Philosophical Disagreement in Daily Political Decisions

 By Michaela Egli

Possessing resourceful skill,

a subtlety beyond expectation he moves

now to evil, now to good.

When he honors the laws of the land

and the justice of the gods to which he is bound by oath,

his city prospers.

But banned from his city

is he who, thanks to his rashness,

couples with disgrace.

Never may he share my home,

never think my thoughts,

who does these things.

(Sophocles Antigone, verses 365-377)


Does measles vaccination reduce harm? This seemingly simple and fact-oriented question caused an emotional outburst on Swiss public TV. The debate began in a civil manner, but soon turned into a row of accusations exchanged between proponents and critics of vaccinations. Eventually, one of the opponents of vaccinations insulted Beda Stadler, former director of the Institute of Immunology at the University of Bern, of being “the greatest believer of all” –  not a believer in God, but in science.

At the frontiers of nature and technology, there is one thing for sure: disagreement. What is the nature of human beings? What is our relation to science and technology? What is our relation to nature itself? – In order to judge whether some technology is a risk or a chance for our society, we all answer these questions implicitly. However, intuitions about them vary widely.

In political discussion, diverging philosophical intuitions on such questions often cause a direct interruption of the debate because they are articulated in the form of insults or worse: they provoke a transfer to a sphere of discourse where people know how to engage in the battle: the factual dimension. Thus, we end up with a mess of contradicting “facts”. In what follows, I want to show that most, if not all, public controversies about “scientific facts” actually stem from differences with regard to philosophical convictions. In order to do so, I will use examples like the discourse about vaccinations described above to elaborate the relation between philosophical disagreement and its connection to political discussions. As mentioned, the phenomenon of insults and the insistence on false facts are the main target of this article. I will get back to this, but first, let us take one step back.


The Variety of Conceptions of Nature and Their Political Impact


The twofold nature of man and his powers has been known and reflected upon for a long time. Sophocles’ Antigone illustrates this poetically in verses 332-375: The passage begins with an ambivalent, horrified amazement towards man’s power to cultivate nature and ends with two clearly opposing judgements: While man’s city is prospering under his hand he is refused access to human forms of life within the city because of the horrifying things he does. Till today, the matter of the twofold powers of men is not settled – the relation between mankind and nature rests on profoundly ambivalent intuitions.

Science has achieved tremendous things. But it is of no help either to resolve questions such as: What is there? Or, what is nature? This is the area of metaphysics. Unfortunately, every attempt to get rid of this burdensome fellow (even when pursued by the greatest philosophical minds!) has so far failed. Meanwhile, political negotiations about scientific and technological regulations revolve around two key words: benefit and harm. Yet, those two words are completely empty without metaphysical convictions about how technology, society and human nature relate to each other. At present, for example, people strongly disagree whether smartphones turn the world into a place friendlier to humans or not. The words “benefit” and “harm” allow philosophical disagreements to enter the political discourse. Let us start by exploring the different interpretation of an expression that lies at the heart of many philosophical disputes in politics: nature.


What does “nature” mean? “Nature” is often used to refer to how the world would have looked, had it never been altered by humans, and is often used in opposition to terms like “sciences” or “technology”. “Nature” also refers to the unhistorical or universal reality, in opposition to the cultural reality, which depends on space and time. Furthermore, nature is opposed to the supernatural, though there is a wide range of variation where the distinction between the two spheres is drawn. For example, scientists commonly suppose that to believe in any effect of alternative medicine can only be justified by a further belief in a supernatural cause, whereas the advocates of alternative medicine rarely consider those causes as supernatural, as far as I can tell. They rather classify them as a part of nature, which has not yet been scientifically discovered. A fourth application is to say that human beings can have a nature, determined either by evolutionary biology or metaphysical principles.

“Nature” is used in a number of distinct senses. Several of them might even be inconsistent with one another. Settling the meaning of the word and resolving inconsistencies is not a matter of being right or wrong, it rather depends on the angle from which you look at it and on the theoretical background you apply. Nevertheless, they all shape political discourse.


