The Evasion of Ethics at Harvard Kennedy School, Or Why Digging Deep into Ethics Makes Us Better Policymakers

by Matt B. on April 30, 2012

We face enormous challenges: global warming, poverty, health care, terrorism. Dealing with these challenges requires deep thinking about a range of moral questions. What is it to be a human being? How do we work? What’s good for us? What do we owe to one another?

Unfortunately, HKS doesn’t do much to encourage this kind of moral reflection. We already know what’s wrong, the school tells us. Now apply the technical skills we’ve taught you and make it right.

This ethos encourages us to think about public problems as technocratic challenges, to be overcome with a toolkit full of domain-specific skill and expertise. The trouble with this approach is that it leaves some of the most interesting and important questions unaddressed.

Take the study of economics, for example. Master of public policy students (MPPs) are required to take an introductory class in neoclassical economics, with its attendant reliance on rational actor models. As we know by now, these models have been deeply troubled by 40 years of behavioral economics research.

Honest economists will acknowledge the contributions of this research. Often, though, they’ll then barrel straight ahead, claiming that economic models aren’t political or normative. They merely describe the world, providing useful predictions and helping us understand how economic exchange takes place.

But of course, this isn’t true. Economics does make implicit normative claims, particularly about the sorts of things that it’s important to measure. By focusing on metrics like utility or preference satisfaction, economists act as if the underlying philosophical questions have already been resolved. Frequently, however, they haven’t even been discussed. (Is it an unequivocal good for people to get the things they want?)

Public problems aren’t always technical challenges. Instead, they involve deep assumptions about human beings. The question, then, is whether those assumptions are good ones. Addressing these assumptions – or at least beginning to swim around in these waters – involves a deep dive into ethics and political philosophy.

But HKS doesn’t emphasize these pursuits. True, we have a small number of faculty who think hard about the premises underlying policy work. But outside the ethics core requirement, we barely talk about these questions. Again, the school whispers: Freedom is good. Threats are bad. Government’s job is to protect its people, provide them the basics so that they can exercise their freedom, and get out of the way. Democracy and the market will take care of much of the rest.

That might well be right. But if that’s all we can say, I’m not sure we can say as much as we need to. For example, there is a lot of energy at HKS around education reform, particularly around providing students with better science and math skills and ensuring the U.S. can compete more effectively.

These might be important goals, but to me, education is about more than creating a talented work force. It is in large part how we teach – or fail to teach – a set of intellectual and moral virtues. It’s about the formation of selves and citizens. If we aspire to make education policy, shouldn’t we be thinking and talking about these things too?

But many folks at HKS don’t feel like it’s their responsibility – much less their prerogative – to think in these ways. We’re policymakers, not philosophers. It’s not our job to think about the long-term, the theoretical, or the ideal.

The irony, however, is that when we don’t meaningfully engage with deep questions, we undermine our capacity to do the very work that we value so much. We build policy mirages that reflect nothing more than our untested assumptions about people and the world. And those policies frequently fail.

Initially, I thought the solution was more ethics training – say, a year-long core course. I workshopped this idea with some classmates, and their response was loud and clear: Please, no.

Many of them are deeply frustrated with the way that ethics is taught here. Some think the required ethics class for MPPs is uselessly abstract, while others find it condescending. A third perspective – which appears to be quite common – is that there’s something strange and counter-productive about ghettoizing ethics into a single class as opposed to integrating ethical thinking into everything we do.

That last perspective strikes me as exactly right. On his Foreign Policy blog, our own Stephen Walt recently observed that philosophy, political theory, and history “are not what schools of public policy typically emphasize, even though they are supposedly in the business of preparing students for careers in public service.” It’s as if policy schools think they have to choose between technocratic skill-building on the one hand and deep engagement with moral and political philosophy on the other.

