Train crashes cause, on average, a handful of deaths each year in the UK. Technologies exist that would save the lives of some of those who die. Yet these technical innovations would cost hundreds of millions of pounds. Should we spend the money? How can we decide how to trade off life against financial cost? Such dilemmas make public policy is a battlefield of values, yet all too often we let technical experts decide the issues for us. Can philosophy help (...) us make better decisions? Ethics and Public Policy: A Philosophical Inquiry is the first book to subject important and controversial areas of public policy to philosophical scrutiny. Jonathan Wolff, a renowned philosopher and veteran of many public committees, such as the Gambling Review Body, introduces and assesses core problems and controversies in public policy from a philosophical standpoint. Each chapter is centred on an important area of public policy where there is considerable moral and political disagreement. Topics discussed include: Can we defend inflicting suffering on animals in scientific experiments for human benefit? What limits to gambling can be achieved through legislation? What assumptions underlie drug policy? Can we justify punishing those who engage in actions that harm only themselves? What is so bad about crime? What is the point of punishment? Other chapters discuss health care, disability, safety and the free market. Throughout the book, fundamental questions for both philosopher and policy maker recur: what are the best methods for connecting philosophy and public policy? Should thinking about public policy be guided by an ‘an ideal world’ or the world we live in now? If there are ‘knock down’ arguments in philosophy why are there none in public policy? Each chapter concludes with ‘Lessons for Philosophy’ making this book not only an ideal introduction for those coming to philosophy, ethics or public policy for the first time, but also a vital resource for anyone grappling with the moral complexity underlying policy debates. (shrink)
This paper reconsiders some themes and arguments from my earlier paper “Fairness, Respect and the Egalitarian Ethos.” That work is often considered to be part of a cluster of papers attacking “luck egalitarianism” on the grounds that insisting on luck egalitarianism's standards of fairness undermines relations of mutual respect among citizens. While this is an accurate reading, the earlier paper did not make its motivations clear, and the current paper attempts to explain the reasons that led me to write the (...) earlier paper, assesses the force of its arguments, and locates it in respect to work of Richard Arneson and Elizabeth Anderson. The paper concludes by bringing out what now appears to be the main message of the earlier paper: that the attempt to implement an “ideal” theory of equality can harm the very people that the theory is designed to help. (shrink)
The revised edition of this highly successful text provides a clear and accessible introduction to some of the most important questions of political philosophy. Organized around major issues, Wolff provides the structure that beginners need, while also introducing some distinctive ideas of his own.
The question of when people may impose risks on each other is of fundamental moral importance. Forms of “quantified risk assessment,” especially risk cost-benefit analysis, provide one powerful approach to providing a systematic answer. It is also well known that such techniques can show that existing resources could be used more effectively to reduce risk overall. Thus it is often argued that some current practices are irrational. On the other hand critics of quantified risk assessment argue that it cannot adequately (...) capture all relevant features, such as “societal concern” and so should be abandoned. In this paper I argue that current forms of quantified risk assessment are inadequate, and in themselves, therefore, insufficient to demonstrate that current practices are irrational. In particular, I will argue that insufficient attention has been given to the cause of a hazard, which needs to be treated as a primary variable in its own right. However rather than reject quantified risk assessment I wish to supplement it by proposing a framework to make explicit the role causation plays in the understanding of risk, and how it interacts with factors which influence perception of risks and other attitudes to risk control. Once an improved description of risk perception is available it will become possible to have a more informed debate about the normative question: how safety should be regulated. (shrink)
It often appears that the most appropriate form of addressing disadvantage related to disability is through policies that can be called “status enhancements”: changes to the social, cultural and material environment so that the difﬁculties experienced by those with impairments are reduced, even eradicated. However, status enhancements can also have their limitations. This paper compares the relative merits of policies of status enhancement and “personal enhancement”: changes to the disabled person. It then takes up the question of how to assess (...) the priority of the claims of disabled people in the face of scarcity of resources for which there can be many competing social claims, arguing for the theory of “declustering disadvantage”. (shrink)
The paper describes a project in which the thesis of the social determinants of health is used in order to help identify groups that will be among the least advantaged members of society, when disadvantage is understood in terms of lack of genuine opportunity for secure functioning. The analysis is derived from the author's work with Avner de-Shalit in Disadvantage (Oxford University Press, 2007).
