Targets, quantification and moral deliberation

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Much has been written about the ways in which quantified targets and performance indicators distort and compress the social dynamics they seek to represent. And scholars of science and technology studies have convincingly shown how such representations are not just descriptive but also performative, shaping our beliefs and norms about policy problems and appropriate responses.

But less has been said about how such compressions affect deliberation on questions of moral duties. How do the sorts of compression and simplification implied by quantification affect how we reason and debate questions of distributive justice, rights, or duties? This is not simply an academic question. The use of quantified indicators and targets is becoming mainstream in a number of policy areas which touch on issues of distributive justice. Such instruments are widely used to compare and assess trends on global poverty, human rights, development, and democratisation. In the area of immigration, national policies are increasingly compared and benchmarked through ‘indexes’, and the UK has been at the forefront of rolling out targets to codify policy goals in immigration and asylum. So how do these forms of quantification affect how we think about moral duties, and especially duties to non-nationals?

Predominant liberal theories of justice and rights suggest that moral reasoning involves abstracting from particular, personal and emotive considerations, and adopting an impartial perspective. On this account, moral duty is revealed – and motivated – by rational deliberation. That would imply that quantification might abet such processes of reasoning, by providing clear, comparable data stripped of the sort of emotional and partial baggage that could bias deliberation. This echoes more optimistic ideas of quantification as having an equaling, or ‘flattening’ effect on questions of distributive justice, abstracting from morally arbitrary characteristics and counting each person equally.

Yet there is another view of moral deliberation and motivation, which sees it as grounded in affect, rather than reason: we are moved to recognise and respond to moral imperatives through our ability to emphathise, to be affected by the plight of others. This way of thinking about morality has its roots in Scottish Enlightenment thought (notably David Hume and Adam Smith) and has been developed in feminist and psycho-analytic thought. It is also supported by cognitive psychology experiments on the role of affect in motivating ‘prosocial’ behaviour – indeed studies have shown that identifiable victims are much more likely to trigger altruistic responses than the provision of statists (as charity campaigners have long realised!). Of course, empathy alone is not a reliable route for ensuring commitment to norms of universal rights or justice. We need to exercise rational deliberation to infer more general duties from particular cases, or to channel or find a ‘fit’ for our affective inclinations in prevailing social norms. (John Charvet offers a good account of the relationship between sentiment and reason. I explored some of these issues in my inaugural lecture).

Now if we accept that affect plays at least some role in motivating duties to others, then quantification can only undermine the types of affective response or deliberation required. Quantification effectively brackets off, or ‘black-boxes’, the resources needed to underpin affective responses. It compresses the type of rich description required to motivate moral duties.  We are required to abstract from those features of our fellow human beings which might trigger concern, distress, empathy, or sympathetic identification.

The upshot is that quantified targets may have a far stronger performative role than generally acknowledged. By sterilising our representation of refugees, immigrants, victims of violence or poverty, they are suppressing the imaginative and affective resources we need to motivate moral duties.

Christina Boswell

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