a blog about philosophy in public affairs

An Interview with Jonathan Wolff (Beyond the Ivory Tower Series)

This is the third interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series (previous interviewees: Onora O’Neill and Marc Stears). Back in December, Diana Popescu spoke to Jonathan Wolff about his experience working on public policy committees and what philosophers have to learn from engaging with real-life problems and social movements. 

Jonathan Wolff is the Alfred Landecker Professor of Values and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. Before coming to Oxford, he was Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Arts and Humanities at UCL. He is currently developing a new research programme on revitalising democracy and civil society. His work largely concerns equality, disadvantage, social justice and poverty, as well as applied topics such as public safety, disability, gambling, and the regulation of recreational drugsHe has been a member of the Nuffield Council of Bioethics, the Academy of Medical Science working party on Drug Futures, the Gambling Review Body, the Homicide Review Group, an external member of the Board of Science of the British Medical Association, and a Trustee of GambleAware. He writes a regular column on higher education for The Guardian

From Philosophy to Public Policy

Diana Popescu (DP): In your book Ethics and Public Policy: A Philosophical Inquiry, nearly every chapter is based on your experience working on public policy committees. What is the first thing philosophers have to change about their ideas, or their ways of presenting them, when putting on their public policy hat?

Jonathan Wolff (JW): The first thing philosophers have to do is learn to listen rather than talk. Many of us have grown up thinking we have this special capacity for thought, and some philosophers even think that they are personally the smartest person they’ve ever met and they have nothing to learn from anyone else. But the thing I’ve learned is that our talents are much more limited. It may be that things that go down well in philosophical circles don’t always go down so well outside. And people outside philosophy, if they’ve been working in a policy area, will have very nuanced views, very often philosophically sophisticated views. They might not be fantastic in expressing them, but they very often do have things to teach us even about philosophy. So that’s the first thing, be open.

DP: What is your greatest success, but also your worst failed attempt, in terms of introducing philosophical ideas into public policy? What’s your best and your worst?

JW: I’ve never pushed a philosophical view very hard. I’ve normally been on committees where I might be the only philosopher and the idea that using some philosophical authority is going to solve the problem is not worthwhile. The very first thing I did – this was almost the first day I got involved in anything public policy, on gambling – the chair of the committee said, ‘Let’s go around the table and ask who thinks that gambling is wrong?’ And I interrupted straightaway and said ‘Well, I think there is a prior question, which is whether we think that our views of whether gambling is right or wrong should influence our view on the policy of gambling.’ So that was a bit subtle, and people didn’t quite understand what I was doing. But I think I convinced them that we ought to be thinking in terms of harm, rather than right and wrong. It’s worthwhile thinking about what is harmful and what is beneficial, because then you can get a more consensual view. You can disagree about what’s harmful or even what harm consists in. But if someone’s saying they think gambling is wrong, that’s not going to take us very far. So that’s one thing, the distinction between something being wrong and something being harmful. It comes up over and over again, maybe too much. But that distinction is useful.

Where have I failed?  I suppose one thing that was quite important for me was when I was working on the ethics of animal experimentation. There was a real problem in the philosophical literature, because Peter Singer has an ‘all animals are equal’ point of view and if you follow that, we should ban everything, pretty much. And that wasn’t going to work. And at that time, Peter Carruthers was the person who had written at the other extreme arguing we have no moral obligations to restrain us from harming animals, a type of ‘anything goes’ view. So you have these two very extreme views, nothing goes and anything goes.

Of course, in real public policy the debate is all in the middle: where the regulations are now and how we should move. I don’t remember the details now, but I went away thinking we need a framework for thinking about these views. I wrote a three or four page paper. It was a first pass but I told them, ‘I’ve got it sorted out now. I’ve got the ethical framework we need for our report’. I was part of a subgroup of the committee and the other people on the sub-committee were fairly lukewarm and one said: ‘Well that’s a good start’. And I thought I’d more or less finished. I felt that I’d got this sorted out, it just needed a bit of tidying. Because I was the philosopher and this was about ethics, I thought that they would just subcontract the ethics to me. But they were right. They didn’t take anything on authority, just as we tell our students not to take anything on authority either. So that is when I realized everything has to be much more pragmatic and contextual, rather than thinking if you have a good framework people were just going to adopt it.

