Saturday, September 13, 2008

Expertise and the Demagoguery of Morals

John Cole:

Dan Drezner, after watching the Palin interview, asks a question:

Question to other GOP policy wonks: is it possible to support a candidate that campaigns on the notion that expertise is simply irrelevant?

The depressing thing is that this has been the GOP platform for years now. Expertise is overrated. Gut instincts, being “tough,” and being “decisive,” and not “blinking” are all far more important than actually knowing things.

Look at the thorough disdain for science the GOP has displayed for the past few years. Amorphous morals trump reason and science, and then those morals are conveniently discarded or altered when it becomes inconvenient for the GOP (see: family values, David Vitter).

First, I'm a bit perplexed by the whole "expertise" discourse. There's an obvious sense in which basic knowledge and understanding of the key issues of the day is a crucial prerequisite of running for the positions of president and vice-president. It has become crystal clear that Sarah Palin doesn't meet these prerequisites. It's also clear that McCain's knowledge and understanding have at least become seriously dulled, perhaps through his long tenure in the Senate, where he has often simply phoned it in.

Yet, at the same time, "expert"-driven policy has serious drawbacks. Expert-driven policy tends to focus on the existing tools for policy analysis and policy-making, usually technical tools and theoretical stances that may indeed be moribund in terms of their problem-solving capabilities but are so entrenched in the policy world that nobody can see any alternatives. Some academics claim that, in contrast to expert-driven policy, we ought to have more democratic policy-making procedures, or they claim that a healthier mix is in order.

The McCain camp doesn't care much about this democratic impulse, but it has tapped into the disdain for expert-driven policy, at least in the sense that everyday folks express that disdain with the Washington insider-outsider discourse. That's part and parcel of the height of the McCain camp's popularity, but that popularity is now declining as everyone has a bit of time to gauge the reality of the McCain-Palin ticket. After all, once we sift through all the bogus claims, Palin's main qualifications for office are that she didn't have an abortion and she's kind of an every-mom USA. That's it. Granted, that appeals to many Americans. But her record as mayor and governor are far too spotty, and her accomplishments largely a creation of the McCain campaign. The reality of these two governing the country is, I believe (and hope), starting to sink in. And, seemingly paradoxically, that disturbing reality brings us back to "expertise" - i.e., these people really aren't qualified for the office.

So, how do we parse this? On one hand, there's legitimate suspicion of expert-driven policy. On the other hand, we want our leaders to know what they're doing. We want to be assured that they're experts on the various policy issues of the day. I have a hard time believing that, with just a fraction of reflection, most Americans would still think "unblinking" war between two major nuclear powers - the US and Russia - over Georgia is even halfway sane policy. Or that "drill, drill, drill" solves anything in terms of energy prices or the longer-term energy problem.

We seem to want someone who both knows what they're doing, who rises to a serious level of expertise, and who isn't blinded to fresh ideas and policy options by being an insider expert. We want someone for whom wise judgments in the name of the American people involve both elements. Does that look like McCain-Palin? Or does it look like Obama-Biden?

Now, the question of "morals." One of the central problems of US political and cultural discourse is that the issue of morality has been largely co-opted by rightwing evangelicals. How this has happened is a long story. But this co-option has consequences that ripple throughout nearly all of our policy discussions.

Policy, of course, ought to be based on the state of the art of the sciences and social sciences, when relevant (for example, climate change policy or health policy). But the policy question is always at its root the question of what we ought to do collectively. It's a normative question. In many respects, then, the fundamental policy question is at least analogous to the root question of ethics, which is also what we ought to do or what a person ought to do.

For instance, say I'm faced with a dilemma, a real problem - say, a friend has stolen something of great value from someone else causing that other person harm. This is an ethical matter for me precisely because I'm faced with different options that demand reflection and deliberation. Do I value friendship over the friend's act of stealing? Stealing is wrong, especially stealing that harms others. There are very good, deeper reasons for holding both views - the value of friendship and the basic rule that stealing is wrong. How do I adjudicate between the two in this situation? What ought I to do (tell on the friend? Ignore the act? Repay the person who was stolen from? etc.)? Again, both basic rules - friendship should be valued and stealing is wrong - are on their own perhaps both instrumentally and inherently valuable features of human life. The ethical problem arises in their clash, in the question that arises from it: what ought I to do? No clash, no ethical dilemma, at least from your perspective.

