Making a Moral Case for Regulation

Valerie Braithwaite’s chapter in the ANU’s Press’s new Regulatory Theory: Foundations and Applications provides a general introduction to looking at regulation through a social lens.  If regulation is so great, she asks, why do so many people approach it with fear and loathing?

I won’t rehearse her argument here, but instead skip to some key points about how we who appreciate the social good provided by regulation can best make that case. One of ten suggestions she concludes with was particularly resonant to me: “Engage with dissent on moral grounds. Is it right morally to steer the flow of events in the way proposed?”

As my colleagues and I have argued, public health (and progressive policy advoacy generally) needs richer moral arguments.  By “richer moral arguments,” we mean to invoke the work of Jonathan Haidt on human moral intuitions. Haidt’s work in evolutionary moral psychology has extended the “two systems” model of the brain that underlies behavioral economics to the realm of moral thinking. As with risks and other decisions under uncertainty, “reasoning” over morals starts with instant, unconscious intuitions that our reasoning mind undertakes to defend.  Liberals (and policy-wonks) tend to respond to and invoke fairness and the protection of the vulnerable, which are fine moral intuitions but hardly a complete set. Sanctity, loyalty, and liberty are also powerful moral values.  We miss a chance to win over conservatives and libertarians when we ignore them.

Braithwaite’s chapter is exactly right that we cannot justify regulations simply by their favorable cost-benefit ratios or the number of lives they save.  We also have to talk about regulation as an expression of solidarity, a commitment of compliance morally required as a consequence of being part of our society.  Although we may rationally place a value on life in deciding to regulate, we can nonetheless argue without blushing that every life is sacred. And, as she suggests elsewhere in the chapter, we can show an appreciation of the value of liberty by deploying regulation carefully and only where it is needed for an important purpose.

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