The Fate of Society Lies in Evidence Based Ethics

As we crawl toward the next UK general election, planned for 7th May 2015, we are already starting to see the focus in British politics turn toward party lines. Coalition differences are becoming more public and opposition arguments are becoming ever more hostile.

Most of us are not so enthralled with the political points scoring though, and the opinion that ‘it doesn’t matter who gets in’ seems more widespread every year. But we shouldn’t chalk this up to personal apathy or disillusionment with society. The truth is that the entire system is set up to fail to do what it is meant to: organise and run society in the best way possible.

On a very basic level, it’s easy to see the flaw. There is no guiding principle of rationality by which politicians make their decisions: when discussing immigration or economics, for example, the focus isn’t on discovering the evidence which points to the best decisions. Rather the focus is on doing whatever will work well enough in the short term to make the voters happy enough to give you another term in power. The discussions, therefore, do not end with a logical summation of the points and relevance to reality, they end with points scoring and jibes (and the occasional media friendly pose).

This may be a very basic observation – that the system of party politics and proportional representation that we use is an inappropriate method for actually accomplishing what it is meant to – but it is perhaps the most sensible analytical statement to make about UK politics.

On a much deeper level, though, we can question whether we even could put in place a better form of politics given our current belief systems. This is because politics relies heavily on morality. In UK party politics, for instance, each group has a set of ideologies which themselves often oppose one another’s policies. As a matter of more theoretical political philosophy, politics is meant to be a way of guiding/running society, and so this is obviously contentious if we all have different moral outlooks which we want to see served. We have no set aim, so what do we judge our decisions in relation to? Consider it to be like a business unsure of what exactly it wants to sell, being pulled in three different directions by three different directors.

This gives us a problem. No matter how well we evaluate the evidence on any given political issue, our initial moral values are not open for evaluation, so we can not form evidence based conclusions. This is easier to understand through an analogy. Say two of us stand in a field and watch a group of sheep wander past. We both see the sheep, we both know what sheep are, but because we were bought up in different cultures we have different words for referring to a group of sheep; I call it a flock whilst you call it a drove. Depending on our upbringing, either of us could be correct. We probably both are.

Of course politics is about much more important issues than the names for a group of sheep, but the overall problem is the same. Whereas you and I might find our differences in naming a collective of woolly animals to be amusing, when we are talking about finding shelter for the homeless, or refugees of a foreign dictatorship, that amusement disappears. Someone who believes the homeless are poor because God is punishing them is always going to disagree with someone who believes that we should help those who have fallen on hard times. Similarly a conservative nationalist will often disagree with a liberal humanitarian on the subject of refugees.

This brings us to a vital realisation; not just for British politics, but for government around the world. Whilst we hold moral values to be exempt from the world of evaluation and evidence, we can’t properly take advantage of rational discourse. We can’t know what to do with all this science, experience and information which we have at our finger tips unless we know what we should be aiming for. Imagine a footballer being taught to play football without ever learning the rules, or the aim of the game. It is frankly odd that we got so far into human civilisation without anyone suggesting that we must find a way to evaluate our values themselves.

Once we have a way of evaluating values by their reference to morality, we also have a way of using the combined knowledge of generations of human life on Earth to improve society. This would be a great improvement on a three party system of politics which, in 2013, largely produces nothing but stagnation and well organised bickering. We must do our best to make our political views and opinions informed by evidence rather than our own preferences, but arguably first we must evaluate our moral opinions by relation to reality.

If, like me, you come to a conclusion prior to the next election that it is largely unimportant who wins, simply ask yourself ‘what am I doing about it?’ It’s becoming clear that if politics is to start working, real change begins with us deciding how to make our values reliant on evidence.