The Trouble With Government Policy

March 3, 2010 at 8:51 pm (Politics) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Moral and pragmatic considerations play a part in most policy making, and (when convenient) some policy may even be evidence-based. In formulating policy, the policy makers must decide how much weight to give moral considerations, practicality, and the evidence base.

Foreign Policy

Historically, British foreign policy seems to me to have been pragmatic almost to the point of being amoral. Even when the government has actually claimed it would have an ethical foreign policy, pragmatism seems to have overridden other considerations.

Readers may recall Robin Cook’s speech on ethical foreign policy. While stating that: “The first goal of foreign policy is security for nations”; Cook’s second stated goal was: “The prosperity of Britain”.

The latter goal seemed to me to take priority over the former in the case of Indonesia. In 1999, John Pilger wrote this:

Last week, on his pathbreaking Channel 4 show, the satirist Mark Thomas revealed a conversation he had recorded with Paul Greenwood, a director of Pains Wessex, manufacturers of CS gas, who said: ‘The UK government don’t care. I’ve had the DTI [Department of Trade] down… and I’ve spoken about it, and I said I can take the order [here] and get somebody else to make it and ship it, [and they said] yeah, that’s fine. . . Just as long as we’re not shipping it in the UK, they don’t give a toss.’

Attitude to Torture

Currently, the British government is having to face awkward questions regarding allegations of the complicity of British security services in torture:

The true depth of British involvement in the torture of terrorism suspects overseas and the manner in which that complicity is concealed behind a cloak of courtroom secrecy was laid bare last night when David Davis MP detailed the way in which one counter-terrorism operation led directly to a man suffering brutal mistreatment.

In a dramatic intervention using the protection of parliamentary privilege, the former shadow home secretary revealed how MI5 and Greater Manchester police effectively sub-contracted the torture of Rangzieb Ahmed to a Pakistani intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), whose routine use of torture has been widely documented. […]

The officers from MI5 and MI6 who interrogated Ahmed should have known his detention was unlawful because he had not been brought before a court. Ahmed says he told these officers he was being tortured and that signs of his mistreatment would have been evident. [The Guardian]

British security services are currently being sued by six former Guantanamo Bay detainees. According to the Telegraph, the Foreign Office and the Home Office, who are being sued along with MI5 and MI6, are having to divert much-needed money and manpower to fighting the case.

Drugs Are Bad, M’kay?

Our drugs policy, meanwhile, is far from pragmatic – it appears to be based in large part on the view that (currently illegal) drugs are immoral and must be prohibited.

Transform believe that the classification system is fundamentally flawed. In this PDF, they outline a pattern in which the Council has been “treated rather contemptuously by the Government” when their outputs are perceived as threatening to the Government’s political programme:

This pattern has included, for example, Vernon Coaker making it very clear that the Government would not reclassify ecstasy regardless of the Council’s findings and recommendations, in public and before the Council’s evaluation (undertaken at the urging of the Science and Technology Select Committee) had even begun. Similarly, the Prime Minister was making unambiguous public statements that he intended to reclassify cannabis from C back to B, before he had received the evaluation back from the Council that he himself had ordered.

If drugs policy is not based on pragmatic considerations of harm reduction or on the evidence base, then it can only be based on the moral viewpoint of the government of the day. Or, perhaps, on the moral viewpoint of the newspaper editors and owners that the government of the day is generally keen to keep on side. As I argued here.


It could be argued that in formulating foreign policy, more weight should be given to moral considerations – selling arms to regimes of dubious character is, after all, a matter of life and death. Should the prosperity of Britain outweigh the slaughter of innocents? My view is that it should not.

I hold the position that torture is quite simply morally wrong. We should not condone – or collude with – torturers. The pragmatism of endorsing or condoning torture is questionable and the evidence base in respect of the efficacy of torture is lacking – but even if it were pragmatic and based on solid evidence, the use, condonement, or endorsement of torture would still be unthinkable to me.