The Urge of Congruency Between Human Nature and Cultural Practices


Astonishingly, the notion of nature – and even more so the notions of the corresponding adjective natural – have an extraordinary justifying force. If you want a good recipe to drive your opponent at a talks mad, here is one: Whatever he or she argues for, claim any aspect of it to be unnatural and insist on it.

Let us take a look at the range of real-life examples. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be criticized because they are unnatural; reproductive medicine should not interfere in natural kinship patterns; or it is argued that it is ethical for human beings to eat meat, because it is their natural diet. But there is more: Switzerland spends money to protect landscapes in their natural beauty and some even belief in the natural poverty of the Swiss mountain region. Furthermore, ideas about natural behavioral dispositions of men and women are still circulating, though they are not as prevalent anymore; and, of course, homosexuality has for a long time been considered as unnatural, hence better forbidden; additionally, most people belief in the undeniable necessity of the natural family for a healthy childhood. Examples are abundant and it seems as if there is no natural order for this mess.

Of course, it is not that easy. Every notion of nature usually comes with a network of related notions and a (folk)theoretical background. The urge to keep nature and natural phenomena pure might be due to the (widely accepted!) idea of the natural order of the cosmos, so that altering its processes risks tremendous effects on all its ends. Or it comes with a folk theory about the economy and its work force, evolution and its driving principles, or childhood and its psychological significance. Overall, those folk theories make the claims above consistent and plausible. Unfortunately, this does not make them any less metaphysical.

In politics, we are sometimes even willing to pay a high price for the adjective “natural”. As mentioned above, protection of natural landscapes is on Switzerland’s political agenda. The main goal concerns an aesthetical and cultural dimension, i.e., to keep landscapes as unaltered by humans as possible to protect their natural beauty. The goal is enshrined in the constitution and constitutes a cornerstone of different non-profit organizations – making it a widely accepted and desired political goal. Remarkably, a study in cultural geography quite convincingly shows that, contrary to common belief, the perception of the beauty of landscapes is, in the case of Europe, is a product of modernity, rather than a natural human connection to nature. Historical evidence, such as literature or visual representations celebrating nature’s beauty or even the existence of terms like “landscape” is not found across time and space. Nevertheless, at this point in Swiss history we do agree that it is desirable to protect some regions unaltered by man, i.e. in their natural beauty and to spend money on this.

The point is quite simple: Conceptions of “nature” and “natural” carry strong political consequences. For one reason or other, we feel the urge to create a congruency of human practices with our perception of (human) nature.


Purification or Naturalistic Fallacy?  – Take Your pick


From a logical point of view, the arguments above commit a naturalistic fallacy. If you’re not familiar with this expression, you can look it up on Wikipedia. Regarding logical subjects, the encyclopedia’s articles are usually pretty reliable and informative. Here, I spend my limited space to familiarize you with a more complicated idea instead – Bruno Latour’s idea of “purification”, which he developed in his work: “We have never been modern.” Grasping his idea sheds a completely different light on what is going on in the examples above. Somewhat like an earthquake, his claims shake the very foundations of modern societies, affecting everything build upon them.

In reality, the distinction between culture and nature does not exist. So claims Latour. A bold statement, so let me try to lay out his reasoning for you: First, modernity is fundamentally characterized by the idea that we learned or discovered that there is a fundamental distinction between the natural and the cultural sphere. For example, we know that human rain dances do not influence the weather. As the former belongs to the sphere of culture and the latter to nature, it is impossible that any causal exchange can take place between them. Note, how fundamental this distinction is for science, for politics, and for every aspect of daily life.

Since, according to Latour, this distinction does not exist but in language, he imagines that our culture rests on an unwritten contract, which he calls “constitution”. It consists of four guarantees, which secure agreement about this most fundamental distinction in modern times. The first guaranty simply states what we believe nature to be: the unhistorical and universal sphere. The second guaranty does the same for culture: it is the historical dimension. So far, so good. Unfortunately, both guaranties are in themselves paradoxical and instable: How is it possible for nature to be invariant and universal if it (or our knowledge about it) originates in scientific laboratories, where humans constantly intervene in natural processes with their experiments? And how is it possible to build a stable social order if it is constructed by ever changing human beings? Those paradoxes lead Latour to conclude that a third guaranty must be added to the constitution. This third guarantee bans so-called “translational processes” between the two spheres. It guarantees, for example, that human actions and laboratories as a cultural product do not interfere in the processes of nature. Roughly speaking it means this: Natural reality social reality.