We would first want to be clear about the empirical evidence, about what actually happened and whether there are mitigating factors (if the friend stole an orange because he was starving, we might overlook the act of stealing in the name of avoiding a greater harm - dying from hunger). But because we can still value each principle on its own and perhaps equally, we must have some procedure or methodology for deliberating our way through the dilemma. Maybe what we're after is a way to prioritize the two principles. Maybe it's some other way to collapse the tension between them. Maybe it's an entirely arbitrary choice (say, flipping a coin, which would be an escape from the difficulty of deliberation). Ethics, of course, offers up a number of ways to go about deliberating over ethical/moral issues: utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, feminist ethics, etc. But, for us theorist types, even the choice between which theory to use as the basis for deliberation, or which set of theories, is a kind of dilemma - how to adjudicate between better and worse theories when they have their own internal standards of adjudication? Ethicists spend lots of time on such metaethical questions. All of us, however, whether you know it consciously or not, have some ready-made rules for deliberating over the small and large ethical dilemmas we face throughout our lives. Ethicists think we're much better off if we reflect further upon those tools and the other going options and develop more sophisticated, more reflective sets of theoretical tools, methodologies, values, and principles.

The same goes for policy. We want the best evidence possible. We want some strong methods for sifting through the evidence and finding the right choices from among the going options. We want to do so, given that policy is always a collective project, perhaps by integrating other various rules we have good reasons to value - such as an egalitarian principle that people ought to be treated equally and equitably, or a libertarian principle that collective institutions ought to be limited in the extent to which they intrude upon or shape our individual lives. Etc. Especially with policy-analysis and policy-making, other practical considerations come into play immediately - conflicting conceptions of the good life, competing economic and social interests, the often unprincipled desires of others, costs vs. benefits, technological feasibility, different sets of values in a pluralistic society, local vs. state vs. national vs. international politics, and so on. These are all important elements of policy which make the policy question of what we ought to do a rather complicated, multi-faceted one.

Now, when it comes to morality and "values" in US society however, the ground tends to be ceded to the religious right. Like I said, the issue of why this is the case is too complicated to go into here. But what's curious about it is that much of the non-religious right has ceded the issue of morality to that religious right. I think this is part of what's in play even in debates over science vs. religion. Many on the science side erroneously write off moral questions as the fuzzy thinking of supernaturalists. But, remember, even if a science question is proven or decided (say, anthropogenic climate change), the question still remains of what we ought to do with that inbformation. Because we've built up this bizarre dualism of science and empirical data on one side and religion/morality on the other, the question of what we ought to do - even in policy - has a default position, which largely resembles the moral thinking of the religious right, if not for the content of those morals, at least for how we think about modes of deliberation about morality and about what we ought to do.

The religious right, for its own part, takes a rather impoverished view of the extent of the moral life, possible tacks in deliberation over important questions, and how we ought to treat those who disagree with us. Religion-based morality almost always involves a rule-oriented approach to moral/ethical questions. This may be a simplification, but the Ten Commandments are like this. Follow these rules or this moral map and you're saved (or whatever). But notice that religion-based morality, at least as it plays out in the US, often doesn't have the tools to figure out what to do when those rules conflict, as I've suggested above is the case with ethical problems. Yes, follow the rules - but now my friend has stolen something. I value community and friendship, and I value the principle that we ought not to steal. How to adjudicate? Evangelicals sometimes offer the methodological answer, "what would Jesus do?" But, really, we don't know what Jesus would do here and now, faced with this existential ethical dilemma, and any answer we come up with is bound to be a reflection of our particular historically and culturally contingent moment in time. Certainly, it might not matter much to a Buddhist, for example, what Jesus would do. There may be more to it than this, but at root, we're asked by evangelicals to follow a set of rules that are unquestioned, and we are not offered any way to adjudicate between them in the real situations of our pluralistic lives. It's also why many evangelicals have little interest in democratic forms of collective decision-making (after all, they've a priori established what the right course of action is).

The problem is that this mode of ethical deliberation has bled into the policy world. We're entrenched in debates which are at their core conflicts over particular sets of values and rules.

But - and this is an important point here - the religion/morality vs. science dualism is both descriptively skewed and normatively impoverished. Many inclined towards science and "reason" make the exact same kind of mistake as those inclined towards religion/morality (where that side is already well-appropriated by evangelicals). Morality should be and can be approached rationally, as it is by many philosophers (though not all, of course). But many of the science-inclined have apparently concluded that only the empirical is the domain of rationality, just as many on the evangelical side have decided that their morality is the only domain of morality and ethics. Scientists have erroneously conceded the latter point, while evangelicals still try to make inroads on science (e.g., the claims of creationism). This general condition or state of affairs is historically contingent, and it must be transcended if we're going to make any real effort towards solving very serious collective problems. We need both strong empirical evidence and strong collective efforts at deliberation about what we ought to do with that empirical evidence.

