Thesis title: Situated Knowledge and Policy Decision Making
Despite the constant disagreement that characterises politics in the UK, one thing that the overwhelming majority of politicians and voters agree on is that our government should be a democracy. A democratic political system is one in which the will of the people is represented in policy - this much everyone can agree on. But unpacking this truism is more complex than it may seem.
In representative democracies such as ours - democracies in which voters elect politicians and then delegate the policy decision-making process to them - politicians have the difficult job of translating non-specific political desires; such as the demand for lower tax or lower rates of immigration, into concrete and specific policy. For example, a voter might want for taxes to be lowered, but it is not the job of the voter in our democracy to decide specifically how that happens. The voter delegates this responsibility of knowledge to the politician. It’s the politicians job to know that lowering income tax at the expense of public services may end up leaving many citizens poorer off, and it’s the politicians job to have an informed opinion on exactly how many percentage points of tax we can cut - if any - before we reach that point.
This translation of unspecific political desire into concrete policy creates numerous difficulties for the policy-maker. Not only does the policy-maker have to find out a just and efficient way of listening to a large number of constituents with varying opinions, they also have to understand which policy option best represents their constituents when presented with a number of fine-grained, different options.
This problem is compounded by the fact that not only are voters imperfect expressors of their political beliefs, but it may be the case that the justification for certain political beliefs and desires is fundamentally ineffable. It might be impossible for a politician to truly understand what it’s like to be one of their constituents without having lived the same experience as that constituent. A politician might be able to read or hear testimony on issues constituents face, such as speaking English as a second language, trying to access women's health services, or facing discrimination in the workplace, but there may be elements of these experiences that cannot be understood unless you have lived through them. This knowledge is unique to the situation that created it - we call this situated knowledge. The epistemic obligation of the policy-maker is thus to understand how best to understand these experiences without being able to experience them directly, and it is this problem that I am researching for my PhD.
Supervisors and Institution(s):
Professor Scott Sturgeon, University of Birmingham
Professor Heather Widdows, University of Birmingham
Teaching assistant, Ethics: How Should We Live?, an introductory ethics module for first year Philosophy students.