Volume 25/1996-1997 contents | Duke Policy News Online | Sanford Institute

All of us strongly believe that without explicit attention to ethical content, public policy analysis training is likely to produce amoral mandarins, who may know the price of everything but understand the value of nothing.


The Case for Ethics

By Joel L. Fleishman

Talking about ethics and public policy analysis reminds me of The New Yorker cartoon which shows a group of businessmen sitting around a conference table plotting strategy, with one of them saying, "Well, if honesty is the best policy, what is the second best?"

The truth is that there is no such thing as second best when it comes to ethics. But there are better and worse ways of thinking about ethics, and worst of all is not to think about it at all.

Indeed, half the battle is won once we learn to recognize that there is an ethical problem in a course of action we're contemplating. The other half of the battle involves painstaking analysis of how to think about the problem, how to balance competing claims and values, how to test them against moral imperatives, and how to evaluate the ethical propriety of the means we are considering to achieve our proposed ends. Unethical means will most often debase the noblest of ends.

All of us are born with some innate sense of right and wrong, but it requires sensitizing and sharpening by parents, teachers and religious leaders. It is incorrect, I believe, to hold that by the time students get to college it is too late to have any effect on their ethics. In both the personal and the social, education can add significant value to students' capacity to recognize ethical issues and to gain competence in thinking crisply about them. Simply by becoming familiar with some of the long tradition in philosophy and religion of reasoning about ethics, and applying relevant parts of that tradition to personal and social dilemmas, students gain both sensitivity and facility in grappling with ethics.

That is why, when the original PPS faculty was designing the core curriculum, it became the country's first public policy analysis program to require a course in ethics for all students, undergraduate as well as graduate. All of us believed then, and still strongly believe that, without explicit attention to ethical content, public policy analysis training is likely to produce amoral mandarins, who may know the price of everything but understand the value of nothing.

To comprehend why that is so, remember that public policy analysis is a late 20th century synthesis of economics and politics. Economics presupposes a rational human being desirous of maximizing self-interest, and teaches one how to calculate alternative paths to one's objectives, as well as their respective costs and likely benefits. But economics gives no guidance about what one's objectives should be or how to take account of the legitimate objectives of others.

By the 20th Century, politics, economics, and ethics were walled off from one another in their respective academic disciplines.

Politics is similar. The basic premises of politics are also self-interest, the self-interest of voters, candidates and office-holders, bureaucratic and organizational territorialism, interest group assertion of claims against one another and the public. The political arena is where a society's ultimate value choices are made, but they are configured by aggregation at the voting booths and by toting up the votes in legislative chambers. Like economics, politics gives no guidance about what the common good is or should be, but only shows one how to achieve what one perceives to be, by his or her own lights, the common good. Usually it is the common good that the chooser perceives to be likely to benefit him or her disproportionately.

It is the absence in both economics and politics of any explicit focus on the normative that makes the presence of an explicit focus on ethics imperative in an intellectual paradigm that unites them.

Remember that the first scientific economist was Adam Smith, and note well that his professorship at Glasgow was in the field of moral philosophy. Smith wrote not only The Wealth of Nations, his descriptive and normative masterpiece on the workings of economics and politics, but also The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a descriptive and normative analysis of what can only be called social and individual ethics. What Adam Smith combined in one field of study, the 19th Century tore violently apart. So by the 20th Century, politics, economics, and ethics were walled off from one another in their respective academic disciplines.

It became the primary mission of public policy analysis to bring them back together in a single framework of analysis which highlights the values at stake in any decision or policy, the identity of the stakeholders, the interests that motivate them, the advocates who advance the interests, and the methods they use in their competition. That framework adds to the calculations of economics, and interest-assertion politics, a set of normative criteria, such as justice, fairness, relevant equality considerations, for assessing alternative decisions and policies. Without the normative criteria, all one has is calculations in pursuit of some objective to maximize.

The original ethics course at the undergraduate level was called "Policy Choice as Value Conflict" to underscore the fact that every policy is the result of competition among groups holding differing values, and that every policy represents a particular pattern of imposing costs on individuals and groups differentially, and of conferring benefits on individuals and groups differentially.

What differentiates a consideration of those value questions in the field of public policy analysis from ideology-driven diatribes is the framework and hard work of analysis itself. By singling out those value questions so as to make them visible and noticed, but simultaneously bracketing them with the calculations of economics and the interest assertion of politics, we transform what would otherwise be the unintelligible din of shouted claim and counterclaim into a careful, rational assessment of the equities of particular policy decisions.

The members of the Public Policy faculty are known for the example they set in combining impeccable, credible, reliable, objective analysis of alternatives with strong individual, analysis-informed subjective commitments to praiseworthy values by which they assess the relative merits of those alternatives. They understand what the tradeoffs between alternative courses are, but they move on to a recommended course of action based on the values which animate them. Economics doesn't have ethics; economists do. And political scientists. And lawyers, at least some of us.

In addition to highlighting the role of values in determining policy, the Sanford Institute's ethics courses have also included examining issues of morality in personal and professional actions. Here we probe issues of questionable means to praiseworthy ends-cheating, lying and truthtelling, courage under fire, bribery in all its subtle forms-and the imperative of playing by the rules. We try to teach our students that the reason for avoiding wrongdoing is not the risk of being caught, but rather the revulsion they must train their very souls to feel when they contemplate an improper course of conduct.

If we can succeed in producing men and women of keen conscience, we can do no greater service to our nation and the world.

Joel Fleishman, Professor of Law and Public Policy, is director of the Sanford Institute's Heyman Center on Ethics, Public Policy and the Professions. This article is excerpted from a speech he gave in November to the Institute's Board of Visitors.

Volume 25/1996-1997 contents | Duke Policy News Online | Sanford Institute