‘The tax schemes we have, health priorities, and immigration policies are extremely influential on people’s lives’, Cathrine Holst says.  

The Professor of Sociology argues that we should pay much more attention to what concerns are involved when social scientists make assessments on what policies are good or not.

‘These may sound like very abstract issues, but to me they are linked to the most urgent ones’, she says, and mentions the Moria camp on Lesbos as an example of peoples’ lives being in the hands of decision makers. And COVID-19 measures too. Abortion laws and parental leave. Welfare policies. The list is endless.  

The research project that the University of Oslo scholars Holst and Associate Professor of Philosophy Jakob Elster lead at CAS this year is titled What is Good Policy? Political Morality, Feasibility, and Democracy, GOODPOL for short. Elster reveals that the title might be a bit misleading:

‘We are not going to come up with answers to what a good policy is. We will rather try to answer: what needs to be in place in order to know what a good policy is?’

To answer this, social scientists and political philosophers join forces. ‘As a philosopher I can say what a just society is. Cathrine can describe what the current situation is, and maybe propose measures of how we can improve it; and in turn philosophy can ask if these measures are morally acceptable’, Elster says.  

Three basic elements of a good policy

In a well-functioning and knowledge-based democracy, experts who do research on various fields can advise those who implement policies. That input should, in theory, be able to yield answers to the question of what good policy is, Elster and Holst argue. However, the project leaders note that those who give advice may fall short of considering all necessary concerns.

‘This project is a meeting between two fields. Philosophy too often works with an ideal world, whereas social scientists do not often enough take into account moral issues’, a bold Elster says.  ‘Our questions are relatively huge, and we shouldn’t pretend to be able to answer them alone.’

Your questions seem culturally sensitive, or sensitive to people’s political stands and values. How universal is your project?  

‘There may be some general principles of justice, general fundamental moral concerns that may have validity across contexts’, Holst begins, pointing out that this question is not a straightforward one.

She lists three elements that need to be in place for a policy to be good. The first one, that a good policy should be morally justifiable, may come into conflict with the second one, namely that a good policy should come into place through democratic processes.

‘What do you do if the outcome of democratic processes contradicts basic moral concerns?’ Holst asks.

The tension between democratic processes and a good policy outcome is a central dilemma in the GOODPOL project. Sometimes one must make a choice between a democratic process and a good policy, such as if a democratic majority endorses a migration policy that ignores some groups’ rights.

‘We try to find out how we can combine the two and institutionalize a way to make both work’, Holst says.

Is this something that should become better in Norway?

CAS project leader Jakob Elster. Camilla K. Elmar / Centre for Advanced Study (CAS)‘I have been studying NOUs (Norwegian Official Reports) in the past years, which is one example that I believe should be scrutinised’, Holst answers.

NOUs are reports with policy suggestions from expert commissions. Holst argues that the composition of these commissions is a pressing issue that concerns both the outcome of a policy and the sense of democratic participation. Who should take part: researchers, civil society representatives, politicians? Who should lead them and have the extra power to set the agenda? What happens if the public disagrees with the experts’ recommendations?

‘A criticism is that the technocratic system in Norway is too elite-driven. On the other hand, to include researchers in policy advice may make policies more knowledge-based and evidence-informed’, Holst says. Her book on this issue will be released in December.

The third basic element of a good policy is that it needs to work efficiently. 

‘This is extremely contextually sensitive. A policy that works in one country doesn’t necessarily work in another’, Holst says.

‘There may also be several equally good policies’, Elster adds. ‘A trivial example is driving on the right or left side of the road. The moral concerns are that people should not die in traffic and that the traffic should be efficient, and the two choices are equally good.’

During the corona pandemic, the same policies are being pursued in different countries with different social, economic and public health effects, Holst says. Different countries can have different policies regarding lock down, and still we see that the effects can turn out quite similarly.

‘This is because of many intermediate variables: different cultures, different institutions, and of course different aspects of the pandemic situation.’

Dethroning the “kings of the universe”

At CAS, or as a result of their year at CAS, Jakob Elster and Cathrine Holst aim at making a political philosophy that is ‘applicable and sensitive to democratic concerns, and policy assessments that are conceptually adequate and in proper touch with moral requirements’.

How do you make a political philosophy?

‘Well, political philosophy is a theory about how a society should be organized, and what a society should do, in order to be just’, Elster answers. ‘A political philosophy contains a series of principles and arguments for principles for how we should do things.’

He cites Jeremy Waldron, a Professor of Law and Philosophy, who criticizes political philosophers for writing as if they were kings of the universe; they settle the rules for how people should behave.

‘In the models of societies often used in political philosophy, we assume that people follow the rules’, Elster says. ‘But we know that people don’t follow the rules all the time.’

Then the question is very different, he explains: what rules should we have, given that people do not follow them?

The empiricism of the social scientists and the higher moral inquiries from the political philosophers complete each other in this CAS project:

‘The political philosophy we have to write is for a democracy where lots of people will disagree, and other philosophers will disagree,’ Elster says.

‘It is the start of the year, so don’t ask me how.’