Jonathan Wolff is the Alfred Landecker Professor of Values and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, and Governing Body Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford. Formerly he was Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Arts and Humanities at University College London (UCL), where he had been teaching since 1987. He has a BA and MPhil in philosophy from UCL. His work has largely been focused on equality, disadvantage, and the intersection of political philosophy and public policy.
He was invited to EHESS to present a paper entitled “The Ethics of Anti-Poverty Policies” as part of the CESPRA Seminar of Normative Political Philosophy.
This interview was conducted by Luc Foisneau, director of research at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in the Audiovisual Center of the EHESS, 96 boulevard Raspail, Paris, on February 14, 2017, and revised by the author and interviewer in November 2022.
Luc Foisneau – Would you mind telling me about how you got into Philosophy and how you came to meet G.A. Cohen, and how this meeting had an impact on your intellectual development?
Jo Wolff – When I left school in 1977 at 18 I’d become tired of studying and decided to start working for a living, so I took a job in the legal department of an insurance company. But the company was keen for me to get a legal qualification and sent me to college a day a week, which, as it turned out, I enjoyed far more than work. So I decided to go to university after all. I was living in London and wanted to stay there. I didn’t have many people around to advise me, so I made some fairly random choices, but had the incredible luck, in 1980, to find myself as an undergraduate in the Philosophy Department at University College London, being taught by philosophers such as Richard Wollheim, Hide Ishiguro, W.D. Hart, Malcolm Budd, and, most importantly for me G.A. (Jerry) Cohen. I hadn’t really intended to study political philosophy, thinking I could do that myself, but Cohen had just published Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (Princeton 1978), and was regarded as one of the world leading interpreters of Marx. I thought it too good an opportunity to pass up, so I took political philosophy and also his option on Marx.
With Jerry’s encouragement I stayed on to do the MPhil at UCL, which is a two-year research degree, without any clear plan of what would happen next. But at the start of 1985, after a year or so of my graduate work, Jerry left to take up his Chair in Oxford, and I was left with no specialist supervisor at UCL for my thesis on Exploitation, although Jerry continued to help me. Also there was no possibility of further scholarship funding in the UK, on which I had been dependent. So I applied to do a PhD in the US, and was offered a place, and, separately, a scholarship, at Harvard. But around the same time UCL decided to advertise for Jerry’s replacement and wanted someone who could teach Marx as well as standard analytic philosophy. Not many people around at that time matched that job description, and I had the amazing good fortune of being offered the job, before I’d even completed my MPhil. The department kindly agreed that I should go to the US for a year, and study with Rawls and Scanlon. Unfortunately for me both Rawls and Scanlon were on leave for the whole year, and so I was taught primarily by Hilary Putnam and Burton Dreben, who were both obsessed with philosophical methodology, which probably turned out much better for me. So the oddities in my philosophical approach come at least in part from this unusual formation. I left the Harvard PhD programme after one year, and in fact never went on to do a PhD. My head of department said that you do a PhD to get a job, but as I already had a job, what would be the point? I started teaching at UCL in 1987 and I stayed there for almost 30 years. My last position was Dean of Arts and Humanities.
Luc Foisneau – But you are no longer teaching in London. You are now working for a new school of government in Oxford. How could you describe it, and the function of a school of government more generally?
Jo Wolff – I work at The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, which is a remarkable place. I teach on the Masters of Public Policy degree. We have 120 students from 70 different countries here. I don’t know if there’s any other program in the world so international. I have Mongolian students, students from Ukraine, Tajikistan, El Salvador, and all round the world. The really refreshing thing for me is I’m learning from them, because the world is not the same everywhere. The problems we face in Europe are not the problems that are faced in Latin America or Africa or East Asia. The things we take for granted about, for example, religious freedom, even though we worry about it around the edges, are so different to the way religion is promoted or supressed in many other countries. When I taught political philosophy before I always assumed that everyone lived in a democratic country. I can’t assume that anymore. So I’m getting a great sense of the problems of the world and seeing students work together – very bright, very interested – with a philosophical understanding and also an understanding of economics and policy. I do think the Blavatnik School, but not only the Blavatnik School, but other schools of governments too are the places where we can hope to develop the leaders of the future.
Luc Foisneau – Though I know it might be difficult to answer, and that many have tried hard to answer it before, I can’t resist asking you what makes according to you a good policy?