What contribution can political philosophers make to policy questions, such as the best configuration of the welfare state? On one view, political philosophers set out abstract theories of justice that can guide policy makers in their attempt to transform existing institutions. Yet it rarely seems the case that such a model is used in practice, and it therefore becomes unclear how political philosophy can contribute to policy debates. Following a suggestion from Margaret MacDonald, I consider the view that political philosophers (...) can contribute by drawing attention to relatively neglected values. I develop this view to add the possibility that political philosophers can try to correct a situation in which a particular value, though important, can come to be too highly emphasised. I illustrate the account by considering the rise of the value of ‘responsibility’ in the welfare state, and ultimately the damage that has been done to society to disadvantaged groups by the over-insistence on the importance of responsibility. (shrink)
The human right to health has been established in international law since 1976. However, philosophers have often regarded human rights doctrine as a marginal contribution to political philosophy, or have attempted to distinguish ‘human rights proper’ from ‘aspirations’, with the human right to health often considered as falling into the latter category. Here the human right to health is defended as an attractive approach to global health, and responses are offered to a series of criticisms concerning its demandingness.
A number of schemes have been attempted, both in public health and more generally within social programmes, to pay individuals to behave in ways that are presumed to be good for them or to have other beneficial effects. Such schemes are normally regarded as providing a financial incentive for individuals in order to outweigh contrary motivation. Such schemes have been attacked on the basis that they can ‘crowd out’ intrinsic motivation, as well as on the grounds that they are in (...) some sense ‘corrupt’. In response, they have been defended on the grounds that they can ‘crowd in’ improved motivation. I will argue that these debates have tended to overlook the difficulties individuals can have when attempting to behave against peer group norms. In some cases, financial payments can allow individuals to defend their actions on the grounds that ‘I am only doing it for the money’ in circumstances when it would be difficult to defend their action on their real motivations. Examples of paying children to read books, and paying women to give up smoking in pregnancy, will be discussed. (shrink)
This paper surveys the current philosophical discussion of the ethics of risk imposition, placing it in the context of relevant work in psychology, economics and social theory. The central philosophical problem starts from the observation that it is not practically possible to assign people individual rights not to be exposed to risk, as virtually all activity imposes some risk on others. This is the ‘problem of paralysis’. However, the obvious alternative theory that exposure to risk is justified when its total (...) benefits exceed its total costs faces the standard distributional challenges of consequentialism. Forms of contractualism have been proposed as a solution, but how exactly such theories can be formulated remains problematic, especially when confronted with the difficult cases of mass, novel, risk such as climate change. (shrink)
In the first section the problem of political obligation is motivated, and in Section 2 the core structure of the problem is laid bare. A recognition ofthis structure prompts reflection that the problem will appear very different to different thinkers, depending on their moral theories. It also invites the speculation that the problem will be incapable of solution on some moral theories while trivial on others. This polarity does reflect the state of much of the literature until fairly recently. However (...) this picture is seen to be too crude, and in the third section it is shown how an interesting solution has been proposed by advocates of the ‘theory of fairness’. In Section 4 this theory is evaluated, concentrating particularly on George Klosko’s version, which is, in part, rejected. However it is argued that no version of the theory is able to guarantee universal political obligations. In Section 5 it is argued that this is an unnoticed advantage of the theory, for it may well be that, morally at least, we should allow those who do not benefit from the existence of the state to escape political obligations. The consequences of this view are examined and found not to be as threatening as they might first have appeared. (shrink)
This paper sets out a framework in which we can distinguish between four types of redistributive attention to the disadvantaged: compensation; personal enhancement; targeted resource enhancement; and status enhancement. It is argued that in certain cases many of us will have strong intuitions in favour or against one or more strategies for addressing disadvantage, and it is further argued that in such cases it is likely that our reactions are based on assumptions about the human good. Hence the two issues (...) — addressing disadvantage and the human good — shed light on one another . (shrink)
The discussion of the adequacy of Karl Marx''s definition of exploitation has paid insufficient attention to a prior question: what is a definition? Once we understand Marx as offering a reference-fixing definition in a model we will realise that it is resistant to certain objections. A more general analysis of exploitation is offered here and it is suggested that Marx''s own definition is a particular instance of the general analysis which makes a number of controversial moral assumptions.
