The title principle seems obvious enough. Which makes it all the more puzzling that most normative political theorists ignore it in practice. Why is this? What are the implications?
Let me elaborate. Consider the global poverty literature. Two classes of prescriptions are made here. Examples from the first class — call them “general prescriptions”, for lack of imagination — include:
While I think diagnosis of a sort precede these sorts of prescriptions, this might be more controversial then the principle I had in mind when I wrote the title to this post. Anyway, these aren’t the sorts of prescriptions referred to in the title.
Call the second class of prescriptions “specific prescriptions” (again, for lack of imagination). Examples include:
It’s this second class of prescriptions that I’m interested in. It’s this second class of prescriptions that must be preceded by diagnosis.
Diagnosis is the practice of explaining an outcome by identifying the causal process generating it. The sort of diagnosis with which many of us are most familiar is medical diagnosis. The aim of medical diagnosis is to identify the causal process producing the medical abnormality. Most obviously, this requires finding a causal process that can explain the medical symptoms. But (as any dutiful viewer of House will know), the symptoms aren’t the only relevant data points. The symptoms that are absent can be just as informative as the symptoms that are present. The point is this: medical diagnosticians seeks to identify the causal process generating the data so that they can identify the places in the causal chain where intervention is most likely to be effective, as well as identify the intervention possibilities most likely to be successful.
Similarly, one would think that identifying the causal process generating problematic social outcomes we observe — like global poverty — would be a key step in the task of proposing intervention. Once we’ve identified our general duties — suppose we have an obligation to alleviate global poverty — it would be helpful to know what causes global poverty so that we can figure out how to most effectively discharge our general duties. Indeed, the point seems obvious and is likely obvious to most political philosophers. Yet, the practice of political philosophers shows, at worst, a startling disregard for the importance of the diagnostic task, at best, a naïveté about what is required of a diagnosis.
To avoid making this too long, I’ll give an example of each sort of flaw and say a few things about what is required of a diagnosis. The examples:
Peter Singer has, for nearly 40 years, been a prominent advocate of charitable donations to NGOs. Specifically, he recommends that residents of affluent countries give a modest percentage of their income to aid organizations according to a sliding scale based on income. (See ch. 10 of Singer 2009 for details.) This prescription is motivated by Singer’s oft-cited “drowning child” thought experiment: You’re on your way to an important meeting wearing a nice suit and shoes; you see a child drowning in a shallow pond; the child’s life is vastly more important than your suit and shoes; you ought to wade into the pond and save the child.
A key feature of Singer’s motivating thought experiment is the absence of background context. Most importantly, we don’t know how the child came to be drowning in the pond in the first place. Such information might be unnecessary when determining whether we should wade into the pond to pull out the child because it doesn’t matter how the child got there; it’s immediately obvious that the way to save the child is to pull her out of the pond. But global poverty is not nearly so easy to figure out. And this is where the analogy to the drowning child breaks down. The drowning child scenario is an emergency; most cases of global poverty are chronic. Emergencies are relatively easy to solve: if possible, remove the immediate threat. Chronic cases are much more difficult to solve. They’re like weeds in a garden: to prevent them from coming back, we need to pull them out by the roots. Thus, if we are to figure out how to prevent global poverty, it matters how people became impoverished. Singer’s failure to recognize this means he is effectively shooting first and aiming later (if at all) with his prescriptions. Sure, some might hit, but this seems a terribly ineffective way of treating an illness.
Leif Wenar (2008) proposes that we alleviate global poverty by enforcing international property rules. Affluent countries should cease importing resources (such as oil and mining products) from corrupt and authoritarian rulers (who have no legal right to sell these resources without their constituents’ consent), place tariffs on imports from countries who purchase resources from such states (as, e.g., China does from Sudan), and place the revenue generated by the tariffs in a “Clean Hands” trust fund, whose contents are to be returned to the citizens of states like Sudan once they establish a democratic government. Wenar’s proposal is based on the following diagnosis of global poverty. Social scientists have noted a correlation between natural resource abundance and negative development outcomes (the so-called “resource curse”). This correlation seems to be explained by three “causal pathways”: authoritarianism, increased civil war incidence, and low economic growth rates. Each of these are statistically correlated with both resource abundance and negative development outcomes. Thus, according to Wenar, if we can break the connection between resource abundance on the one hand and authoritarianism, civil war, and low growth on the other, we should be able to break the connection between resource abundance and negative development outcomes. Resource income can then be invested in development and poverty will be overcome in resource abundant countries, which is where a significant percentage of the global poor reside.
Wenar should be praised for doing his social science homework. But identifying a series of correlations doesn’t amount to an adequate diagnosis. The correlations identified by Wenar aren’t “causal pathways”, so they don’t explain the resource curse. They are simply additional correlations that themselves require explanation. An adequate diagnosis would explain the data; it would identify the causal process that connects resource abundance with authoritarianism, civil war, low growth, and poverty. Wenar’s diagnosis is akin to delineating which symptoms are correlated with which diseases. This can be useful if these correlations lead to further insight about the operative causal processes. The correlations identified by Wenar give only limited such insight. But without this further insight, we’re left treating symptoms.
I’ve already hinted at what I think counts as an adequate diagnosis. Before we make specific prescriptions about how to best discharge our general duties, we need to identify the causal processes generating the outcomes we seek to address. There are some things to be said here about appropriate engagement with and application of social scientific research, but we can leave further discussion of the details to the comments thread.
Two further things we can take up in comments:
First, why do normative theorists neglect the diagnostic task? My guess is that is has something to do with an appeal to some notion of the “appropriate division of labour”, where diagnosis is farmed out to social scientists. I think this is untenable, but we can talk about it.
Second, what are the implications for philosophers’ proposals of neglecting the diagnostic task? I think it puts us in the position of a blindfolded archer: a desire to shoot but no idea where to aim. Unfortunately, our blindfolds haven’t prevented us from shooting. Not surprisingly, this dramatically reduces the chances of making effective prescriptions.