Jo Wolff – There are positive and negative signs. In a book I co-wrote with Avner de-Shalit called Disadvantage (Oxford 2007) Avner and I used a couple of terms that other people have found helpful. One of them is ‘corrosive disadvantage’: if something goes wrong in your life that will have other adverse effects. So if you’re a drug addict it’s very likely that other things will go wrong too. You might lose your home. If you’re homeless you can’t get a job, if you can’t get a job you’ll have low income, it’s probably very hard to have relationships, and many other things will go wrong. That’s the negative relationship we picked up: corrosive disadvantage. But we also saw there was another concept that we called ‘fertile functionings’ which is where if something goes well for you then that will have other positive effects. It’s harder to find examples of this: people talk about early years education and having a good social network in this way. So the thought is that if you have good early years education this will be very good for development in your later life. Another case from the developing world is that female literacy has excellent effects for the whole family, not just the mother and children but also other relatives including the husband and more extended family. So we recommend in Disadvantage that governments should try to make policies that prevent corrosive disadvantages forming, and also advance policies that encourage fertile functionings. Now whether governments have actually done that is another question, but other theorists in sociology and policy have taken up those ideas, particularly in education and development and they’ve found the terms helpful. And I think it is true that the UK Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition government from 2010-2015, with David Cameron as Prime Minister and Nick Clegg as deputy PM, did have a concern for the worst off and the disadvantaged and expressed the ambition of doing things that would help. I think a lot of it has turned out to be more talk than action. They were more interested in the headlines, more interested in saying that they are doing good rather than having any evidence-based policy. This is actually one of the more dispiriting things about politics: that politicians really go on intuition, emotions and headlines rather than on the basis of evidence. And what we’ve seen in the UK with the austerity policies and what has happened after Brexit, is that there is just less and less money going into public services. So what we’re seeing is that instead of people being more supported, they are currently finding it harder and harder to access services that were there not so long ago. For example, mental health services have almost disappeared in some parts of the country. We’re really seeing the opposite of progress and all the more reason for everyone to be putting their concerns in writing and protesting in other ways, even though it may not be very effective at the moment.
Luc Foisneau – It might sometimes appear as if philosophers were not in the best position to address, so to speak, the practicalities of politics. And some may even ask more directly: What do public policies have to do with philosophy? What would you say to them?
Jo Wolff – The relationship between philosophy and policy is really fascinating. Most people who go in for political philosophy do it because of their sense of justice, and they think there’s something wrong with the world and they want to help. But when you start studying philosophy it’s something else. Theories can be very abstract, and they don’t seem to have much connection with the reality of world you see around yourself. They don’t talk about the world you live in, they could be talking about anywhere, any time. You succeed as a political philosopher if you’re good at abstract thought. So there’s a type of filter that pushes you in the wrong direction, that pushes you away from the empirical world and towards highly theoretical concepts. Then someone like Amartya Sen comes along who’s an economist as well as a philosopher, and he shows in incredible detail how you can link philosophy and policy. And I and many other people have been inspired by Sen, to try to do something similar in a more modest way. I think it is important to look to other disciplines to help. I think the philosophers are guilty far too often of thinking they can do everything on their own. They sit at a desk. They think if they read enough and think hard enough they’ll come up with the solution, and ignore the fact with people in anthropology and geography and sociology and politics may have some good philosophical ideas as well as evidence sources for what works and what doesn’t work. So what I do when I can is to find good philosophical ideas in other areas and to try to incorporate them into philosophical reasoning. I feel like I’m a kind of import/export agency for philosophy. I bring other ideas into philosophy and I try to get philosophical ideas into policy if I can do that.
Luc Foisneau – To be more specific on the relation between public policies and philosophy, let’s take an example. What relation, would you say, is there between anti-poverty ethics and inequality?