They’re wrong. Ethics isn’t just another tool in our toolkit. It should be the tool that underlies everything else, and the one to which we should continually return. Our curriculum should reflect that. After all, HKS wants its students to do good in the world. If we really mean that, then we should take the question of what counts as good more seriously.




{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

lava May 1, 2012 at 12:35 am

Interesting. And I think you make a good case for integrating into every course. I wonder, though, if ethics could studied in any depth if done that way — even at the relatively shallow depth of the required MPP ethics class. What would the integration look like? Would it be like in stats class where Risse (or whoever) came into class once to talk about the ethical considerations with racial profiling? If you want it to be more than that, what would we do about the reality that economists and statisticians and management experts are not ethicists? And in any given class, we’d have to figure out what technical tools get cut to make room for ethical ones. This solution might be better in theory than practice.

Matt May 1, 2012 at 8:51 am

These are great questions, and I definitely don’t have answers yet. But I think I’ve been pretty influenced by much of the Buddhist ethical literature I’m reading lately, which doesn’t tend to make as big a split as we do between foundational moral/ontological issues and questions about what to do or how to conduct ourselves. Instead, the former always seems to be there, present, informing the latter.

And of course, I don’t mean to impugn technical skills. In many cases, they’re invaluable. Nor do I necessarily see ethical skills as wholly different or separable from practical/technical skills. In my view, ethics is about navigating the world in a way that’s conducive to our and others’ well-being, and that has everything to do with knowing how the world actually is. We see the two come together in really important ways in leadership, for example.

Matt May 1, 2012 at 8:54 am

I suppose what I’m after is a model of teaching in which the teachers are fluent in and engaged with both their technical expertise and the larger ethical questions I’m talking about. You’re right – the academy doesn’t really train people to do that now. 

The Angry Bureaucrat May 1, 2012 at 9:07 am

I remember running into this kind of problem in Glauber’s “Capital Market Regulation” class. We were talking about executive compensation at the height of the financial crisis, and many of my fellow HKSers were saying things like “well, the market is paying these executives this amount of money, so that must be what they’re worth.” They did not want to hear the view that these executives obviously weren’t worth what they were being paid, since they wrecked the world economy and erased trillions of dollars in wealth, and that even if they were “worth” what they’re being paid, their compensation packages were obscene, disgusting, immoral, and wrong, and that the only possible way to make that level of compensation morally justifiable would be to have extremely high marginal tax rates.

When I brought the world “moral” into an HKS argument, my fellow students looked at me like I was an alien. However, we’d be wise to remember that most people think about issues in moral terms far more often than they think about them in rational terms.

CJRobi May 1, 2012 at 2:47 pm

Modules! Modules! Modules! Not a panacea, to be sure, nor the only way forward, but a promising avenue to pursue. Dedicated, team-taught modules. Ethics meets economics around a course devoted to inequality, say. Ethics meets statistics around a course looking at things like racial profiling, the death penalty, international clinical trials, and so forth. A management-ethics module on corruption. These are just some ideas. What’s great is that they can be focused enough to really get into the issue, the issues are compelling and relevant, and in order to be addressed adequately, they really *require* an interdisciplinary approach. So it’s not an artificial exercise.

MPP2013 May 1, 2012 at 3:54 pm

Excellent article. Couldn’t agree more. In particular, the lack of discussion of the idea of justice at the Kennedy School is very lamentable. 

Artemis May 1, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Interesting article Matt. It is certainly true that HKS does not go ‘all the way down’ asking tough ethical questions, and certainly does not integrate them to the general curriculum. What I find fascinating is the ‘technicalization’ of ethics, its reduction to another ‘tool’ in the supposed basket of tools the MPP program provides. As if, were we to know a bit of Kant, a splash of Rawls, we would be better equipped at answering deep moral questions. Saddly, knowing how other people thought about their problems does little in helping us find the best way to solve our own. The only thing that it achieves is help students dress their future professional problems in a faux-philosophical discourse: ‘This a Rawlsian solution… A utilitarian would say…’ Bullshit. 