However, we actually all experience, that this is wrong. Science – as a product of culture – constantly interferes in the domain of nature and produces mixed things that belong in part to culture, in part to nature: genetically modified organisms, the hole in the ozone layer, Dolly (the first successfully cloned sheep), or even human beings with high-tech prosthetics or other body modifications, to mention just a few examples. Those mixed things are what Latour calls quasi-objects, something between nature and culture.

Remember the third guarantee. In order to grant the stability of sciences and politics, such “translational processes” must not occur. Otherwise we all of the sudden face questions like: What are the effects of laboratories on the laws of nature? Or, what is the standing of objects that can act? These questions remind us of pre-modern societies, just like the rain dance example. In modern times they simply seem absurd. According to Latour, however, they are not. Synthetic biology, which creates organisms through cultural processes, or an immune system, altered by manufactured vaccines, are the rain dances of “modern” times. (By the way: if you ever wondered about Latour’s famous slogan “We have never been modern” – this is why.)

At this point, two phenomena emerge: “mediation” and “purification”. Mediation is the constant (unintentional!) production of quasi-objects, as explained above, whereas purification is the assignment of the produced objects to their, assumingly, correct sphere. Akin to garbage men, purification cleans the conceptual mess left by mediation. Hence, we discuss and decide whether the mixed “quasi-objects” are either cultural or natural.

This might seem a little far-fetched. But I do not think it is. Sure, mind gymnastics is required to grasp the thought that the nature-culture distinction is nothing but an invention. But at least for quasi-objects it is very much conceivable that they are a mix between culture and nature. And the examples from public discourse presented above illustrate how much attention those bizarre objects combined with the adjective “natural” receive.

Eventually, Latour provides us with an explanation of this attention as well as the urge to grant a certain congruency between natural processes and human practices: Our representation of the world does not allow for interference between the two spheres. But given that in reality there is such interference, we feel the urge to very carefully examine the leftovers and recycle them. Otherwise, who knows what might happen to human nature, if altered by accumulated artificial processes? – Some fear the worst, others are less concerned.

In addition, this view presents a different explanation of the strong justifying force of the phrase “because it is natural” in politics. Naturalistic fallacy is one; Latour’s idea of purification is another. Now, let us get back to daily political life.


Philosophical Disagreement: Why is There So Much Fuss About Vaccinations?


So far the background story of my target problem. Now, let us consider the vaccination case in detail. The trigger for the TV discussion with the emotional outburst was the recent implementation of a new law on epidemics. Switzerland is a developed nation with one of the highest rates of measles among other central European countries. At least, this much is undisputed. But people seriously disagree about whether this fact is worrying or not, or whether an increase of vaccinations amounts to an overall benefit or not – as on almost everything else on this matter. However, the new law obliges all unvaccinated children to stay away from school for three weeks, if a case of measles occurs. Some people think that this is discriminatory against faultless children, whereas others belief that it will help ignorant parents to become reasonable. In order to proof their points, opposite sides quote piles of evidences – unfortunately without any convincing effect. Such is the disagreement on the answer to the following question: Does vaccination result in an overall benefit?

The enormous disagreement on the factual level should surprise us, for the scientific facts are crystal-clear: of course they do! All statistical studies seem to tell this story. Why then, one should ask, is there so much fuss about vaccination? My answer is simple: because the discussions miss the point(s) at stake. Not (false) facts, (faked) statistics, or (a lack of) knowledge, but philosophical convictions are the source of the fuzzy disagreement. In the case of vaccination at least three different sources of philosophical disagreement can be identified.


What is Nature? Why do you Know? and What is Harm?


Source one.