Jo Wolff – I need to put everything in a longer context. I’ve always really been interested in the topic of equality and that’s come out in different ways at different stages of my work. So, as I mentioned, when I started as a graduate student I was working on the topic of exploitation, which is a type of class inequality. And the work I did with Avner de-Shalit on disadvantage incorporated a type of switching over of an ordinary methodology. Most people who are interested in equality are interested in putting forward a theory of justice. What they want to do is to tell us what a world of equality would be like. And this is a type of utopian exercise in the modern world; to explain what a just republic would be. And that’s very good, I don’t want to stop people doing that; it’s just I think there’s room in the world for something else. And that’s really to turn the project on its head. Instead of saying what an ideal world would be like, to see what our world is like and what’s wrong with our world and how we can improve it. In thinking about disadvantage we thought whatever your view is about an ideal theory of justice, you probably agree on one thing which is that there are people in this world whose lives are going very badly, and our first priority should be to help take steps so their lives are improved. In the book Disadvantage we asked what is it for someone’s life to go badly, what sort of steps would be helpful in turning those lives round in so far as that’s possible. This work on poverty is really part of that same approach, albeit slightly different though because it goes back to thinking more about the concept of equality. And in the current literature, and the debates I’ve been engaged with, there are really two different ways in which people have thought about equality and inequality. One is about distribution, the world of the top one percent, and the one percent of the one percent, and thinking about income equality and the quite staggering way in which inequality has taken off at various times, including this one in some countries. So that’s the issue about justice in distribution. But there’s another way of thinking about inequality that I’m more interested in, and that is the question of the nature of a society of equals. What would it be to live with other people not looking up to anyone and not looking down on anyone; what are relations of equality? There are these two different approaches, one called distributive equality, the other social or relational equality. Now the interesting thing about poverty is that it relates to both of these. The notion of absolute poverty is about people having such limited resources they can barely keep well and that their health will be at risk. The notion of relative poverty is not having enough to “fit in” – not being able to do what others in your society do, or being socially excluded – and that’s closer to a social notion rather than a distributive notion. So when you think about poverty both the distributive and the social side of equality come together.
Luc Foisneau – Something that might seem strange to our readers is that, though you seem to be very committed to fighting against poverty, and to criticizing policies that would increase poverty, you published your first book with Polity Press (Stanford 1991) on Robert Nozick who has written a theory to justify the inequalities in a capitalist society1. How could you explain this apparent paradox?
Jo Wolff – As I mentioned I started working at UCL in 1987. I didn’t have a PhD, although I had written an MPhil thesis on exploitation, and my first thought was that I should write up the main ideas of the thesis. But my time at Harvard made me question the very abstract methodology I’d been using and I put it to one side, and thought I should do something different. I tried to write about Hobbes, but realised that I didn’t have the training to make a significant contribution to scholarship. So I didn’t really make any progress with my writing in the first year of my work, and was very unsure what to do next. My colleague, Michael Rosen, had been asked by Polity Press to write a book on Nozick. He didn’t want to, but asked me if I wanted him to recommend me. For two days I thought it was a terrible idea. But then I thought it would solve my problem of what to write: it was a self-contained project, with near guaranteed publication, and made use of the skills of abstract, analytic, political philosophy that was part of my training. And so I agreed. I decided to approach the book with two things in mind. First, I would try to reconstruct Nozick’s arguments in the strongest possible form, so that showing their errors would be more significant. Second, I wanted to write in a style that made the book enjoyable to read. I would not have chosen to write on Nozick, but it was the right project for me at the right time, and it also helped me develop my writing style.
Luc Foisneau – You have also been involved in many public policy assessment programs in projects concerning railway safety, crime, the law of homicide, the regulation of drugs, animal experiments, the distribution of health resources, disability support, sustainability, and personalized health care. On the basis of those assessments, how could you describe the philosopher’s contribution in public policies? What is the specificity of his (or her) contribution compared for example with a scientist’s contribution?
Jo Wolff – It’s very common for moral and political philosophers to think that they should be consulted on matters of public policy. But it’s less common for them to have a clear view about what their particular contribution would be. A philosopher might be a virtue ethicist or a rule-utilitarian, but no policy maker is going to ask ‘what would a rule-utilitarian say about this policy dilemma?’ Policy makers will worry that philosophers will be abstract and intimidating, philosophers will worry that policy makers will be anti-intellectual and uncomprehending. My task has often been to translate English into English. That is, very often policy makers and philosophers are engaged in the same discussions, but in different languages and at different levels of abstraction. Policy makers talk about fairness and happiness, philosophers about luck egalitarianism and hedonism. Discussion of policy is enriched, but not, in my view, transformed, by philosophical reasoning. We have often spent decades thinking about concepts and their relations, and patterns of reasoning about values. By drawing on what we have learned we can sometimes bring depth and clarity to a debate that was in any case occurring before we arrived and will continue after we have left. Our training equips us to be able to make a contribution, but, somewhat ironically, our training does not automatically equip us to know what contribution we are capable of, and sometimes pushes us into thinking that all we have to offer are high-minded abstractions.