When it comes to the public dimension of policy disputes - politics - rather than engage in fresh thinking about how to adjudicate these disputes, we tend to have political interests pushing the buttons through expert manipulative rhetoric of those values and principles that people believe they hold dearly. The public isn't asked to look honestly at the actual conflict, to help round up the evidence, to develop robust tools for assessing and deliberating over the evidence (where evidence includes both empirical data and different sets of norms and values), and to make the difficult choices. This would be intelligent, democratic policy-making in a pluralistic world. But since the society is generally - for various reasons - not terribly adept at this, the arena of policy is left to particular interests trying mightily to influence policy-making in order to gain whatever they can from policy outcomes. The cycle completes itself when the citizenry collapses into cynicism over the state of governance and clamoring for private gain, and distances itself further from the concerns of good policy-making and good governance.

Going back to the issue of experts and expertise, I see a distinction that isn't often made in the public discourse. On one hand is the larger version of problem-solving that I've been spelling out here - it's often hinted at in lofty-sounding political rhetoric, but is never quite actuality. This larger version requires intelligence, judgment, open-mindedness, a (good) scientist's sense of experimentalism and evidence-based knowledge, and a (good) ethicist's sense of the crucial importance of ought. Religion has a place here as well. The age-old dualism between is and ought is collapsed in the act of intelligent policy deliberation and policy-making. On the other hand, however, there's the limited version of expertise that's either a product of an entrenched system of rules and policy tools ("Washington insiders" - take your political pick, left or right) or an entrenched particularistic sets of values (the religious right).

Now, if you've followed me this far, when it comes to politics of the sort mentioned by Drezner and John Cole at the beginning of this post, I think we can get to part of the confusion over the issue of expertise. Expertise for a political leader and his or her advisers means a developed ability to navigate the various dimensions of policy, value, and empirical work that I've been discussing in this post. It requires good judgment about which options work best within a very large political context. This may rise to the level of some intuitive abilities.

"Gut" judgment, however, may make those who only have the ability to use gut judgment feel a little better about themselves. But when "gut" judgment, or knee-jerk "doing what's right" (as if figuring that out requires no effort), or being "decisive" when there's no background of deliberation to the decision really is just the opposite of good policy assessment and policy-making. Now, combine this with the fact that policy-making is collective in both the production part (if we're really democrats) and in terms of outcomes and effects on real human beings, and you've got a profound moral shortcoming. Gut judgment on decisions that will have deep effects on the population is fundamentally irresponsible.

Such views of policy reflect that evangelical equation of principle-minus-deliberation. Principle without deliberation is an authoritarian morality, of following what others demand. To this extent, the more genuine, responsible moral stance is not the domain of people like Palin at all. Indeed, to operate on the moral position of gut judgment combined with a set of largely unreflective, inherited principles, especially when thousands of people's lives may be on the line, is deeply immoral.


Steve Gimbel said...

You are right on the money here. We have let the right substitute moralizing for moral deliberation. It was a crucial part of their rise. They were on the wrong side of every major moral battle of the second half of the 20th century, from civil rights, to women's rights, to gay rights to war and the environment.

So, to reclaim the morality mantle, they did two things: (1) point to the moral failings of particular Democrats in 70s-90s: ABSCAM, Congressional pages, Keating Five (McCain was the only Republican of the bunch), Gary Hart, Wright and the straw purchases/speaking fees,...and contrast themselves, and (2) redefine public morality down to opposing abortion and gay marriage (which got framed as protecting the institution of marriage).

Redefining morality to moralizing was crucial to their brand because it had been their albatross. Reagan was able to reshape racism into protecting American self-reliance.

We, then shot ourselves in the foot on the issue because the rise of political correctness in the 80s made talk of anything as strong as ethical claims evidence of oppressive power structures. Now, it is certainly true that cultural biases and power structures are crucial elements of why we condemn what we condemn and why we promote what we promote, but when this hit the larger stage it got transformed into naive ethical relativism. We saw the moralizing absolutists as a bunch of holier-than-thou jerks and so went to the other extreme.

What you are seeing is hopefully the last gasps of this hiccup in our public discourse. The whole idea of Obama's post-partisanship is not split the baby brand Lieberman-style "bi"partisanship, rather it is a call for a return to robust, but respectful partisanship. The man's greatest virtue is his ability to take seriously conflicting views and trying to reconcile their insights. It is the photographic negative of the other side's biggest vice.

troutsky said...

Great point, Steve, about "robust partisanship" being crucial to any sort of return to the political, though I would disagree that Obama is really emphasizing this.(I think he believes in the "unified middle", a squishy, milktoast realm) but to Helmuts point:
Politics means accepting loss gracefully at times and believing in future gains, whereas modern discourse normatively disqualifies any challenge to the democratic-capitalist ideology.Neither is there compromise on "moral" stands or respect for the views of heathens, pagans, the Other, etc.. Politics now is about who would make the best CEO.

MT said...

Admiration for gut judgment almost seems to have a theological premise about it--like Zens have about "no mind," or like the idea of "instinctive goodness" that betokens the actually good characters in fairy tales and old movies. Or as in all of us being born angels, as incapable of evil as of ratiocination. If you stop to think, that's the Devil talking to you.