Different folk theories about nature and the urge of the natural, which we considered above, are one source of disagreement. Sickness is a product of nature, and that is why humans naturally possess an immune system to recuperate. Vaccines on the other hand are a product of culture. By mixing them up, we get an artificially created immune system that is neither nor. Who knows what harmful things happen to natural human health, if we intertwine it with artificial processes? People relying on sciences know that the answer is: nothing to worry about. Others, relying on different sources of justification, know that the answer is: common and severe side effects or even chronic diseases.

Source two.

How do you know? This is a famous philosophical question and we just passed by it. It asks you to justify your beliefs. For doing so, philosophy offers several options: firstly, direct observation; secondly, personal recalls of observation, i.e. our memory. As a third source, we rely on the witness of others. This source is much more important than anyone would guess at first sight. For instance, to justify the belief about one’s proper name we completely rely on: “because others told us so”. The list goes on and somewhere further down we might add: “because it is a scientific fact”. In the TV discussion, a doctor for alternative medicine, made no secret of the source of justification he relies on, which is the experiences gained by the witness of others, namely his patients. Families who decide not to vaccinate their children usually also tell witnesses of others about side effects of vaccinations. Whereas people who do vaccinate their children justify their belief by saying:  its benefit has been proven scientifically”. So both sides choose different answers to the how-do-you-know-question.

Source three.

Illnesses are harms. We agree on this much. But what is harm and why is it there? This question is particularly tricky, answers to it abound throughout history. Although marked by a vast and ever changing richness of words, they all have one thing in common: These answers have never been simple, but intertwined with a complex metaphysical background. Is the world well-ordered or not? Is God’s creation of the cosmos contingent or necessary? Can evil cause good without breaking a metaphysical law? Is evil natural or a mere cultural construction? The list goes on. Consider this historical answer: Evil is only the non-actualized potentiality of a proper perfection. In ordinary language, we could translate this into something like: “there is no evil but just the absence of good”. It was defined by Thomas Aquinas to escape the threatening paradox of evil in a world created by a good and almighty God.

Today we might not believe in God, but this does not make things less complicated. Until today, one’s notion of harm usually comes with a complex explanation why harm exists. Only few people suppose an ontology where there are simply both, good and evil, and belief that humans actually can choose both. More people believe that humans act in evil ways only if they stray from their nature. A coherentist intuition suggests that there is evil, but that in the end all evil amounts to something good. For example, most people tend to interpret the world in this way after having faced a personal challenge like a breakup, the death of a beloved one or the like – eventually it is all for the better, or at least it is meant as a chance for personal growth. When facing cancer or other severe illnesses, some consider this as well a chance for personal growth. And sometimes some people see the same in measles: “Not only the immune system is stronger afterwards, but also one’s personal strength.”, because illnesses, they claim, are not a state, but a reaction of a disrupted balance in life. These are lines of reasoning we find in public discourse. Again, others believe that measles are just horrible, no matter what.

Is measles harm? Sure. Do vaccines result in fewer measles infections? Yes. But is this equivalent to: Do vaccines result in less harm? It is not. The reason is simply this: People have complex ideas about why harm exists and what we should do to do away with it. For some, to do away with measles is doing away with harm once and for all. But for others, doing away with measles is not doing away its source, e.g., “the disrupted balance in life.” It might be the contrary! Every single answer depends on what one conceives of as harm and why harm exists.

I want to emphasize two points. First, none of the presented positions is ridiculous, nonsensical, or the like. There is nothing wrong or right about such (folk) theories. “They are all great, but in complete disagreement!”, one could say, quoting the character Russell from Apostolos Doxiadis’ comic Logicomix, An Epic Search for Truth, who shouts out the moment he learns that philosophy is of no help in his “epic search for truth”. Our first reaction encountering (folk-)philosophical positions should neither be “You’re wrong!” nor “I disagree!”, but rather “Why do you say so? “

Second, rational reasoning of this kind is not reserved to philosophers alone. Even though people might not know that it is called “metaphysics”, they are doing it day by day. This is another thought made famous by Latour. Individual metaphysics is what motivates people to act. Latour considers people as fully developed and reflective metaphysicians, which even construe their own metatheories about motivating entities. Not rarely their views surprise professional metaphysicians completely. No wonder that people’s theories influence personal political opinions.


