More moral policy vs. public policy

[Replying to a comment by Zev Berger.]

The distinction I drew in the last post wasn't based on a "liberatrian POV". My point was merely that one needs to keep straight when one is legislating moral policy and when public policy, not that moral legislating is always illegitimate. Too often this distinction is not made, and what is public policy is criticized on moral policy grounds, as in Dave West's letter. Advancing this distinction would allow legislators and voters to support public policies that do not accord with the morals they wish to promote (where they think it appropriate), as they recognize that trying to reduce overall harms through some public policy does not entail endorsing that policy as promoting a morally ideal state of affairs.

Perhaps my choice of words, 'moral policy' and 'public policy', is less than clear, but I intend only to distinguish between legislating that is an ab initio attempt to establish some morally ideal state of affairs — 'moral policy' — versus legislating that is an ex post facto attempt to extract the greatest good, or minimize the harm, from a situation that already obtains, or can be reasonably expected to obtain in future — 'public policy'. By calling one "moral" I did not intend to imply that the other does not involve moral or normative choices — public policy certainly does. I probably should have used the term 'moralistic policy' instead, pointing to its distinctive motivation to elevate a moral ideal.

I believe prohibitions on prostitution are of the moralistic type, and are tantamount to legislatively endorsed wishes that prostitution should not occur. The Economist's argument, with which I agree, is that prostitution does occur and its prohibition results in greater harms in practice than would legalization and consequently, adopting the public policy mode, that we ought to minimize those harms by legalizing. That is, of course, and empirical argument; if outlawing prostitution would promote the greater good than liberalization, then I would accordingly support prohibition.

The claim I am making here (which The Economist doesn't make, at least not explicitly) is that we ought to adopt a consequentialist methodology in determining which mode in which to legislate. On this methodology, the morally preferable public policy need not promote a morally ideal state of affairs, but merely a morally better state of affairs than alternative policies. Nonetheless, one might adopt some other method for deciding when moral policy or public policy is the appropriate mode. One concern might be that adopting a consequentialist approach to this question may demand a broader consequentialist approach in ethics in general. Furthermore, it is unclear to me how a thoroughgoing consequentialist would determine the morally ideal state of affairs presupposed by the moral policy mode.

Of course, one needn't accept this methodological approach along with the moral policy – pubic policy distinction, and it is the distinction I really want to urge, for I am convinced the notion that good public policy must be moral policy obstructs out ability to effectively consider all available policy alternatives.

Finally a word about zoning, since Zev brought it up: I am all in favor of it, but I don't think it is a potential moral issue (in the first instance) to which the distinction I'm suggesting applies; I find it difficult to understand what a "morally ideal zoning regulation" could even be. Certainly there might be important differences between ab initio and ex post facto zoning plans, but I don't believe that someone who endorses some zoning plan in an ex post facto situation (zoning reform in an already existing city) would experience any feeling of conflict that she is thereby endorsing that plan as ideal in an ab initio case (greenfield development). But this is precisely the sort of conflict experienced in moral cases like prostitution, which leads people to gloss over the distinction between moral policy and public policy. My claim is that we can distinguish between these two policy modes, and that it is helpful to do so. All I've done here is attempt to draw the distinction in a rough-and-ready way; perhaps I'll post a more refined version of the distinction and an argument to support it in principle at some point.


Moral policy vs. public policy

The Economist ran a leader, "Sex is their business", on 4 September arguing in favor of legalizing prostitution, and received the following response from Dave West of Greenwich, CT:
If you can find one person on the staff of The Economist who says it is fine for their daughter to become a prostitute, or one person in a healthy marriage who says it is okay for their spouse to have sex with a prostitute, then I will consider your arugument that it should be legalized.
This argument makes a basic but all too common error that bears pointing out again: failing to distinguish between legislation as moral policy and legislation as public policy. The question isn't whether prostitution is "fine" or "okay", but whether, should his daughter become a prostitute or his spouse seek sex for money, he would rather that occur with prostitution legalized or not. In objecting as he does, he simply misses the point of the leader: that we can hold moral objections to a practice, yet still try to minimize the harms that come through it. Much the same applies to the "war" on drugs.

In secular law we can choose whether we are adopting legislation on the basis of moral or public policy, but in religious law, at least in Jewish law, it is often unclear whether particular legal positions were advanced on moral or public policy grounds. While halacha is no longer conducted on a legislative model, we face confusion about when religious values are really at stake in some practice, or when it is only a pragmatic legal compromise which is not itself a direct statement of religious values, but represents a weighing of competing values, authorities, and traditions. This confusion can lead to lending legal compromises the glow of real values, and missing the values inherent in some practice mandated by religious law by viewing it as a mere compromise. Unfortunately, the present meagre state of our tradition does not often allow us to determine the matter; religious jews now distinguish themselves between those who insist on leaving these questions unanswered in the absence of the approbation of tradition, and those who believe (as I do) that we must forge new answers to these questions if our meagre tradition is to be one worth passing on.

