Topicality, Implementation, and What We Ought to Prioritize

I hear that many affirmatives on this topic defend the implementation of a particular policy or set of policies in developing countries. The classic framing of this issue has been in terms of an Aims vs. Implementation dichotomy, which has carried over from the Jan/Feb 2013 topic about valuing rehabilitation above retribution. In this article, I’ll explain why I think that is a false dichotomy, and how you can strategically get past this framing of the issue. 

The most important word in the resolution, for the purposes of this disagreement, is ‘prioritize.’ This is because a topical affirmative advocacy has to do the thing that the resolution says ought to be done. In this case, that’s prioritization. Now, if you just stop there, you might have the following thought: if a topical advocacy just needs to prioritize environmental protection (EP) over resource extraction (RE), then implementing some particular policy that prioritizes EP over RE is, ceteris paribus, topical. But that’s not a good inference. The reason is that what has to do the prioritizing in order to be topical is the agent. Your advocacy must be that the agent prioritize EP over RE, whatever that means. In this case, that agent is ‘developing countries.’ 

Just because an agent implements some policy or set of policies that prioritize EP over RE does not mean that the agent itself prioritizes EP over RE. This may seem like a picky distinction, but consider some examples. Suppose I chose to spend time with my friends tonight, rather than work on a paper. This choice might prioritize friendship over work. But this choice does not make it the case that I prioritize friendship over work. I might actually be the kind of person who prioritizes work over friendship, so that I almost always choose to write a paper when I could instead hang out with friends, but this night is the rare opportunity when I hang out with my friends. So, just because some choice or action prioritizes one thing over another does not entail that the agent prioritizes one thing over another. If we assume that an advocacy is topical only if it makes it the case that the agent does what the resolution says it ought to do, then this means that implementing a particular policy that prioritizes EP over RE is not enough to be topical. (That is, absent evidence about this policy having the effect of changing developing countries’ priorities as a whole. But then this advocacy might only be effects-topical.)

People might respond with a definition of EP or RE in terms of policies. This definition might show that the objects to be prioritized are sets of policies, or some common feature of policies, rather than an abstract aim. But the relevant question is not Aims vs. Implementation: that framing of the topic only persists because of Jan/Feb 2013, on which people defined ‘rehabilitation’ and ‘retribution’ as either an aim or a kind of policy. But Aims vs. Implementation is not the correct contrast. The correct contrasts are Aims vs. Policies, and Prioritization vs. Implementation. The point is that prioritizing some kind of policy is not the same as implementing some policy from that set. Aims vs. Policies is a matter of the direct object, whereas Prioritization vs. Implementation is a matter of the verb. We can agree that EP and RE are sets or kinds of policies, but think that the resolution is about which we ought to prioritize, not which we ought to implement. 

However, this does not mean that the anti-policy side completely wins. People who wish to defend an anti-policy interpretation often make their interpretations too strong, by suggesting that no questions of implementation are relevant. That seems to me false. To see why, consider a variation on my earlier example about hanging out with my friends or writing a paper. Suppose I used to prioritize work over friendship, but I now prioritize friendship over work. It seems that I am now more likely to spend time with my friends, when this trades off with writing a paper, than I used to be. This is because an agent’s priorities shape her decisions. They don’t guarantee that an agent will always choose any particular action that better reflects those priorities. But they will lead to different patterns of actions on the whole. If this is right, then the most accurate Aims-based interpretation of the topic allows that the affirmative advocacy leads to the implementation of policies that prioritize EP over RE as an effect, although the affirmative can’t advocate any particular policy. Implementation of particular policies is an effect, which can be used to garner advantages or disadvantages, but cannot be the affirmative advocacy. And any particular effect of that kind can only be known with some uncertain probability; it cannot be assumed to occur as a matter of fiat.

