The Moral Philosophy of Evidence-based Policymaking

This post was first published on the website Transforming Evidence (May 7, 2020), which now appears to have gone offline. I was asked to write it after the journal Evidence & Policy had published my article ”The Evidence-based Policy Movement and Political Idealism”. The article is selected by the journal’s editors as one of three articles to be made available for open access until January 31, 2021. A summary of the article is available in Swedish here.

So-called evidence-based policy idealists consider themselves as ideologically neutral in all matters but one. Their only political view is that public policymaking should be instrumentally rational. In other words, the means should suit the chosen ends.

Suppose that one policy goal is that carbon emissions should never exceed a certain threshold, and that there are two alternative ways to reach it; higher taxes on pollution, and a trade market on carbon allowances. EBP idealists are indifferent to the content of the two policies. Unlike, for example, socialists and libertarians, they have no ideological preference either for or against taxes and markets. They would choose simply whichever would be the most effective.

Is instrumental rationality always desirable in the policy process? Perhaps not. It is certainly desirable in the combat against climate change, which is a political struggle for a better world. Yet it may not be desirable in politics that take the world in the opposite direction. Rational or not, society should not implement policies that lead to moral decay.

A question of context

Suppose that it is a policy goal in a country to map the spread of COVID-19. The instrumentally most rational way to achieve this goal is to use GPS tracking. Citizens in the country can voluntarily download a COVID-19 app and allow it to track their movements and social interactions.

This could be an independently unproblematic policy. However, taking its social context into account the policy may be questionable. The same country may have given far-stretching emergency powers to the government that are difficult to roll back when the crisis is over and granted the police extensive rights to take preemptive measures against potential troublemakers. Considering its context, the COVID-19 tracking policy risks leading society into the direction of rights-infringements and the rise of a police state. An instrumentally less rational policy could be desirable in this case to avoid moral decay.

This is a challenge for EBP idealists. Their ideological view is that instrumental rationality is valuable in the policy process. Yet there is good reason to believe that, sometimes, it can be undesirable. EBP idealists need to distinguish between situations when instrumental rationality is desirable and when it is not.

Doing so requires contextual analysis, which requires social interpretation, which in turn requires substantive ideological commitments. And that is precisely what EBP idealists like to avoid; they want to be politically neutral.

Contextual analysis

Neutral contextual analyses are impossible for at least three reasons. First, policies cannot be assessed as isolated phenomena. They are always part of a set of policies, and it is never clear which set a policy is a member of. More precisely, there is no value-neutral way of describing the set of policies that should be considered in a contextual analysis of the particular policy one is interested in evaluating. This is a matter of delineation.

The examples I used included the COVID-19 tracking policy, the government emergency powers policy, and the police’s preemptive measures policy. Examples of policies that are not included in the set may be, for instance, the closing of schools and temporarily raised wages in healthcare. Delineating the set, i.e., choosing which policies should be included and which that should not, requires value-sensitive judgment. It cannot be done neutrally.

Second, all public policies have symbolic values attached to them, and such values are rarely, if ever, ideologically impartial. There is no neutral way of describing the meaning of policies, i.e., how they should be understood in terms of social and historical significance. For instance, to some, the COVID-19 tracking policy may appear as a respectful and fair way of distributing the “costs” associated with learning about the virus; a display of tolerance in a liberal community. To others, the policy may instead appear as weak and overly cautious; a symptom of a disoriented generation. The meaning of a policy can always be traced back to some value-laden judgment of society.

Third, there is always a “next” policy, the one that comes after the present, as all public policies open some doors while closing others. Analyzing policies involves taking into account which doors should be open and not. For instance, the COVID-19 tracking policy may enable future policies such as large-scale surveillance and public data collection. According to some, such future policies are undesirable, and the door to them should remain shut. According to others, such policies would instead be desirable, and enabling them is therefore a move in the right direction. It is never entirely clear which doors a particular policy opens and which doors it shuts.

Future policy possibilities could be unknown when policy decisions need to be made, and some precaution may therefore be necessary. Identifying future policy possibilities, deciding which of them are desirable and not, and taking reasonable precautionary measures, requires value-sensitive judgments.

Treating moral problems with caution

To summarize, instrumental rationality is undesirable if it leads society into the wrong direction, and this is a problem for EBP idealists. They need to make substantive value-laden commitments that allow them to make contextual analyses of public policymaking. Without contextual analyses, it is impossible to determine when instrumental rationality is desirable and when it is not. Counter to their ideological views, EBP idealists cannot remain neutral about the contents of public policy; they need to be political.

Public policymaking is a morally loaded enterprise, and evaluation of policy includes philosophical thinking. Both theorists and practitioners should be aware of the moral and philosophical dimension of policymaking and equip themselves with the skills needed to treat moral problems with care. Moral policymaking cannot be reduced to a matter of instrumental rationality. It is far too important.