Thomas Sowell’s ‘conflict of visions’ — epidemiology edition
Johan Giesecke and Neil Ferguson embody the philosopher's two competing world views
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’.
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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:
Later, he adds:
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.’
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.
Possibly, but it seems to me the assault has been mainly from the left in the cultural, educational and moral sphere (and I say that as one who is generally a social liberal).
On the subject, I think Rose McGowan’s (or is it McGovern?) tweet yesterday is a massive cultural moment. For a very high profile actress and #MeToo advocated, and a Democrat from birth, to announce that she has woken up to the corruption and double standards of the Dems is huge.
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.
Agreed. Despite studying politics and economics at university in the UK in the late 1990s and keeping a keen eye on both matters, I can’t recall seeing or hearing him mentioned. Thanks to Peter for the introduction!
Sowell frames this dichotomy really well. I think it is crucial to understanding the current state of affairs, in the West at least.
Yes, but is it too late? The unconstrained vision has ruled for 30 years, from Clinton and Blair through to Obama, Merkel, Trudeau and everyone at the EU. The disastrous consequences can be seen from Afghanistan to Anglesey, from Bradford to Baltimore.
Interestingly, it seems to me that Macron contains elements of both visions. Let’s see what happens there.
Interesting article. Hard to say which camp I fall into. I do think this country seriously needs radical economic change, but am otherwise risk-averse. I’m quite security-minded, but also care about civil liberties, so I’d say that I am myself conflicted ethically.
I know Sowell would agree with the Swedish model of an acceptance that there is no perfect solution but only the reality of trade offs.
I remind readers Ferguson predicted over 65000 deaths from swine flu and less than 500 was the final result. He is unfortunately from the Neo-marxist doomsday cult.
Whatever the merits of Sowell’s book, the divergence between Ferguson and Giesecke is not fundamentally philosophical. I think the author is simply attempting to shift the debate into an arena in which he feels more comfortable.
Giesecke thinks that the IFR of COVID19 is around 0.1% and Ferguson thinks it is around 0.7%. That is the fundamental driver of the different views on policy.
It is also impossible to pretend from any fair reading of Ferguson’s writing and interviews that he is not acutely aware of the constraints and compromises involved in any policy decision.
Both numbers are small, but look big when multiplied by a population. Both numbers are wrong and the answer will be in the middle. The real difference in the views it what should be done given those small numbers. Should we view all deaths as equal tragedies or accept that death is always sad but inevitable and what really matters is how well we live our lives rather than the precise quantity of it we get, given nobody knows what that quantity will be.
Sowell always makes sense, but this sounds slightly over-dualistic. Like many dichotomies, this one goes within us as well as between us. I tend towards the constrained vision, but sometimes aspire to unconstrained visions. There’s a balance to be struck. Let’s recognise the existence of constraints but remember to challenge them at times.
A more useful response to Freddie’s question comes from looking at the context in which the two epidemiologists are situated. Sweden and the UK could hardly be more different in their political culture. The UK is highly polarised, with an adversarial political culture. Sweden is famously more consensual, with a more inclusive political culture. The implications of this are quite striking. The Swedish response to the epidemic is to treat it as a problem to be solved, a challenge that society can adapt to and mitigate its more severe impacts, without alarmism. This is a measured response, very much in keeping with the Swedish temperament and culture. The British response is simply alarmist (as it is in most countries derived from the British adversarial polity). It’s response is not to adapt to the presence of the virus; it must be conquered, and then banished, and the state must lead the way. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. Pick which side you are on. The fact that it might not be possible to banish the virus or eradicate it at all, does not loom very large in the British public response. This fact in Sweden sits at the centre of the response. It’s a matter of science in Sweden. It’s moral panic in Britain.
“…retired American philosopher Thomas Sowell” ?? How can one “retire” from being a philosopher? Once you have become a philosopher, you are one for the rest of your life. Moreover, Sowell has merely retired as a syndicated newspaper columnist; he is still on the staff of the Hoover Institution. More careful checking is needed here.
Good points, but Thomas Sowell himself said he retired last year to devote more time to photography, his favorite hobby. There are lots of his writings and photographs on his website https://www.tsowell.com/
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