Hume’s Two Causalities and Social Policy: Moon Rocks, Transfactuality, and the UK’s Policy on School Absenteeism

Journal of Critical Realism 13 (4):385-398 (2014)
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Hume maintained that, philosophically speaking, there is no difference between exiting a room out of the first-floor window and using the door. Nevertheless, Hume’s reason and common sense prevailed over his scepticism and he advocated that we should always use the door. However, we are currently living in a world that is more seriously committed to the Humean philosophy of empiricism than he was himself and thus the potential to act inappropriately is an ever-present potential. In this paper, I explore how Hume’s two versions of causality have detrimentally affected our ability both to arrive at and to use research to improve human well-being. I illustrate my argument with an example of what I think is an incorrect yet supposedly scientifically sound assumption: that absenteeism causes poor school attainment. Instead I make the interdisciplinary argument that absenteeism is better understood as an aggravating symptom of a number of other causes of poor attainment, such as poverty and individual psychological factors. I suggest that an instrumental, punitive policy against parents whose children tend to be absent from school may be ineffectual or even counterproductive if the objective is to improve the well-being of those children. To support my argument, I introduce the critical realist idea of transfactuality. Using the example of research into moon rocks, I show how mainstream science uses transfactuality despite its empiricist aversion to it. I also suggest that it is our honesty, integrity, and stoicism that lead us to the extreme overthrow of reason and common sense that we see today in many of the UK’s social policies; an overthrow that Hume himself did not achieve. Metaphorically speaking, British professionals, stoically and honestly believing in the ability of their trusted research correlations to guide their action, are exiting out of the first-floor window rather than using the door. This is a significant barrier to our ability to devise and implement social policy.
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