DP:  Do you think philosophers have generally a good track record of being involved in public life – through public policy or other means?

JW: I think there are some very good examples. The work that Mary Warnock did I think is quite excellent; Onora O’Neill’s contributions through the House of Lords have always been very influential. But I think it’s a matter of people having the right type of judgements, and knowing when they need to argue like a philosopher and when they need to argue in different ways. And the thing about Mary Warnock is that she was very experienced, she’d been a Headmistress of a school. She wasn’t known for a particular philosophical view. And she says somewhere in her memoirs that public policy work is a type of work that was perfect for her, that she was someone who really enjoyed thinking but didn’t feel that she had a lot of her own original ideas. But if you have the talent you could try to map out something.  Warnock made recommendations about embryo experiments, for example, how many days old could a foetus be and still be permitted to experiment on it? I can’t remember exactly how, but they came up with something like 9 days. I remember her talking on the radio and she was asked why 9 days. Of course there’s no answer to why exactly that number of days; you have to pluck something out the air. But she was so good that she made it sound like 9 days was the only legitimate answer. So she had – and Onora O’Neill also has it – that ability to convince people in public.

DP: In your book you mention the importance of seeking agreement, which we don’t do in philosophy. Rather, our incentive structure is to seek disagreement, whereas when you do committee work, everyone writes a report at the end, so there has to be a common view. Do you think having philosophers concede ground to common sense or to what is feasible risks losing a bit of what makes philosophy distinctive and gives it its radicalism?

JW: Most of the work I’ve done in public policy is committee work. There, if you’re not going to compromise, you’re silenced. But committees do read philosophical work. On the animal experimentation committee we were all reading Singer’s work and it shifted, I think, what people thought was acceptable. Singer wasn’t looking for agreements by means of compromise, and neither were other people writing in the Sunday newspapers exposing the terrible experiments going on. These campaigners and journalists changed the terms of the debate. I talked to experimental scientists who were at the end of their career. They said they remembered a time when they would treat animals in the lab animals like pieces of meat, throwing live animals around, paying no attention to their suffering. Then Singer’s work shifted the way they thought, even though they were never going to shut down the lab. It made them change their mind over what counts as acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

So this is really important, for it shows that there is a long term role for philosophers. I think this work can be even more important than committee work, because anyone can do committee work, but few can change the terms of the debate. There are opportunities to change the status quo, the set of rules and policies, even a little bit. Usually not much, but something. Every now and again, there is a big change, big change is possible. Sometimes policy is out of joint with public opinion, and I think philosophers can shift public opinion. So if someone’s writing like Singer has done, and I’m sure there are others – I mean, Nozick’s sadly made a change in public opinion as well – this, I think, filters into public debate and consciousness over time. But there’s a 20-year gestation period.

From Public Policy to Philosophy

DP:  What does it mean to start from public policy and do philosophical work? Has your own work in philosophy been directed by working in public policy or is it more vice versa?

JW:  One example for me is disability, though I’ve never been on government committees on disability. So this has been academic work. But what happened with me in thinking about disability is that like many people I was a bit appalled that Rawls said so little about disability. Then Dworkin came along with his theory of equality of resources which incorporates the hypothetical insurance scheme to address disability. I thought Dworkin’s theory was pretty good. And I was at an interdisciplinary conference, explaining Dworkin’s development of his view following Kymlicka’s lead in presenting Dworkin as mainly a criticism of Rawls. There was a disability studies person in the room and after hearing me he said, ‘This is a terribly reactionary view that Dworkin’s put forward’. And I was shocked because I thought this was cutting edge egalitarian political philosophy, the best we’ve got. I’m being told that it was a reactionary view. And the person explained a little bit about the disability studies literature and I thought, ‘Ok, I’d better take a look at this’.

So I started reading disability studies. And I realised it had no connection with anything we were doing in political philosophy. But – and this goes back to an earlier theme – it was philosophically much more sophisticated than anything I had read in philosophy. And what I realised at that point is that in political philosophy what we’ve been doing or still do mostly – it’s changed a bit now – is think if we can identify an injustice then the remedy for that injustice is moving resources around; in other words, providing compensation. So you find an injustice, and then you move to the issue of compensation. Consider the question of whether loneliness is a matter for of justice. Some say it isn’t because if it was this means that you should tax people with lots of friends and give the money to lonely people. Well, no, we shouldn’t do that; what we should do is redesign the urban environment so people meet each other, have subsidized evening classes, try to design loneliness out of our cities rather than thinking it is not a matter of injustice because compensation would be a bad policy.