What it would take to truly integrate what you call an ‘ethical’ approach is complete transformation of the school’s culture. We should not forget that the school is anchored in a particular corner of higher education, which is itself anchored in a specific part of American society. That part – I would call it  high-brow realistic liberalism – has already taken care of its deepest soul-searching. It has concluded by affirming its belief in the goods of capitalism (read: freedom), with a dose of government and redistribution (read: equality). A similar affirmation has happened in foreign policy (assertive but cuddly supremacy). Now the fights are only fought in the margins. How much shall we redistribute? How much shall we intervene abroad? No deep cleavages are drawn and no existential questions asked. It helps that the opposition to this type of liberalism is nuts, (Cut taxes to the rich! Antagonize China! etc). So no respectable opponent remains. 

The school is both the brainchild and the reproductive system of this kind of thinking. So of course it is not going to torment itself with a serious ethical discourse – it does not have the need for it. You might lament that, and I certainly do (compare the serious discussions on the nature and direction of society that took place in France after Mai 68). Until the liberal elite takes itself seriously enough to start questioning itself again, any ethical discourse in ‘establishment joints’ such as the Kennedy School is going to remain purely decorative. 

Matt May 1, 2012 at 10:35 pm

Great thoughts! That’s one of the real sticking points for me: we are all operating on the basis of moral views all the time. The only question is whether we can recognize them as such (and critique them as necessary). The idea that you can have a neutral, value-free policy-making apparatus (or school, or institution of any kind) just isn’t true.

Matt May 1, 2012 at 10:42 pm

I agree with an awful lot of this, Artemis. 

I took a class on Buddhist ethics at the Div School this semester, and I’ve been pretty taken by various Buddhist accounts of the self (non-self), impermanence, and so forth. All semester, I experienced a kind of vertigo coming back to HKS and feeling like I had no way of translating what I was learning into a language that would make sense or find resonance with the kinds of conversations that take place here. Part of that could be my own sheepishness, but part of it points exactly at what you described: lots of the big questions – the deep, existential and moral questions – are just off the table for lots of folks at HKS. And that’s an unnerving thing.

lava May 2, 2012 at 1:54 am

Mandelbaum, Mandelbaum, Mandelbaum!
I think this is a good idea. The way the HKS MPP works, these would probably have to be electives, right? Adding yet more to the core seems unfeasible, and taking anything out (other than maybe the finance module) seems ill advised. But it could be a backdoor way of getting people who are into issue X to have to grapple with the ethical implications. The mere existence of the classes would send a message too. The main issues that Matt raises would still be there — for almost all the classes that students take, ethics per se would not be integrated — but I think this would be a positive step.

lava May 2, 2012 at 2:02 am

I would imagine that the Buddhist ethical literature also doesn’t have much to say about regression analysis and panel data. Connecting the two in an integrated way will be tough, for reasons you give. I’d be curious to know what that Buddhist literature is like, though; it  probably reveals a way in which I just haven’t thought to think before.

Matt May 2, 2012 at 8:59 pm

Artemis, a question. If you could introduce just one or two ethical concepts into the “high-brow realistic liberal” discourse you describe, what would they be?

Matt May 2, 2012 at 9:08 pm

I’m not sure how representative this is, but I just finished this book called “Buddhist Economics” by a prominent Thai monk. (You can read it for free at the link below.) In certain ways, he echoes some stuff from The Affluent Society, but he takes it further by providing a 360-degree account of what human beings are, including what human well-being is and what it isn’t. It’s all rooted in a Buddhist view of suffering, impermanence, and intersubjectivity, and I’m not fluent enough in any of this to be able to summarize it quickly. But one interesting tidbit is that he thinks economics and economists slice off a tiny portion of the world and then talk about it as if it’s the entire causal process and the entire ethical sphere.

