a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Valuing Aims vs. Valuing Implementation, on wedding day organisation and assessing ‘impact’

There are many policies and courses of action that reflect good ideas, but are imperfectly or poorly implemented. On my wedding day, I was trying to make efficient use of time making final arrangements before the ceremony by talking to a friend about one task whilst walking backwards in the direction of my next task. As I finished the conversation, I turned forwards whilst maintaining my momentum and promptly walked into a door that I had not realised Wedding picwas behind me, leaving a clearly obvious cut down my forehead for day (see right). Alongside finding it hilarious, my partner did ask why I had not thought more carefully about where I was walking. While I accepted the criticism of that question, I retained that my attempts to work efficiently on that morning were to be commended. We continue to disagree on whether the merit of my aim outweighs the demerit of my execution.

The same tension arises elsewhere. In the current UK university climate, departments are assessed, amongst other things, on the extent to which their research has influence beyond the academic community. A few weeks ago David argued that there are good reasons for academics to think about how their work has political influence and I think these reasons offer some support for assessing research ‘impact’. However, many people criticise how this assessment is implemented. Questions have been raised whether it places too much weight on easily observable, short-term impact. Such criteria would be problematic if, for example, they would not identify, and would, thereby, discourage, the immense and sustained impact of Pythagoras Theorem because many of its impacts have developed from other disciplines using it in applied research many years later. If such criticisms have merit, we, again, face the question: how should we balance valuing a policy’s basic form against valuing (or disvaluing) some of its substance?

One answer to this question says that any judgement is a case specific calculation of the consequences: do the overall benefits of the good-idea-imperfect-implementation outweigh the overall negatives? Whilst such consideration seems obviously important, this answer strikes me as a little unsatisfactory. It is often hard to know the full costs and benefits of many policies, especially in terms of how they will unfold over time. Thus, I wish to pose two additional considerations that seem important.

First, I think there may be a more general instrumental reason to value ideas that have good form, even if not good substance. Typically, it is much harder to establish policies and institutions than it is to change them. (Lisa and I have made this point about the value of promoting human rights and labour standards through the EU’s existing Generalised System of Preferences Scheme even if it is an imperfect means of doing so.) Thus, establishing structures that have good form makes an important, arguably irreplaceable, contribution to placing us in a better position to realise just states of affairs, even if it does not achieve a perfect result in its first enactment.

Second, there is a sense in which the form of a policy is important for how it locates us in respect to moral values. We can think about the aims and implementation of policy in terms of how we think about ends and means. Various matters are important in considering what means should be adopted to pursue any end, but means do not have value independent of the ends they serve. In contrast, ends are direct stipulations or manifestations of value. Similarly, whilst it clearly does matter what methods are used to implement a policy, the value of any implementation tool depends on whether the aim it is meant to advance has value. In this respect, it is the aims that set the moral stake. Thus, getting the aims right also involves making a plausible normative claim and that seems to be something that has independent value, a value that even the correct specification of implementation tools does not hold.

Neither of these points is meant to say that aims are of sole or always overriding importance. Sometimes the terms of a policy are objectionable for other reasons or they are so poor that they raises doubts about whether the alleged aims of a policy are really present at all. The point I wish to suggest is merely that in forming a judgement about policies that involve good ideas, but poor implementation, we should give some greater weight to the former. I think that captures my feeling about ‘impact’ assessment. It is, at any rate, the argument I continue to make about last minute wedding day organisation!

Andrew Walton is Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy in the Politics Department at Newcastle University. His research centres on questions of economic ethics and justice in housing policy.



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  1. Tomer Perry

    That’s an excellent post and I like both of the reasons you provide. Two comments:

    1. Though I think you’re quite right about moral values, and I think the case of human rights which you mentioned earlier is a good example. Even if none of the implementation tools we have are very good, we should still pursue them because the goal of human rights sets the moral stakes. Nevertheless, this seems false to me: ” means do not have value independent of the ends they serve.” I can’t really think of a case where the means don’t have independent value because that would mean that means don’t mater. And of course, they matter greatly – and the goals also interact with means. If the means undermine your goal (so if you’re promoting the acceptance of a human right standard by undermining human rights, for example) you’re doing something wrong even if the benefits overall outweigh the costs. Any action has value and means are not excluded just because we do them to serve a goal.

    2. I agree with your general point but I think it could be taken even further. In general, I’m very suspicious of consequentialism because I’m a skeptic – I don’t think we can know enough about the consequences of most things in order to evaluate them using a consequentialist framework. One common response of consequentialists to this criticism is – we should just do the best we can with what tools we have. But I think that if the best we can is not good enough, we shouldn’t put so much emphasis on trying to predict consequences. Instead, we should just ‘do the right thing’ – which is not so far from your argument that pursuing a ‘good idea’ as a form, even when the substance doesn’t seem to quite work, is a worthwhile activity. To say the least, I argue – people would recognize that it’s a ‘good idea.’ in any social context, that recognition can, by itself, improve the consequences.

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Tomer. On your first point, I should clarify that I did not mean to say we cannot pass any moral judgement on means. As I mention in my last paragraph, they can be objectionable in various ways, such as violating procedural standards or if they have negative consequences that override or undermine our aims. I really meant to push the thought we locate value in the means derivatively (i.e., not independently) from ends – from whether the means secure, advance, or undermine some important procedural standard or state of affairs. Thus, in the terms of your comment, I disagree with the idea that if “means don’t have independent value”, it follows that the “means don’t matter”. I concur that the latter statement is false, but think it is consistent to hold that view while also thinking the former statement correct.

  2. Lisa Herzog

    Hi Andrew, thanks for this post. I agree with the broad line (especially after having read the clarification in your response to Tomer). What I find quite interesting is the underlying question about how knowledge and morality interact. One way in which they do is that we need to know enough about the consequences to apply consequentialist frameworks – but arguably also in order to apply deontic constraints or follow some other moral approach. Another way is the behavioral one: if we focus on getting certain things right, others easily slip off our radar; or they remain on our radar, but within a social system that is focussed on certain incentives, we feel we cannot afford to focus on them. This is a huge problem when trying to implement incentive structures, especially if the form of behavior or the value we care about is hard to measure, and incentives have to follow some proxies – then people will often start to simply follow the proxy. One example (which also relates to the REF) is the focus on publication numbers in academia, which has all kinds of distorting effects. It seems to me that at the bottom of things there are deep questions about control and autonomy and levels of trust in a society – if you could trust that most people, most of the time would do what they are supposed to do, you don’t have to start the whole measuring business in the first place. The danger is that in order to catch a few black sheep, you send a whole system down a path of increasing distortions through increasingly complex attempts to control it…

  3. Thanks for the thoughts, Lisa. One note here is that my thinking in the post was mainly about how to balance values. I had less in mind the further issue of whether it should direct how, if at all, these considerations should guide how we act. So, we could think that aims are normatively more important than implementation without thinking that people should focus their attention mostly on aims or that it is sensible to set people targets and incentives in the same fashion. But there seems something very important about these dangers you mention, particularly at the stage of deriving any implications for application and possibly also at a meta-level – for example, is how ideas will/maybe employed in action an important issue in how we answer more abstract questions about the location of value? I have not thought at length about these angles and appreciate the points you raise to consider here.

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