Who needs moral experts anyway?

There is an increasing suspicion of experts, and of intellectuals in general. As Brexiter Michael Gove remarked “people in this country have had enough of experts.” And so they had, voting to leave in spite of a majority of experts warning of the ill effects it would produce. Indeed, the Leave campaign's founder, Aaron Banks used Donald Trump's playbook to go straight for voters' feelings “The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.”

During the referendum campaign, the choice between Leave and Remain was often presented as a choice between head and heart, and on 23 June 2016, the heart won. That might sound stirring, were it not that it means there is now a surge of xenophobia and hate crimes against ethnic minorities and visible immigrants across Britain.

I think it's no coincidence that disavowing experts goes hand in hand with regressions towards morally dubious stances, such as racism and sexism. In the past, it was experts who have paved the way for moral norms that seem — on the face of it — improvements on the moral norms of before. We now find the idea of buying and selling people reprehensible. The idea that women would not be capable of voting or working outside of the house is ludicrous. Stoning adulterers to death seems like a disproportionate punishment now. Duels are no longer an acceptable way for adult men to settle disagreements. Yet these were all once considered morally acceptable practices.

As the philosopher Michael Huemer writes:

The reformers tend to be disproportionately influential members of society. They are more likely, for example, to be authors, professors, other intellectuals, or business or political leaders, as opposed to members of less influential professions. This is because the ability to see through errors in prevailing social norms will be strongly correlated with one’s degree of intelligence and reflectiveness, which itself is correlated with belonging to relatively socially influential professions.

Gove’s repudiation of expertise is not new. People have always been somewhat suspicious of experts, especially if these experts tell them things they don’t like to hear. Authors who advocated social change, such as John Stuart Mill, one of the earliest male feminists, who wrote extensively about women's rights and advocated for women's suffrage, were ridiculed as being out of touch with reality (as this cartoon shows).

Even in scientific milieus, it has been fashionable to be dismissive of experts, especially economists and forecasters. Yet it's undeniable that we get a lot out of expertise: our complex, large-scale societies with their medicine, arts, technology, would be impossible without experts devoting themselves to these subjects. And indeed, experts can be vindicated by their successes, such as curing diseases or getting airplanes into the air. Similarly, with the wisdom of hindsight we can say that abolishing slavery and allowing women to vote were good things.

The problem is that it often takes a while before we can see the beneficial effects of moral expertise. Early abolitionists and suffragettes faced an uphill battle. An additional problem with moral experts is that they often say things we don't like to hear. John Stuart Mill, for instance, thought that marriages would be happier if they were between equals, rather than in the Victorian situation where women who could not own property or have gainful employment or vote, thus being at the mercy of their husbands. But Mill realized that the subjection of women was convenient and advantageous to half the human race (i.e., men), and thus it might be challenging to change the status quo. Moreover, as Huemer points out, we are all to some extent prejudiced through our culture which makes moral insights difficult. It is difficult to go against the grain, and indeed, it requires some level of intelligence and thoughtfulness to do so.

As a result, changing moral norms is rarely a smooth and painless process. But unfortunately, moral experts fail to reach the large audience they need to catalyze societal change. Moral experts tend to be intellectuals who write for specialized audiences, not for tabloids. In the past, there were many barriers before you could reach a wide audience, which stifled free speech but also served as quality control. There are now fewer of these mechanisms, which allows for more freedom of expression but it also means many non-experts can have a wide platform. In this way, less-educated readers get accustomed to tabloids comparing immigrants to vermin. Still, at some level, people know it is wrong to compare immigrants to vermin.

Perhaps, paradoxically, this is what makes people like Trump so successful. In their anti-intellectualism and dismissal of moral experts, they appeal to a wide group of people who feel disenfranchised (often white, poorer and less educated folks): it's OK to be politically incorrect. Leave campaigners and Donald Trump, as well as far-right parties across Europe are successful because they say the politically incorrect things people like to hear. They steer away from uncomfortable truths.

As a result, in spite of a wide perception of left-wing media bias, the politically incorrect predominates in our media. Even in an enlightened country such as The Netherlands, as Rutger Bregman says, it's fashionable to state that Black Pete is traditional harmless fun ("gezellig"), that the multicultural society is a failure and that The Netherlands is full up and cannot accept more refugees. By contrast, evidence that new migrants are integrating well does not receive any media attention.

Similarly, there is solid evidence that UK migrants — those pesky industrious Poles and other EU citizens — are massive net contributors to the economy. Tax contributions of migrants far outstrip welfare and public sector goods they take out. The NHS may be verging on the brink of collapse, schools may be full up, but EU migrants have paid far more into these services than they take out. If EU migration decreases as a result of Brexit, or if EU citizens feel unwelcome and start leaving en masse, the UK will struggle to pay the state pensions of its ageing population and keep its NHS free at the point of use.

In spite of these well-supported findings, it is fashionable for politicians and the media and politicians to keep harping on immigrants as this big societal problem. Why are they a problem? Well, they are a problem because leave voters perceived them as a problem. So clearly, the free movement of people must end.

I am exasperated when solid evidence — about the integration of refugees, the benefits of migration — are being brushed aside in favor of people's gut. It is time for politicians and the media to muster up some courage and be moral reformers again. We need new John Stuart Mills, we desperately need some Malala Yousafzais in the west. While westerners applaud Malala for standing up for women's education in Pakistan, they dismiss their intellectuals, who try to stand up for the rights of refugees, immigrants, and other minorities, as being left-wing biased.

The successes of Trump and the Leave campaign are often attributed to the inability of intellectuals to connect with white, poorly-educated people with traditional values. But the absence of courageous moral experts in our media has shifted the debates in favour of regression towards traditional cultural prejudices. One of the strongest predictors of voting Brexit was being in favor of the death penalty. Will we have other referendums to bring back public executions? Without moral experts, who thoughtfully make evidence-based claims, it's a race to the bottom. That race has already begun but we can still stop it.