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Is there a moral argument for evidence based policy making?


I am reading Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy. Sandel is a political philosopher who teaches at Harvard. His book (http://amzn.to/MYktlH ) is about the danger associated to the expansion of market economy into areas of society which should not be monetized. Here some examples: access to car pool lanes while driving solo at USD 8, a prison cell upgrade at USD 82 per night, stand in line at Capitol Hill to hold a place for lobbyist who wants to attend a congressional hearing at USD 15 per hour, USD 2 to read a book in a primary school in Dallas, etc.

While there are things that should not be for sale, we are drifting, writes Sandel, from having a market economy to becoming a market society. But, what does it mean to be a market society? For Sandel a market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. A place where human relations are made over in the image of the market. Is this dangerous and how to respond to this drift, asks Sandel. Sandel response is to use moral reasoning to counter market reasoning.

He defines morality as ‘the way we would like things to work, and economics how things actually work’. Markets and economics are by definition non-judgmental, they do not judge individual preferences; they do not traffic in morality. Moral reasoning can however help bringing market economy back to where it belongs, a valuable and effective tools to organize productive activities.

While reading Sandel’s book I have been thinking whether we can apply a moral argument or moral reasoning to evidence-based policy making. If we take the definition given above (morality as the way we would like things to work) and assume that research evidence and research knowledge lead to better informed decision which are translated into better informed policies which can result in better well being and improved livelihood, can’t we therefore conclude that there is a moral argument in favor of the use of research evidence and knowledge in policy making? Isn’t therefore a moral argument that can be posed to policy makers who do not make use or ignore of evidence? How does this related to the freedom of choosing to use or not use research evidence?

I have been searching for the difference between ethics and morality, as I am not clear about the real difference between the two. I am unsure whether, when I try to find a moral argument for evidence based policy making, I actually speak of ethics of policy making. I found these definitions on a web site: ‘ethics define the code that a society or group of people adhere to while morality delves into right and wrong at a much deeper level, which is both personal and spiritual. The ethics that a person adheres too are impacted upon by external factors like the nation, society, peer group, religion and profession, and could change with a change in any of these influencing factors.

What I take from this is that morality is much deeper rooted that ethics and that it cannot be easily change when changes in the factors that influence ethics occur. Maybe there is where I am tying to go while exploring the moral arguments to support evidence-based policy.

There is a very interesting podcast from the LSE with a discussion with Michael Sandel: http://bit.ly/QzPJlT

Another interesting book that touches on similar arguments than the book by Sandel is How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, by Robert Skidelsky who is known for his biography of Keynes (http://amzn.to/QzPXcO). Here his podcast (http://bit.ly/QzQA6g).

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