Things you don't see in NY...

"Support our troops" yellow-ribbon stickers on cars. Riding up from Silver Spring to New York today I noticed them by the dozens. Living in New York, and not driving much at all, nor having a TV, I hadn't any idea of this phenomenon. I'm no New Yorker, but I can't pretend the environment that surrounds me doesn't shape my view of the world.


Use theories of meaning, primacy of assertive use, & the Frege-Geach problem

I've been meaning to post something substantial on this for a while, but with the holidays there just hasn't been much time, so here's the issue in brief:

For those unfamiliar with the Frege-Geach problem, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes it here. Although the discussion is centered on ethics, it is illustrative of the problem in general, which Geach put forward in his 1965 paper "Assertion" (Philosophical Review 17).

My concern is that a use theorist that takes assertive language usage as explanatorily basic for the meaning of terms may incorporate an assertive element of that use into the very meaning of the terms being explained. Horwich, as an example, maintains the primacy of assertive use in determining meanings:
The regularities of use that (I am suggesting) constitute the meanings of works concern the circumstances in which specified sentences are privately accepted (i.e. uttered assertively to oneself). (Meaning, p.94)
If my intuition here is correct, however, "assertion-infected" meanings will not yield a classic case of the Frege-Geach problem, for the meaning of the words will not vary between asserted and unasserted contexts. While Geach's objection is to terms whose meanings change when asserted, his larger point is that the content of propositions is independent of the logical operators: neither changing as operated on, nor incorporating an operator in their content non-compositionally. (We must not be deceived by the absence of an assertion operator in post-Fregean logic.) Our case differs from the classic objection to expressivism (detailed in the SEP entry linked to above) in that where the expressive predicate depends on the assertive use of a predicate token for its meaning, the use theorist makes the entire word type dependent on assertive use. Nonetheless, if the meanings of terms in unasserted contexts are assertion-infected, then the use theorist has failed to capture the meaning of our terms in those contexts. It would seem that, in order to capture the meaning of our words in unasserted contexts, the use theorist needs to ensure that giving primacy to assertive use as explanitorily basic for the derivation of meanings will not infect those meanings with the aspects of their use peculiar to assertive contexts. I'm not certain that Horwich does this.

Hopefully I'll have more (and better!) to say on this in time.


The red states and the blue states...

Ain't maps pretty?

They've now added an excellent assessment on the accuracy of polls, and have handy pictures to add to your site:
Click for www.electoral-vote.com

Time to Consider Iraq Withdrawal?

In light of events, the FT asks the critical question:
The aftermath of a war won so quickly has been so utterly bungled, moreover, that the US is down to the last vestiges of its always exiguous allied support, at the time when Iraq needs every bit of help it can get. The occupation has lost control of big swathes of the country. Having decided that all those who lived and worked in Iraq under Saddam Hussein bore some degree of collective guilt, Washington's viceroys purged the country's armed forces, civil service and institutions to a degree that broke the back of the state, marginalised internal political forces, sidelined many with the skills to rebuild Iraq's services and utilities and, of course, fuelled an insurgency US forces have yet to identify accurately, let alone get to grips with.
The core question to be addressed is this: is the continuing presence of US military forces in Iraq part of the solution or part of the problem?
While I'm not certain how to answer this question myself, the very fact that it is being asked under force of circumstance tells against the Bush administration's success as an occupying power. The moral legitimacy of going to war (assuming, of course, that war was legal at all) primarily depended, in my view, on all reasonable effort being expended to ensure that substantially better conditions obtained post-war than pre-. While I still believe the case for war was strong, I am now convinced that President Bush failed to meet his obligation at that time to plan in good faith for the post-war period, thereby rendering his ultimate decision to go to war morally illegitimate.

[I suspect Bush is turning me into more of a consequentialist than I otherwise would have been — may Kant forgive me!]

The FT answers their question thus:
Chaos [following withdrawal] is a great risk, and occupiers through the ages have pointed to that risk as their reason for staying put. But chaos is already here, and the power that is in large part responsible for it must start preparing now to step aside and let the Iraqis try to emerge from it.
I'm afraid they are right. When we have come to this point, how is it that polls indicate that more people favor Bush's ability to conduct the war on terror than Kerry's? To my mind his inability is manifest in Iraq and beyond.


As if their music wasn't disgusting enough...

"The Dave Matthews Band's reputation for being environmentally friendly (and perhaps a trifle bland) was soiled in early August. The Illinois attorney general's office filed a civil lawsuit against the band and the driver of its tour bus for violating state water-pollution and public-nuisance laws, charging that the bus emptied its septic tank while driving across a grated bridge over the Chicago River. At that moment, 120 people on Chicago's Little Lady architecture tour were passing in a boat beneath the bridge, and about 80 of them were drenched with 800 pounds of raw sewage. The band has not been directly implicated in the incident. Its members have offered to provide DNA evidence to help determine the source of the sewage. No criminal charges have yet been filed."
[Quoted from The Economist's Chicago Breifing]