Wayne May 3, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Interesting. I hope I can get to this book! Meantime, I think your comment crystallizes one of the issues at play: tactics assume a strategy and strategy assumes a goal. If classes were NOT to assume the foundational purpose, they couldn’t really delve into the techniques for achieving it. If we want HKS to teach technique — and I think it should — we’ll have to accept some things as given. What would be great, though, is acknowledgment of those assumptions, candor on what their flaws are, and a variety of classes that have different assumptions so it’s clear that there’s not just one way to think about something. That includes attention to what our systems are rather than taking them as given. And…lest grad school fall into being just another forum for hyper-segmentation by ideology resulting in epistemic closure, there should still be the traditional ethics class going over multiple systems, modules of the kind that Chris suggests, etc. – lava

Matt May 4, 2012 at 11:01 pm

Interesting. It sounds like a model in which you assume baselines, but you also point out the baselines and agree to bracket them for the duration of the class.

Bala May 8, 2012 at 2:51 am

Interesting piece! As a student heading to HKS this Fall, I  don’t know how to feel about it. I can’t agree more on the fact that a techno-managerial problem solving approach to social problems is dangerous! A rural poor in India is not just a product of his household economics and surrounding policies. S/he is human – philosophy, religion, social structures etc. – are also defining elements. Its essential and a challenge for a change agent to avoid converting the subjects of cause to variables in a model. The answer probably lies in love and empathy, more than answers.

Matt G. June 21, 2012 at 10:55 pm

Very interesting Matt.  I suppose that one of the challenges with a values-based curriculum is that morals tend to be subjective in nature, and they are often formed through personal experiences and religious beliefs.  These are difficult concepts to teach, because of their abstract nature (described as “useless” in one of your required courses?).   I absolutely agree with your point about a well-rounded curriculum which asks students to examine their own virtues.  Unfortunately, in today’s economy, education budgets often force a “narrowing” of the curriculum to the immediately practical, or state-tested content.  No matter what the focus of the HKS curriculum, we’ll never be able to separate philosophical decisions from policy decisions.  For example, Harvard must decide how to utilize it’s $33 Billion endowment.  $160 million goes toward undergraduate scholarships.  They have obviously placed a “value” on scholarships for undergraduates. I know your article focused on policy making, but I just recently read that fact about Harvard’s endowment.  Thought it was interesting.

Matt June 27, 2012 at 7:56 pm

Hey Matt!  When you say morals tend to be subjective in nature, what do you mean exactly? It’s certainly true that lots of people believe morality is entirely subjective, but that doesn’t mean that that’s true (or it doesn’t mean that it’s true in all cases).  I tend to think that we can actually say some things about what is good for human beings, even if we can’t always say as much as we might like.

Matt June 27, 2012 at 7:59 pm

The question of what is immediately practical is also really interesting. At one level,  we might think it’s becoming harder to say what’s practical–our economy is probably changing faster than it ever has, and perhaps faster than schools are keeping up. 

There’s also another level at which it’s worth asking what really is practical. I tend to think it has something to do with giving kids the sensitivity and responsiveness they need to deal with lots of different types of situations, even ones we can’t envision just yet. 

Matt G. July 1, 2012 at 8:58 pm

 Well, the examples may sound extreme, but I look at someone who believes they can kill if they are ridding the world of some sort of evil, or parents being able to claim that it is their right to sell their children as sex slaves if they believe it is an acceptable means of earning income.  If those sort of morals exist, than wouldn’t the lines blur even more over morals relating to things like wealth redistribution, economic regulation, and other political issues?

To your point regarding what really practical- The skills of the 21st century for school reform have been identified by “Partnership 21” as….

Thinking and Problem SolvingCollaboration
across Networks and Leading by InfluenceAgility
and AdaptabilityInitiative
and EntrepreneurialismEffective
Oral and Written CommunicationAccessing
and Analyzing InformationCuriosity
and Imagination

I think these are the types of skills that students need most, yet schools have little time to focus on these skills, as they spend most of their time teaching to a standardized tests, which tie funding to results.  It’s paradoxical.

