The philosophy of Brexit: forget the facts and focus on values

The dominant feature of the debate ahead of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union has been the avalanche of facts and predictions dressed up as facts.

Rather than attempt to debate the wider issue of whether the UK’s place is within or outside the EU, both sides have sought to outgun each other with facts that its opponents dismiss as lies and increasingly ghoulish prognoses for the future.

In late May with a month of campaigning to go, a cross-party committee of MPs condemned both sides for building a “mountain of exaggeration” and called for an amnesty, yet the dissemination of rubbish continues.

On 5 June Boris Johnson claimed the EU was the worst-performing region of the world bar Antarctica. In fact, the EU is forecast to grow by 2% year while Latin America will contract by 0.1%.

In response to this the Philosophy Foundation, a charity that aims to bring ideas about clearer thinking to a wider community, organised a public event for people interested in understanding better how to think about how they should vote.

Around 100 people put aside alternative entertainments on a Friday evening in central London to get a better idea of what tools they need for decision making that can be used for the vote on 23 June.

The revulsion of the use of false facts, overblown forecasts, “dog whistle” messages, and crude political invective had clearly angered this sample of voters, who expressed frustration at the low level of debate.

But what was more interesting was the insight that even the facts and predictions come with implicit assumptions that indicate that politicians are making huge assumptions about voters think.

For instance the Remain camp warns that house prices will fall, implying that everyone will think this is a bad thing. But with house prices at stratospheric levels and fewer young people able to get a foot on the housing ladder, would a fall be a bad thing?

Equally the warning that plane fares could fall ignores the concern that cheap tickets fail to take into account the impact on climate change.

On the Leave side the promise to stem migration assumes that voters do not see the value in the role that EU workers play in our hospitals and shops. The list goes on.

One feeling that emerged was that Britons were simply not used to referenda and so not equipped for assessing the decision. Countries such as Switzerland hold regular votes - and just last weekend decided against both a universal basic income and executive pay caps at state-owned utilities.

There is a huge difference between taking a decision on a single issue that crosses traditional party political lines. Since politicians only know how to run partisan election campaigns they have resorted to that language and hectoring style of debate.

What has been missing in the debate is a respect for the fact that people take decisions according to their values.

These might be compassion for others or sovereignty, workers’ rights or Britishness, people will use those values to help them come to a decision over a complex and multi-layered issue such as the UK’s membership of the EU.

In other words if your values revolve around concepts such as cooperation, striving for world peace, and protecting workers right, it is likely that you will lean towards remaining in the EU.

most people have a mix of values and will take account of the weight to which they give each one

If your primary values centre on restoring national pride, preserving Britain’s unique culture and keeping migration to reasonable levels, you will be likely to favour voting leave.

But most people have a mix of values and will take account of the weight to which they give each one. If the two camps had focused more on the positive aspects that remaining or leaving the EU would give, they might be less concerned about a possible low turnout.

The latter problem is compounded by the insistence - perhaps shared by the media - of focusing on the individuals at the head of each campaign, which is another idea imported from political election battles.

The problem, particularly for left- and liberal-minded voters, is that they are being forced to choose between David Cameron or Boris Johnson and George Osborne or Nigel Farage. From a philosophical point of view this is hardly a useful way to make a decision whose implications will be felt long after the demise of that quartet.

Unfortunately the closest that the two campaigns have come to addressing values is to play on people’s emotions. In particularly they have sought to exploit people’s fear, whether it is over the economic shock if Britain left, or over the impact of future waves of migrants if it remained in.

As one advertising worker at the event pointed out, all the research clearly shows that fear is even more powerful than sex in prompting people to take a decision.

The conclusion is that if voters can ignore the mudslinging over facts and predictions, put their fears and other emotions to one side, and rely primarily on their values, then the British would end up voting for the option that best suited their long-term interests.

The bad news is that without a radical change to the campaigns or the way they are reported, voters will have to do all the work for themselves.

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