by Peter Hurst
Thursday, 30
April 2020
Idea
15:26

Thomas Sowell’s ‘conflict of visions’ — epidemiology edition

Johan Giesecke and Neil Ferguson embody the philosopher's two competing world views
by Peter Hurst
Thomas Sowell posited the idea that, at root, all political conflicts derive from two very different ‘visions’ of the world

Following his interviews with Swedish professor Johan Giesecke and English professor Neil Ferguson, Freddie Sayers posed a deceptively simple question in UnHerd this week: ‘which epidemiologist do you believe?’ Underpinning the different responses was not just a different interpretation of the data but a more fundamental difference in values and worldview.

It called to mind a term taken from the retired American philosopher Thomas Sowell (and his 1987 book of the same name,) a ‘conflict of visions’.

Sowell posited the idea that, at root, all political conflicts derive from two very different ‘visions’ of the world. The ‘constrained vision’, characterised by a stronger recognition of limitations/constraints on action and a stronger sense that there are no perfect solutions in life but only a series of imperfect trade-offs; and the ‘unconstrained vision’ — characterised by an idealistic sense that greater perfectibility is always possible:

In the unconstrained vision, there are no intractable reasons for social evils and therefore no reason why they cannot be solved, with sufficient moral commitment. But in the constrained vision, whatever artifices or strategies restrain or ameliorate inherent human evils will themselves have costs, some in the form of other social ills created by these civilizing institutions, so that all that is possible is a prudent trade-off.
- Thomas Sowell, Conflict of Visions

Later, he adds:

In the constrained vision, injustices are inevitable, with the only real question being whether there will be more with one process than another…… where those with an unconstrained vision see a solution, those with a constrained vision see a trade-off.
- Thomas Sowell, Conflict of Visions

In the two figures of Giesecke and Ferguson, one can tentatively discern the outlines of those two visions. The constrained view of the Swede, who sees no perfect solution to the problem of C-19, only a series of trade-offs, and the unconstrained view of the Englishman who sees, as Sowell would have it: ‘no intractable reasons for social evils and therefore no reason why they cannot be solved, with sufficient moral commitment.’

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  • Sowell frames this dichotomy really well. I think it is crucial to understanding the current state of affairs, in the West at least.

  • Wow! That’s the first time I’ve ever seen Sowell mentioned and in the British media and it is very welcome, albeit years overdue. He’s an amazing person and, to my mind, pretty much right about everything. I think Peter Hurst is right to refer to his thinking with regard to this particular debate.

    If you don’t know Sowell, I would highly recommend that you look for some of his interviews and lectures etc on YouTube.

  • I highly recommend Sowell’s erudite and well-argued book, and I’m (usually) on the left on most issues. What Sowell convincingly demonstrates is that many moral and political problems remain stubbornly intractable because the Enlightenment got in wrong in assuming that people’s moral visions are based on reason, so that evidence and argument can change minds.

    But the reality, as Hume knew, is that you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is” without appealing to another “ought”, i.e.: value statements are ultimately founded on other value statements. Our reason is handmaid to our beliefs, not Plato’s charioteer guiding the will and passions.

    This does not bode well for democracy when both sides are based on single-value theories of justice. The conflict between freedom and rights will remain intractable unless people of good will can reach a compromise. That position is the essence of classical liberalism. It is, alas, under assault from both the extremists of left and right. Unless we begin to stand up to the feminist narrative of oppression on one hand, and the alt-right racist demogogory on the other, we will all be torn apart.

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