In the COVID 19 pandemic the medical experts gave what they viewed as valid advice to the public on epidemiological grounds, but politicians pronounced on public policy in the light of what they thought would be acceptable to the public. Each felt that they were justified in what they were saying and doing, even though it led to conflicting and confusing signals to the public.
The handling of COVID illustrates how we seem to need some kind of generally applicable discourse, or one authoritative institution, for arriving at public policies that will avoid confusion around what is ‘valid’ or ‘acceptable’ or ‘justified’. This blog looks at the sources of the confusion and the search for a more unified approach.
Ordinary usage suggests that the different terms of ‘acceptability’, ‘justification’ and ‘validation’ stand in a ‘step’ relationship. Acceptability refers to an opinion, justification calls for the reasoning (if any) behind that opinion to be made open, while validation refers to how far that reasoning is appropriate, good or bad.
Which of the terms is fitting depends on the context. The problem in political science arises because a recognition of different criteria and contexts for what is acceptable, justified and valid, leads to a fragmentation of both public discourse and public institutions and to the kind of confusion we have seen. In turn, the fragmentation motivates a desire to restore some kind of unity. Political theory offers two unifying pathways. One relies on institutional authority. The other rests on the idea that there exists a special kind of discourse pertaining to public debate.
In the context of public policies, ‘acceptability’ is a ‘bucket’ test since anything can go into making judgements about whether or not a policy is ‘acceptable’ to the public. The term does not distinguish between the reasons behind what makes a policy acceptable to public opinion, or whether or not the reasons are good reasons. It is simply a judgment about the state of opinion.
In most cases the judgement about what is acceptable is exercised by elected representatives rather than by the electorate directly in a referendum. They may take into account the assessments of experts in the relevant field, or simply take a position on what they think the electorate wants, or on what they think the electorate is likely to pay attention and conform to. They may form a view according to the party platform they have run on, or some wider notion of ‘the public good’, or on the basis of what serves the interests they represent. They make judgement calls that will likely include a range of considerations outside the professional expertise of say a professional public health expert, or an economist, and make political judgements that could even go against the advice of experts.
Justification goes beyond the reporting of an opinion denoted by ‘acceptance’ because it calls into play the reasons behind acceptance. In relation to public policies, the need to give reasons is principally a normative concept. It places a value on reason-giving as a platform for further discussion and debate and as a basis for public understanding of a policy.
In certain professional contexts, the need for reasons is also a normative concept. For example, in order to give our informed consent to a proposed treatment in a medical setting, we may assert a right to hear the doctor’s reasons for the proposed treatment. However, in the settings of the social and natural sciences, to be able to give reasons is about the production of claims about knowledge. It is not optional. It is a necessary procedural step in order to justify claims and findings.
Validation goes yet a step further than calling for reasons. It introduces the idea that some reasons are good and some bad. Furthermore, what is to be counted as good or bad is not simply a matter of personal opinion. It involves the view that there are criteria for judging whether or not the reasoning is good or sufficient or appropriate.
In the case of the natural or social sciences these criteria are ‘epistemic’ or knowledge based. When we call on an epidemiologist to give advice in a pandemic, we expect the advice to be based on reasoning that is valid scientifically and that reflects the view of the public health professionals. When we call on an economist to give their view on the effects on the economy of following the advice of the epidemiologist, the job of the economist is to provide us with a view of the economic consequences that is valid according to the professional standards and understandings of economics.
In democracies, in the context of public policy, validation is connected to the importance of consent. It places a value on the opinion of the electorate in itself. The state of public opinion constitutes a criterion for validation regardless of the many varied reasons driving public opinion. By contrast, in the natural and social sciences a favourable opinion among a majority is not a criterion for validation. The majority can be wrong.
The distinctive connotations and the different contexts for the use of terms such as acceptable, justification and validation seem to lead to an inevitable fragmentation of discourse around public policies of the sort we have seen in the COVID pandemic. Moreover, it is a general problem not unique to a public health crisis. There is a well-known narrative around the formation of professions and their fields of expertise which documents their tendency to divide and to sub-divide in ways that reflect the specialisation of knowledge and what constitutes appropriate professional practices, standards and reasoning in a field. What counts as appropriate or valid reasoning follows these professional divides and is largely decided by them. The same differentiated approach to specialised knowledge shows up in the institutions of government in the formation of specialised agencies.