In this paper I want to do two things. One concerns Mill’s attitude to public indecency. In On Liberty Mill expresses the conventional view that certain actions, if conducted in public, are an affront to good manners, and can properly be prohibited. I want to come to an understanding of Mill’s position so that it allows him to defend this part of conventional morality, but does not disrupt certain of his liberal convictions: principally the conviction that what consenting adults do (...) in private is no-one ‘s concern but their own. The difficulty is to find an argument that Mill could have used to defend the position that some things which, though acceptable in private, can rightly be stopped if attempted in public. The other thing I want to do is consider the impact of Mill’s view of indecency on the interpretation of the Liberty Principle. There remain difficulties here which, to my knowledge, have not been adequately explored. So I want to look at a range of interpretative alternatives. In the first part of the paper I shall raise and explore the issue of the interpretative problems. In the second part I shall look at some ways of trying to justify Mill’s view of indecency on characteristically Millian grounds. And in the final part I shall explore the somewhat surprising consequences of the discussion of the second part for the interpretative questions raised in the first. (shrink)
If one values freedom, what sort of regime of property should one favor: libertarianism, socialism, or something else again? Debate on this topic has been hampered by a failure to distinguish freedom and liberty, which are both of great value, but can come into conflict. Furthermore there are many similar concepts?distinct from both liberty and freedom, yet each representing something we rightly value?which may also come into conflict with each other and with freedom and liberty. Consequently the question posed above (...) has no easy answer. (shrink)
Health-related Quality of Life measures have recently been attacked from two directions, both of which criticize the preference-based method of evaluating health states they typically incorporate. One attack, based on work by Daniel Kahneman and others, argues that ‘experience’ is a better basis for evaluation. The other, inspired by Amartya Sen, argues that ‘capability’ should be the guiding concept. In addition, opinion differs as to whether health evaluation measures are best derived from consultations with the general public, with patients, or (...) with health professionals. And there is disagreement about whether these opinions should be solicited individually and aggregated, or derived instead from a process of collective deliberation. These distinctions yield a wide variety of possible approaches, with potentially differing policy implications. We consider some areas of disagreement between some of these approaches. We show that many of the perspectives seem to capture something important, such that it may be a mistake to reject any of them. Instead we suggest that some of the existing ‘instruments’ designed to measure HR QoLs may in fact successfully already combine these attributes, and with further refinement such instruments may be able to provide a reasonable reconciliation between the perspectives. (shrink)
The fall of the Berlin Wall had enormous symbolic resonance, marking the collapse of Marxist politics and economics. Indeed, Marxist regimes have failed miserably, and with them, it seems, all reason to take the writings of Karl Marx seriously. Jonathan Wolff argues that if we detach Marx the critic of current society from Marx the prophet of some never-to-be-realized worker's paradise, he remains the most impressive critic we have of liberal, capitalist, bourgeois society. The author shows how Marx's main ideas (...) still shed light on wider concerns about culture and society and he guides the reader through Marx's notoriously difficult writings. Wolff also argues that the value of a great thinker does not depend on his or her views being true, but on other features such as originality, insight, and systematic vision. From this perspective, Marx still richly deserves to be read. Why Read Marx Today? reinstates Marx as an important critic of current society, and not just a figure of historical interest. (shrink)
This paper considers the range of possible policy options that are available if we wish to attempt to treat people with cognitive disabilities as equal members of society. It is suggested that the goal of policy should be allow each disabled person to establish a worthwhile place in the world and sets out four policy options: cash compensation, personal enhancement, status enhancement and targeted resource enhancement. The paper argues for the social policy of targeted resource enhancement for individuals with cognitive (...) disabilities, in the form of providing cash with some limits on its use. Taking the example from the UK of ‘self-directed support’ it is argued that such policies can be cost-effective and advance the autonomy of people with cognitive disabilities, especially when compared with current policies of centrally provided services. (shrink)
Hume famously argues that Social Contract theory collapses into a form of utilitarianism. Bentham endorses Hume's argument. I show that, if Hume's argument refutes Social Contract theory, it equally undermines Bentham's own utilitarian account of political obligation. This discussion is used to illustrate a more general thesis that there is no single problem of political obligation, but different problems for different theorists.