Thinking about disability made me realise that we’ve been very, very narrow in philosophy in our thinking about remedies for injustice, which I later on called ‘addressing disadvantage’. It is true that remedies often involve tax. But there are many different things to do with the money once you have it. And on this alternative model of disability, what you do is to try to design disability out of the world rather than give people with disabilities more money. If this can be done it means you don’t have to identify people who would benefit from the social policy, so it’s non-stigmatising, and much more inclusive.

All of those are philosophical arguments and ideas, but none of them were in the philosophy I was reading at the time. True, the inspiration is there if you look for it, in writers like Iris Marion Young. But often these ideas are there but they’re not really given as much weight as they should be. For example, in disability studies, the social model of disability is more or less the default position. You try to do as much as you can through changing structures and the environment and then you find individual remedies if you can’t make structural changes. In political philosophy, it’s almost the other way around: starting with individual remedies. So I think it’s fair to say I changed my way of doing political philosophy because of the encounter with disability studies.

DP: At the end of your book, you start from Marx’s saying ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point, however, is to change it’, but argue the task for philosophers if they want to change the world is that first they must interpret it in the right way. Do you think we would have better philosophy if there would be more engagement with public policy?

JW: Philosophers do need to engage with things outside philosophy. Is public policy the right area? Public policy often is very narrow. For the most part, the ends are set and things are quite technical. The areas of public policy I’ve worked on have been relatively uncontroversial compared to other things going on in the world. Iris Marion Young points out the importance of engaging with real social movements. And I agree that it is important. Now there’s a quote I attribute to Bentham (though people who know about Bentham say it isn’t from him) that only the shoemaker can make the shoe, but only the customer knows where the shoe pinches. And I think that social activists know where the shoe pinches.

In my case I’ve lived most of my adult life in southeast London, which has been very beneficial for meeting people with different lives to those I experience at a university. It hadn’t occurred to me, for example, how many people simply could not survive just on their welfare benefits. Some people take cash-in-hand work, which technically makes them benefit cheats, and means they are liable to arrest, making their health worse, and in the worst cases if imprisoned their kids could be put in care. And why are they doing this?  Because otherwise they can’t feed or clothe their kids properly. That’s why they do it. There are probably hundreds of thousands of people who are trapped in these horrible social situations, and they can’t even protest about it because then they would be admitting that they are breaking the law.

So I think more understanding of empirical reality is important. I’m sure I don’t always do it well enough myself, but I despair when philosophers illustrate injustice with examples of six people on a desert island. If you think there’s injustice everywhere, why do you need to make up examples? Why don’t you look around to find examples of injustice? Because then you’ll probably see your model doesn’t work and you need to bring in other factors.

Beyond the Ivory Tower: Engaged Philosophy

DP: On that note, I wanted to ask you about the distinction between engaged philosophy and applied philosophy. Should we prefer one over the other?

JW: By ‘applied philosophy’ I mean where we start with a developed philosophical theory and then use it to derive consequences for the real world. R.M. Hare was a great example, thinking he could use utilitarian reasoning to solve every problem that life and public policy can throw at us. Peter Singer to some degree does the same thing. If you are an applied philosopher then, in a sense, you already know the answer before you know the question, because you’ve already got the theory. And I think there are lots of problems with that. It’s very dogmatic, people have got to share your assumptions and it won’t necessarily match the world. Remember Dworkin and disability studies. Your concepts might not necessarily be appropriate for the problem you want to deal with.

But I think what we actually do is what I call ‘engaged philosophy’. Instead of starting from a theory we start with a problem and try to understand what the dilemmas are and what values are engaged, and we build up from there. This is very common, but less commonly described. All I’ve done is put a name on it, and laid it out more systematically. Unfortunately the name I chose doesn’t work so well in some countries because engaged can mean politically engaged, whereas I made it empirically engaged. I have laid out a type of methodology, which I’ve probably never followed explicitly step-by-step, though I do tend to go through all the steps one way or another.