Luc Foisneau – You have published a small book on Marx, written in the subway as you recall in the introduction. Where are you now in your reflection on the heritage of Marx today?
Jo Wolff – I wrote that book, Why Read Marx Today (Oxford 2002), more than 20 years ago, and in turn it was in part based on a paper I’d written not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to explain the appeal of Marx’s ideas, even when it seemed they were being abandoned. My view hasn’t really changed: that Marx is perhaps the most impressive critic that capitalism has ever had, but sadly he gives us almost nothing we can build on to create an alternative. I understand why he did what he did, for he thought he was a scientist observing the movement of history, not a prophet or philosopher. But Marx was wrong that history would lead us to communism and we’re left only with a sense that capitalism is not conducive to general human flourishing, and little clue how to do better. So much, though, of Marx’s critical analysis still holds up, and what sometimes used to seem to me to be an exaggerated cynicism about the motives of the ruling class has proven to be much more accurate than I expected, certainly in the last decade or two.
Luc Foisneau – You have already mentioned that you wrote a book with Avner de-Shalit entitled Disadvantage. This experience of writing a book four hands is not so common among philosophers. How would you characterize it? What difference does it make as to the process of thinking about a topic like disadvantage? Did you find ideas because of your exchanges?
Jo Wolff – It is rare for philosophers to write a book together, although there are some other examples. In this case I gave a talk and Avner was in the audience and made some suggestions for developing the ideas further, which I liked very much. He suggested we write a paper together, which we did, but it didn’t go down well with the journal readers we sent it to, who suggested it was more of a book than a paper, probably as a polite way of saying that it was all over the place. But we called their bluff and wrote the book. It was a very good experience for me. I’m in the habit of starting big projects and losing confidence and abandoning them. But if there are two of you, it only needs one of you at any time to continue to believe in the project to keep up the momentum. We worked very well together. We developed the unspoken rule of pretty much accepting whatever the other person had written unless it seemed badly wrong, and then to take criticism seriously, rather than being defensive, knowing it was always offered in a constructive spirit, rather than for the sake of saying something. The book emerged from a few years of email exchanges, with, I think, two one-week meetings where we worked intensively on the manuscript. It may have helped that we live in different countries so that we had to work apart most of the time.
The thing I remember most about working together is that often Avner would suggest an idea, and I would find a way of formulating it, and then taking it further to a point where we could see connections with other literature and other parts of the book. When we were working together we made rapid progress, all the better for the fact that Avner would also cook incredible food while we worked. I don’t know that the topic was especially conducive to working together, though it could have been. One thing that was distinctive about it was that we supported the research with extensive interviews. I suppose this is more like a social science technique, where joint work is much more common. In any case the method suited us so much we have just finished the first draft of a new book together.
Luc Foisneau – Since you mention a new book just finished with Avner de-Shalit, how did you come to think of this new topic? Can you tell me more about this new research?
Jo Wolff – This one is on the idea of a City of Equals. The main theme is that some cities feel more egalitarian than others, but it doesn’t seem to be a matter purely of income distribution. So we have developed a type of relational egalitarian approach to equality within the city, where we argue that a city of equals gives its citizens a secure sense of belonging. Again we used an interview technique to support our research. But I don’t want to say too much about this book yet, as we are very likely to need to revise it in the coming year or so.
Luc Foisneau – You are about to publish a translation of your An Introduction to Political Philosophy (Oxford 1996) in French with Éliott éditions. What is the central idea that such an introduction conveys to its readers?
Jo Wolff – I first planned out that book in about 1992, shortly after I finished my first book, on Robert Nozick, published in 1991. I wanted to write it because I was rather disappointed with the other introductory texts then on the market, or at least the few I had seen. The authors seemed keen to display their academic credentials, and made the subject rather dull, drowning the reader in conceptual analysis and a multitude of distinctions. I wanted to convey and share my excitement in the subject, believing that the classic works of political philosophy are, to put it rather pretentiously, among the high points of our intellectual culture. So I devised a way of presenting what I took to be the key contributions to political philosophy through a series of linked questions, putting the major thinkers into a type of dialogue with each other, and drawing on whatever sources I thought would illuminate the debate. I’m really delighted that, almost 30 years after first publication, there will be a French edition. Whether it will find a readership I have no idea; it’s not as if France is starved of its own contributions to political philosophy. But we will see.