Exchange is one thing, economic competition another. Exchange is possible without competition; and economic competition (of sorts) is possible without exchange. Put exchange and competition together and, roughly, you get the free market. There are many philosophical discussions of the free market; a sizeable number about free exchange; but - - aside from in the context of consequentialist defences of the market - - who this century has had much to say about economic competition?
In a paper published in this journal we proposed a method for resolving disputed land claims between two parties (Steiner and Wolff: 2003). In essence the proposal is to hold an auction between the disputants in which the land is given to the higher bidder, but the receipts of the auction to the under-bidder. We claimed that under such circumstances both parties can walk away happy: the higher bidder happy to pay the price bid for the land; the under-bidder happier (...) to have the receipts of the auction when the alternative is to pay for the land at a higher price. (shrink)
Utilitarianism has a curious history. Its most celebrated founders – Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill – were radical progressives, straddling the worlds of academic philosophy, political science, economic theory and practical affairs. They made innumerable recommendations for legal, social, political and economic reform, often (especially in Bentham’s case) described in fine detail. Some of these recommendations were followed, sooner or later, and many of their radical ideas have become close to articles of faith of western liberalism. Furthermore many of (...) these recommendations were made expressly to improve the condition of the deprived, or of oppressed groups. Yet the moral theory which inspired this reforming zeal is, at least officially, utilitarianism, and when we teach this theory to our students we feel it our duty to point out the horrors that could be justified by any theory which assesses the moral quality of actions in terms of the maximisation of good consequences over bad. No consequence is so bad that it cannot, in principle, be outweighed by a large aggregation of smaller goods. Hence there are circumstances in which utilitarianism can require slavery, the punishment of the innocent, and redistribution of resources from the poor to the rich, or from the disabled and the sick to the able bodied and healthy. Indeed, in the right circumstances, it can justify pretty much anything you think of. For all their intelligence and imagination neither Bentham nor Mill seemed to recognise or discuss these catastrophic possibilities. (shrink)
There can be no doubt that Brian Barry has made an enormous contribution to the clarification of the ideas of justice current in contemporary political thought. In Barry’s Justice as Impartiality he explicitly distinguishes and sets in competition three models of justice: justice as mutual advantage; justice as reciprocity; and justice as impartiality, and he argues that we should prefer the last of these. What I want to do here is to consider four questions. First, what is this competition a (...) competition about? Second, has Barry adequately characterised the contenders? Third, can the competition be won on the grounds Barry suggests? Fourth, is it a competition that we should want to be won by a single theory? By contrast I want to argue that there are advantages in retaining a pluralist perspective in which all three approaches remain in play. (shrink)
Is democracy a good thing? Most of us think so. And yet, as Jonathan Wolff here explains, Plato thought democracy was a very bad idea. If you favour democracy , then your challenge is to explain what, if anything, is wrong with Plato's argument. So can you?
Philosophical disagreement about justice ranges over at least two questions. The most immediate is a substantial question, concerning the conditions under which particular distributive arrangements can be said to be just or unjust. The second, deeper, question concerns the nature of justice itself. What is justice? Here we can distinguish three views. First, justice as mutual advantage sees justice as essentially a matter of the outcome of a bargain. There are times when two parties can both be better off by (...) making some sort of agreement. Justice, on this view, concerns the distribution of the benefits and burdens of the agreement. Second, justice as reciprocity takes a different approach, looking not at bargaining but at the idea of a fair return or just price, attempting to capture the idea of justice as equal exchange. Finally justice as impartiality sees justice as ‘taking the other person’s point of view’ asking ‘how would you like it if it happened to you?’ Each model has significantly different consequences for the question of when issues of justice arise and how they should be settled. It is interesting to consider whether any of these models of justice could regulate behaviour between non-human animals. (shrink)
The paper starts with brief biographical details of John Rawls’s life, and indications regarding the significance of his proposal. The most relevant part of the article is dedicated to the discussion of the concept of democracy as it is included in Rawls’s theory of Justice. Rawls tries to find a solution to the incompatibility of two different motivations for democracy: the instrumental and the intrinsic defence. It followsfrom Rawls’s proposal that the two defences need not necessarily to be incompatible. Participation (...) in public decision procedures helps citizens to improve their capacities. According to the author of the paper, the main criticisms of Rawls come not so much from doubts about the validity of these arguments, but from questioning the realism of his proposals. (shrink)