Insults, Lifestyle Diseases and False Facts


In the TV discussion, there was a point where the German word “Zivilisationskrankheiten came into play. It has quite an unfriendly connotation and means something like the following: Life forms of modernity contradict natural human needs and therefore result in the accumulation of certain diseases. We can agree that some diseases deserve the name “lifestyle-associated”. But beliefs vary as to which diseases or which life forms are concerned and how they relate to each other. For some, the why concerns our natural need for sugar that altered natural diet and resulted in an increase of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and the like. For others, chronic diseases, mental disorders, but also cancer derive from of modern life forms, such as technological inventions or Western life-style like new kindship patterns.

If you prefer to put this more scientifically, we can call it “cultural mismatch”, but this means pretty much the same. As I argued, such a view is really less ridiculous than political discourse admits. Rousseau is a well-known example of a distinguished philosopher who would have agreed on such a position. But at this point, the TV-discussion exploded into mutual insults. Eventually, both sides accused one another of being responsible for the increase of the disease.

I do not care about people insulting each other. I surely dislike language related forms of harm, but it is not my business here. What I do care about is when philosophical beliefs result in false facts. To make this clear: “Does vaccination reduce harm?” is not simply a matter of facts, but an answer relies on a complex net of justified philosophical beliefs, as I have shown in detail above. But statements like “the risk of side effects of vaccination is higher than the risk of complications in the case of infections” or “vaccination leads to chronical diseases” are different. Whether they are true is simply a matter of scientific fact – and those statements are undoubtedly false.

Unlike the question posed about measles, the two statements assert a causal relation within the sphere of nature, as understood by natural science, or, to be more precise, medicine. “Side effects”, “chronical diseases” are medical terms, “leads to”, in this context refers to a causal relation, and “risk”, within this sphere of discourse, is determined by statistics. Those words leave no room for different philosophical intuitions. However, hours of discussion, and piles of evidence do not suffice to make people let go of such false statements. By now, the explanation for this kind of disagreement should be obvious: The reason, I think, is simply that such statements are motivated by different philosophical convictions, which are transferred to a factual level, keeping opponents occupied for eternity. As suggested earlier, the best we can do at this point is to be surprised and ask: “why?”


Let’s “talk philosophy”


To share with you my sketch of an answer to this question is my final task here. We are well trained in battling about facts, but not in settling philosophical disagreement. The lack of such training might be a first, trivial explanation. We tend to mix up those spheres by asking others for evidence to justify their views. Instead of asking: “Why do you say so?” we are trained to respond: “You’re wrong!” If the response to the why-question is a personal story and not a scientific study, we better teach people (here with “people” I particularly refer to scientist) to accept it as what it is: a perfectly fine justification. In addition, scientifically oriented people often forget that physicalist notions are presuppositions as well. That they work well for the undertaking of the natural sciences does not mean that there is anything right about their notion of nature. Here, it might be helpful to motivate those in the political discourse to think about their convictions and to reserve a special area in politics to “talk philosophy”, otherwise false facts like the ones quoted above are what we get.

The second reason I suggest is less trivial. It is based on Foucault’s idea of “the order of discourse.” According to Foucault, there are mechanisms to structure “discourse”, not like rules of speech do, but in a much more fundamental way. For example, “Madness” is a rather extreme case of exclusion. Madness has no right to express itself. It might talk sometimes, but it is not part of public discussion, only reasonable people are heard for what they say. (We might well talk about mad people, but this is not it!). Now, another mechanism that structures discourse is “truth” and according to Foucault, this mechanism became more and more powerful. Of course, you can imagine that, according to Foucault, what counts as either true or false is not naturally given, but negotiated in public discourse. Yet, the important question, following from this, is: If there is this rule, a mechanism to admit only “the truth” to the discourse and forbid people to express “falsities”, what happens to philosophical convictions that are neither true nor false? I do not know. But it might be that such statements, in order to be admitted to public discourse, are transformed into factual statements, which at least could be true. Exactly because public discourse insists on getting rid of them, they get a lot of attention, both, by people who do believe in their truth as well as by those who want to cross those statements out. False or true, at least they are noisily heard.