telling anybody what to think. It’s merely suggesting a way of approaching these controversies that might be illuminating.
Aaron Ross Powell: It does not come with trigger warnings. I will …
Trevor Burrus: He’s just looking in the intro. I can see it.
Andrew Cohen: That’s right. Well, if somebody has that view, I would still encourage that person into a conversation to talk about, well, how is it that simply urging him to reflect on harm counts itself as a harm. That strikes me as both interesting and yet potentially confused. Maybe even conceptually confused and philosophy can maybe help that person to get clear on whether or not these sorts of things count as harm.
Trevor Burrus: I’ve been trying to tell people like that that philosophy could help them – for a very long time, Aaron and I had a class in college together. It was literally criticism where we tried to tell a lot of people in that class that they needed to step back and think about what their definitions of harm and various things were. It’s interesting Aaron’s question about harm. Sometimes that might be where the rubber meets the road. It’s just what your theory of harm is.
In libertarianism we have – well some people have a non-aggression principle to try and make it very limited what the theory of harm is. It used to be the case that in some common law countries you could make an action against competitive harms. So someone – another ma-and-pa store moved in on the block and out-competed you. You could actually make an action against them and then we decide, oh no, that’s a justifiable harm. It seems that a lot of political philosophy debates, a lot of policy debates might just be subsumed into your definition of what counts as an actionable harm.
Andrew Cohen: Right now we have to start to do a little bit of political philosophy and talk about in what consists legitimate entitlement and what role the state should have in defining and enforcing these legitimate entitlements. The sorts of examples that you’re giving are really good ones and you think similarly about how it is that you might have two people who are vying for the romantic affections of a third if that third person, the object of the first two’s affections, winds up picking Smith over Jones. Does Jones have some sort of an actionable complaint?
No, it just stinks to be Jones. Jones lost. Yay for Smith. But that way of thinking that we sort of take for granted is presupposing a certain conception of entitlement and autonomy and freedom and the proper balance of state authority where we would find it to be objectionable for the state to say, “Wait a minute now. You can’t just pick one person over that other when that other person might be a better candidate.” We would all be shaking our heads and saying, “What are you doing? This is not something for the state to be doing.”
Trevor Burrus: Well, the other interesting thing too, which is a consideration that pops up in the book and it’s something that again Aaron and I have been talking about for a decade or more, which is the practicality of a policy and how it should inform a philosophical commitment. So we were talking about reparations a few minutes ago. We said, well maybe one of the things that counts against this is just very impractical. We can’t figure out who owes who. We can do like a dead reckoning of it all, black people who have African descent and all white people who have relatives here.
They’re going back to slavery or own slaves. But it’s imperfect and we could do – by the end of the day, it’s very impractical and so one argument could be that’s why you don’t do it. But in a lot of philosophical commitments, that’s not OK.
We can be against murder and we can know that I would be very impractical to eliminate murder. But we’re still against murder. We’re saying there should be absolutely no murder. So maybe the call is the moral normative stance is to try and do the best you can, if reparations are in fact needed. So the question I guess is how do practical effects or can practical limitations undercut a philosophical commitment or a philosophy in some way.
Andrew Cohen: That’s a good question and I think one of the neat things about philosophy is how it’s sort of pushing up against that boundary at many points because sometimes philosophy may begin to suggest certain alternatives as being part of our ideal and many people will say that ideal is preposterous. It’s absurd. We’re never going to be able to do that.
But philosophy is also a discipline that helps to expand our boundaries and even to break past them and imagine the sorts of discussions that people were having when Plato wrote The Republic a couple of thousand years ago and he had the temerity to suggest in book five that perhaps women should assume leadership roles. Plato was quite advanced in that respect to say that maybe women should be in a position to be, as he called them, the guardians.
But that’s crazy. You could imagine the ancient Greeks thinking that. How could women possibly do that? Just think about who they are. At the time to the average free Greek, that did seem sort of crazy and yet we’re pushing at the boundaries and thinking, “Why not imagine that this [0:50:00] might be possible?” You can make the same sort of argument about – arguments about slavery and Antebellum South in the 19th century or somebody to come along and say – you know, actually this whole institution of childhood [0:50:14] [Phonetic] slavery is pretty horrific. You’re doing this act which just subordinates a whole population of human beings. It’s horrific. And the response could be, “All right. Now wait a minute now. So you’re just going to have all these people of African descent just lying around free?”
Trevor Burrus: Which was actualy Jefferson’s concern.
Andrew Cohen: That’s right. And yet one of the things that sort of philosophically inspired a way of thinking about liberating the slaves is to say, “Well, yeah! This is what our moral guide should be and now we have to figure out potentially how to get there.” So there are different ways of understanding what philosophy might do. It might on the one hand be constrained by what is practically available to us but it also might push us outside of those constraints in certain important ways.
So in the case of reparations where you were talking about what some people described as determinacy problems, figuring out who owes what to whom, it might be a complete mess. But that’s not necessarily an argument against thinking about these issues because we have to acknowledge that these historic injustices, they’re not gone. They are very much part of the narrative for many people. They are part of how people live their days. It’s part of how they encounter others as being somebody who is in a certain group that has descended from a group that was historically subjugated.
These sorts of stories about historical depredations, they are discussed at the dinner tables regularly for certain people and then for other people to come along and say, “Don’t worry about it. I mean it’s just too hard to open that can of worms up. Why don’t we just move on and let bygones be bygones?”
It’s perhaps easy to say that from the standpoint of somebody who isn’t rehearsing those narratives at the dinner table each night, but there may yet be room for constructive conversations about how to reckon with the past.
Aaron Ross Powell: So let’s say – let’s think of this – and I’m convinced. I think that there’s profound value in applying philosophical thinking to public policy and I would like to do more of it. So obviously I can start by reading your book, which is a terrific introduction to philosophical thinking and terrific examples of how to apply it. But I want to take it further and I’m not in a position to go get a philosophy degree. So what should I do? Should I start with [Indiscernible] and just read my way forward or how does one learn to think philosophically and apply philosophy without formal schooling in it?
Andrew Cohen: So help me out a little bit. Are you thinking about what does a person who doesn’t want – to become a professional philosopher to do or …
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. How do you learn to cultivate the philosophical mode of thinking and apply it to public policy questions other than reading your book?
Andrew Cohen: Reading a lot and participating in these conversations and just being an attentive consumer of the sorts of conversations that are going on in the media. Not just conversations that people are having over beers at bars but the sorts of things that are being published in refereed journals and periodicals, what people are hashing out, what these controversies are and what the stakes are, thinking carefully about these sorts of things.
Not everybody wants to or should become a professional philosopher. In fact people shouldn’t [Indiscernible]. But for the people who are [Indiscernible] sorts of issues, they can read more about them and not just read what some philosopher might be saying but read the social scientist that you were talking about. You read the scientist and see what it is that the experts are saying and what the experts say about the other experts.
Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you have any questions, you can find us on Twitter, @FreeThoughtsPod. Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more, find us on the web at www.Libertarianism.org.