First of all, I try to understand the problem in all its details. What are people actually worrying about now? And then lay out with a philosophical reconstruction to get to the heart of the issues. Often you need to understand common law and  regulations, and the history of how policy was formulated. So, for example, when I worked on the regulation of gambling it was very interesting because some people said we should ban gambling. Well, okay, that was close to where we were in the 1950s, and that didn’t work. It is because a ban didn’t work that regulation was introduced.

It is vital to know why we are where we are. It’s very, very common, for people to forget this. I see it all the time, people think they’re the first person to come up with an idea, particularly philosophers. ‘Why don’t we do it like this?’ But sometimes that was how we did it 15 years ago and it didn’t work and we’ve done something else which doesn’t work so well either. So quite often you get these so-called “policy cycles” where society moves backwards and forwards between two or three different policy options and nothing ever is settled. You see it in disability education, for example, where many countries oscillate between mainstreaming disabled kids in schools and creating separate schools. Whatever we have, the disadvantages are more apparent than the advantages. So we go back and forth, and nothing works as well as we want it to.

With engaged philosophy, you start with a problem, understand the codes and regulations, understand the history, and look to see what other countries do, because most countries have got the same problems. For example, the US healthcare debate was very narrow because many only really looked at Canada and the UK for comparison; whereas if they’d looked to Germany and Switzerland and their insurance systems, which may be more appropriate models for the US, they may have been able to come up better reforms. So look at a range of international comparisons. Also use your imagination to come up with new policy options, to expand the policy space. And then, finally, you may be able to find some philosophical arguments that support some options more than others, alongside the empirical evidence.

So that’s the engaged mode, and philosophy is just input into a complex process. Rather different that saying: ‘Okay, we’ve got the philosophical theory, we’re going to show you what you need to do’.

DP: What advice would you give to other philosophers trying to give back to public policy? Besides doing engaged philosophy?

JW: Well, first of all, learn a lot about the field that you’re going to work on. Other fields move and change very rapidly. I see people, for example, who work on global health, referring to papers that are 25 years old. That’s ok in philosophy, but you can’t do that in other disciplines, so you really need to keep up-to-date. And you need to understand that other fields are just as controversial as philosophy. You can’t just read one paper and think you’ve got the insight; it’s the same as someone just picking up a copy of the Journal of Philosophy thinking they now know the truth about externalism. And the thing to do is not trust your own research and think that you can somehow Google everything or go to the library and sort it out. You should find an expert and talk to them. And it’s not something we’re very good at, just listening to other people in other fields.

When you get the right experts, and spend an afternoon with them, that is probably better than months of being by yourself doing research. Get out of the office to talk to other people, go to other people’s conferences, not just in your own field. Listen a lot and think ‘is there anything I can do to help?’ rather than assuming you can swoop in and solve everything.

Here’s an anecdote of how it goes wrong. A philosopher I knew had moved to a new research area, and I’d never of heard anyone working on the problem they were interested in, so I was quite excited that they were producing some papers. And then I went to a conference and by coincidence I met someone from an NGO, which had been working on the same problem for 20 years. It turns out there’s a big international community already working on the problem, but philosophers haven’t been aware. So when I next saw the philosopher I said to them, ‘Oh I’ve just met this NGO, etc’. And they said, ‘Great, I should meet them, maybe I can get them interested in my ideas’. But of course that’s not the direction of influence I was thinking of. Rather: How can I learn from them? You should think ‘maybe they can help with a distinction or an argument’, rather that thinking ‘how could I use this to advance my career?’, which is what the person wanted to do. It is, of course, understandable because careers need to be advanced. But if you’re interested in the social problem because you want to make a career out of it, that feels to me like the wrong motivation.

Diana Popescu

Diana is an Assistant Professor in Political Theory in the School of Politics and International Relations. She joined the University of Nottingham in 2023, having previously worked at the University of Edinburgh, King’s College London, the University of Oxford, and the London School of Economics. Diana received her PhD in Government from the London School of Economics in 2018, and also holds a Post-Graduate Certificate in Higher Education from the London School of Economics. She co-edits the Beyond the Ivory Tower series for the Justice Everywhere blog, which publishes interviews with political thinkers who have made an impact on public matters through their work.



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  1. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Thanks for this! A very interesting interview again!

    So the method of “engaged philosophy” is developed in that book Ethics and Public Policy?

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