So, my compromise view is that policy implementation is relevant in the sense that it’s an effect of the agent’s prioritization. I now want to consider, though, a way in which the proponent of the anti-policy approach can make this effect irrelevant on the impact level, rather than the link level. By the impact level, I mean whether the effect matters, or is normatively relevant. By the link level, I mean whether the effect happens as a result of the affirmative advocacy. I’m considering a way to concede that the effect happens, but dispute that it is relevant. 

Let’s assume, roughly, that prioritizing X over Y involves believing, regarding, or considering X to be more important than Y. Prioritization might not be exhausted by this belief; it might be a disposition to treat X as more important than Y, which includes (but is not limited to) a propensity to have this belief. I think this is a tricky issue (tricker than the ‘valuing’ wording on Jan/Feb 2013), but I think most plausible definitions have this consequence. The point is that prioritizing isn’t just a pattern of choosing X over Y, or doing X before Y, or devoting greater resources towards X than to doing Y. It’s a state that has this pattern as a consequence. For example, prioritizing friendship over work doesn’t just mean that I’m more likely to choose to hang out with my friends than to work on my paper; it also involves some belief that friendship is more important (to me) than work. It would be strange if I thought that work is more important than friendship, but still prioritized friendship over work. (I think this is the least plausible step in my argument, by the way.)

We can next ask what kinds of reasons are relevant to whether I ought to prioritize X over Y, given that conception of prioritization. You might think that any consequence of developing countries prioritizing EP over RE is relevant to whether they ought to do so. But there’s an important view on which that’s not so, and it has to do with a distinction between two kinds of reasons. 

In chapter five of On What Matters, Derek Parfit distinguishes between state-given and object-given reasons. State-given reasons are reasons why one should want to be in some state, such as believing that p, or desiring that q. For example, suppose that I offer you $100 if you believe that the world is flat, or if you desire your best friend’s suffering. Would that be a reason for you to believe that the world is flat, or to desire your best friend’s suffering? Parfit says No. On his view, this kind of consequence can only be a reason for you to want to have that belief or desire; but it’s not a reason for you to actually believe or desire accordingly. He calls those state-given reasons because they are reasons to want to be in some state, which don’t really bear on the object of the state (i.e., whether the world really is flat, or whether it’s actually desirable for your best friend to suffer). I won’t explain his argument for the irrelevance of state-given reasons; you can check out the book in the VB Resources Dropbox, if you’re interested.

The implication for the prioritization debate is this: prioritization may have the implementation of policies as a consequence, just as our beliefs, desires, and other states have consequences. But those consequences may be merely state-given reasons to want to believe, desire, or prioritize accordingly. They aren’t relevant to whether we ought to believe, desire, or prioritize accordingly. So what is relevant? For beliefs, the relevant, object-given reasons would be evidence that bears on the truth of those beliefs. For desires, they would be facts that make the desired thing good. What about prioritization? If prioritizing EP over RE involves regarding EP as more important than RE, then the answer is something along the lines of evidence that EP really is more important than RE. And those are just the stock philosophical arguments about the relative value of environmental protection over resource extraction.

You might think that this argument assumes that consequentialism is false, so that one can avoid it by defending consequentialism. That’s not true, because consequentialism is a view about morally right action. It’s not a view about what we ought to believe, desire, or (assuming a certain conception of prioritization) prioritize. Parfit is a kind of consequentialist, but he doesn’t think that the consequences of having a belief bear on what you ought to believe. I also should have emphasized ‘morally right’ before ‘action.’ The resolution is about what developing countries ought to prioritize, not about what they are morally required to prioritize. I know it’s sort of LD dogma that ‘ought’ means moral obligation, but it’s almost certainly false dogma. You ought to brush your teeth before going to bed, but it’s not morally wrong of you not to brush your teeth before going to bed. You really ought to try the bananas foster, but it’s not morally wrong of you not to try it. Given your evidence, you ought to believe that the butler did it, but it’s not morally wrong of you not to believe that the butler did it.


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