Thanks for your thoughts!

Casper ter Kuile July 14, 2012 at 3:17 pm

As an incoming MPP, I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to read this conversation. My work at the moment is looking at how to shift British civil society organisations towards a values approach (see, and I’m finding more and more that leadership and wisdom in decision making must come first from a grounded understanding of one’s own values and assumptive base.

Perhaps we can get together in September as a group to enter into a shared inquiry around these questions? Changing the norms always starts at the fringes! I suspect there will be an enormous demand for exploration of this topic amongst new students. 

Matt July 14, 2012 at 6:36 pm

Absolutely, Casper! Thanks so much for writing. Let’s get together as soon as you arrive! (I’ll be back in Cambridge in another week.) I’d really love to get something moving.

Matt July 14, 2012 at 6:42 pm

Hey Matty. W/r/t different sets of morals, I agree that lots of people behave as if morals were subjective. I just think that sometimes they (and we) are wrong – that some things are just wrong, full-stop. But I’m also coming to think that the language of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ isn’t always as helpful as I’d once thought. Some behaviors and situations tend to be good for human beings, and others tend not to be. And so on. That’s another blog post for another time, though!

As for these Partnership 21 values – they sound pretty good to me! I wonder if there aren’t a few things missing, though: compassion, kindness, and a capacity to see ourselves as interdependent with others, for example.

Rfinighan August 13, 2012 at 7:24 pm

Stumbled upon this discussion – and upon you once again Casper!

I too am an incoming MPP (in Boston in a week or two) and am excited to read this piece – if a little concerned! It comes as something of a surprise to me that this course could be as technocratic as you suggest, without being strongly informed by a close analysis of the assumptions that underlie the tools being taught. Without making these assumptions clear, the moral implications of the tools vanish.

As in your example, to assert that the rational actor model and theories of utility maximisation are merely descriptive, without any normative implications, is just plain nonsense. Policy based on such tools is, for starters, generally punitive toward those people that do not fit the rational actor model (i.e. the less ‘rational’ in our society) while rewarding those that best match the idealised homo economicus. The model also takes stated/acted preferences as a given, as a true reflection of human needs, with no account for how they are formed (or indeed manipulated) or how much they reflect *real* desires. It partly does this because such a position is ‘safe’ and ‘neutral’, i.e. it doesn’t require an authority figure (e.g. government) to discuss tricky things like what our true needs and desires might be. Of course, it’s not neutral when there are already many powerful private interests trying to influence our needs and desires – then it simply serves those interests! 

In the end this safe definition of ‘utility’ makes the whole thing circular: we say that people try to maximise their utility, and we define utility as what people try to maximise.

The challenge for people like those at HKS is that we are *highly rational people*. We stand to benefit when this model is used. It makes sense to us, rewards our talents, and it’s easy for us to see unsuccessful people as lazy or stupid. In this way, ideas like this that lack an objective moral basis can get some powerful supporters!

Matt, as a final comment on what’s ended up a rather long response, I’d also be keen to chat more about the relationship between ontology and ethics. To know what we ought to do, we first need to know what *is*. Hence why Buddhism, as essentially a no-dogma *psychology* in its purer forms, is  a very interesting place to start.

Matt Bieber August 14, 2012 at 6:24 pm

I’m so happy you wrote, Rfinighan!  I agree with everything you said, and I was delighted that you ended on a tantalizing Buddhist note. I agree: substantive inquiry in ethics inevitably involves ontology. I’ve become deeply interested in Buddhist ontologies of the subject/self over the last few months, (spent  a chunk of the summer doing an independent study project on Buddhist political and social theory!) so it sounds like we would have a ton to talk about. Email me at mbieber AT gmail.

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