We not only have different types of reason-giving and different standards of validation. The reasoning may run in opposite directions in terms of public policy. Thus, in the case of COVID 19, epidemiologists were giving valid warnings about the adverse health risks of contagion; at the same time economists were giving valid warnings about the adverse economic consequences of lockdowns. What confuses us even further is that professionals within the same discipline often disagree, even though each may claim their advice is based on reasoning that is valid within their profession. Moreover, their views may come with probabilities and uncertainties attached while we may hope for a simple unqualified professional ‘answer’. In the law, the testimony of legal ‘experts’ is often seen as no more than the views of ‘hacks for hire’.
In the light of this fragmentation of expertise and confusion around validating public policies it is enormously tempting to look for some way of bringing it all together and to get rid of the mixed messages. There are two potential avenues: a unifying public discourse or some overarching institutional authority.
The idea that there is some kind of common discourse that applies to political discourse is associated with concepts of ‘deliberative’ democracy. According to this approach, when citizens are brought together in a public political forum, they will be able to reach a ‘reflective equilibrium’ after they have listened to everybody’s reasons. Unfortunately, the models exclude many kinds of dispute. Moreover, there is much empirical research that suggests that we listen and attend to those with whom we agree, and not those with whom we have differences. The social media appear to amplify these shortcomings.
Another way to unify public discourse relies on statements of fundamental rights that are allegedly beyond challenge because they are said to be part of what makes us human. Unfortunately, there are few rights that can claim an undisputed status and many statements of rights make claims on others that provide the daily meat and content of normal political contest and dispute. In the case of COVID, claims about rights added to the confusion because they were used as reasons to resist the ‘command and control’ measures introduced by governments such as the wearing of face masks.
The alternative to a unifying discourse based on either an ideal of deliberation or a peremptory world of rights is to look for a unifying institutional authority.
Unifying institutional canopies
The fragmentation of discourse is not a new problem. There is a rather ancient prototype for an overarching institutional arrangement for reaching agreement in the law in the form of the jury system. Under the jury system, 12 ordinary citizens are expected to arrive at a consensus, or a majority view, based on the diversity of evidence they hear, including from experts. What they achieve is not necessarily to arrive at the ‘truth’ of the matter. They bring their own prejudices and biases to cases and may disregard expert testimony. But what they achieve is an institutional procedure for arriving at a decision that appears to be justified, valid and that is subsequently acceptable to public opinion in a way that relying on expert testimony or a judge is not. What this prototype also illustrates is the importance of decision rules – the jury verdict is valid not only because it represents the verdict of ordinary citizens, but because it also gains a consensus or majority among the jury members.
In the case of democratic politics, the institution often pointed to in order to unify the many different considerations that go into public policy is a freely elected legislature. Electoral politics plays a crucial role for democracies in navigating through differences around social values.
There are three important qualifications to the idea that elected legislatures can claim pre-eminence in unifying public discourse. The first, is that constitutions built around the separation of powers recognize that each branch of government has its own authority and unique role and that it is the system as a whole and the balance between component parts that is authoritative rather than any one particular part. In practice, expert bodies in the public sector from central bankers, to medicines agencies, have their own authority and are together now often regarded as forming a separate and necessary branch of government.
The second qualification relates to the role of legislatures. They have a role in policy making but they also hold the executive to account. In Westminster style democracies this depends on providing a vigorous opposition. The role includes one of highlighting differences over policies rather than providing a unifying rationale.
The third qualification relates to decision rules. As in juries, differences of view in legislative forums are settled by the decision rules governing the assembly as a whole and its committees. In democracies, appropriate decision rules, electoral as well as parliamentary, are needed in order for an act to be authoritative.
A false ideal
Public policy around the handling of COVID has been confused and confusing. Nevertheless, it is not clear that the idea of a unifying discourse or one pre-eminent institutional forum is a desirable ideal. Rather, we need to respect different kinds of reasoning. We live in a world where it is reasonable and justified for sets of experts in different fields, or even in the same field, to give different policy advice based on their own professional understandings while politicians may give yet a different answer according to their own standards, including disregarding the advice of professionals and experts. Each may be acting in a way that is justified and valid according to the standards that apply to them. Within the electorate we need debate and contestation about what policies are appropriate. We rely on decision rules to bring the debates to an end. Trump gets fired.
Amidst the confusion, we learn from a world that protects different types of rationality and different standards for judging in different contexts what is acceptable, justified and valid.