For me, the immorality of drug-taking is less clear-cut than that of torture or selling arms to dubious regimes. Yet, of the three, this is the policy that seems to be based on a moral standpoint.

The morality that underpins government policy on drugs is also strikingly inconsistent. While some intoxicants are deemed to be sufficiently acceptable, morally, to be sold legally, others are seemingly arbitrarily classed as immoral substances that cannot be tolerated and must be prohibited.

We seem to have had, historically, a drugs policy based on an inconsistent moral fervour that certain specified drugs are “bad”. At the same time, our arms policy and attitude to torture have been governed more by pragmatic considerations than by the notion that selling arms to dubious regimes or complicity in torture are morally wrong.

This seems to me to be the wrong way round. Torturing fellow humans is a moral issue. Drug-taking and the harm it causes are practical problems. I think it is time for politicians to take a moral stand on torture – and time for us to have a pragmatic, evidence-based drugs policy that minimises harm.


  1. PaoloV said,

    Excellent stuff. I think the main reason for the discrepancy is simply appealing to mainstream voters – it’s harder to turn a blind eye to drug use by your kids than it is to ignore torture happening oversees or military sales to oppressive regimes.

    People don’t want pragmatism on their doorstep – it reeks of resignation and defeat, even if it is the only practical solution to many real-world issues.

  2. El_Cuervo said,

    I agree 100% – It’s simply crazy to say that morals should dictate drug policy but should take a back seat where torture and oppression are concerned.

  3. Allo V Psycho said,

    Excellent blog post. I think similar arguments could be made with regard to sex workers. Criminalisation of sex workers leads to many real world problems, but the sex industry seems to be viewed by Government as intrinsically immoral, no matter what the practical negative consequences of this attitude are.

  4. Teek said,

    Cracking post. IMHO nearly all govt policy has both ‘moral’ and ‘evidence-based’ elements, particularly if one considers as I do that the moral case for/against a given policy is modulated by evidence for/against its efficacy.

    An example. I agree entirely with the sentiment

    I hold the position that torture is quite simply morally wrong.

    . I’d say, however, that my moral objection to torture is amplified by the evidence that it doesn’t work – that any torture-induced intelligence is dubious, that one creates more enemies by treating prisoners inhumanely etc. So I’d say that the moral and evidential dimensions need not be mutually exclusive.

    The trouble begins, as you point out, when the moral element contradicts the evidence – at this point any govt has to make a judgement as to which strand to support, the moral or the evidence-based. In the case of drugs policy, they clearly back what they consider the moral(istic) angle, at the expense of the evidence-based – perhaps vice versa in the case of torture (or sex workers, good point Allo V Psycho). This then often become a vicious circle, with an overtly ‘moral’ drugs policy strengthening the evidence against its efficacy.

    Anyway I’m rambling, managing to spoil a perfectly good blog post with my waffle :-)

  5. Thomas Byrne said,

    “selling arms to regimes of dubious character is, after all, a matter of life and death.”

    What regimes did you have in mind?

    But broadly I don’t think there’s a contradiction, both are pragmatic but the issue of drugs is more of reelection.

  6. IanH said,

    Thank you for this post – short and to the point. It’s nice to have the frequent claim – that science ignores moral attitudes or will lead tot eh end of civilisation – so clearly refuted. It’s a constant struggle for me to convince my students that both scientific and moral responses are often appropriate, as long as they are clearly phrased. I suppose it’s not just teenagers who often confuse “I don’t like this for x reason” and “This must be scientificall wrong in all cases”.

  7. Michael said,

    Thomas Byrne has a point. I think also relevant to that point is that of the three cases you give as examples, drug policy directly affects what happens to people within a country’s general population (i.e. its voters), and the other two concern those from without. It is much easier to ignore moralising and tub-thumping when it doesn’t come from people who might influence whether you get elected or not.

  8. Nash said,

    A good example of ethical foreign policy is the invasion of Iraq. Getting rid od Saddam was the right thing to do

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