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Sunday, July 17, 2005

Contemplating ethics....

I am back in multitasking mode and have had little time to post my reflections on the various readings and ideas crossing my desk and mind. For those who can tolerate it, here is the first of a couple of such....

In preparation for the ethics course I will be teaching this fall, and as part of the continuing project with friend Ciarán on administrative ethics, I have been reading Daniel Ellsberg's Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers in greater detail. The book is much more than an autobiographical revisiting of his career leading up the Pentagon Papers episode -- it is also the considered reflections of someone who spent years dealing with the ethical dilemmas and tough choices confronting public sector policymakers and their advisors on a personal and daily basis that is central to our studies.

This is coming through most clearly in Ellsberg's comments on his work as the special assistant to John McNaughton, the DoD Assistant Secretary under Robert McNamara from 1964 to 1967 (covered in parts of chapters 2 and 3). Ellsberg makes explicit the conflict between personal (and even professional) beliefs and the obligations of the job imposed by those who work in public bureaucracies. There is nothing new in this -- the very rationale for having organizations and the discipline demanded by them is to overcome the entropic forces of individual beliefs and attitudes on behalf of a collective effort. We see this especially in the work of Barnard, Kaufman and many many others, but when expressed in the reflections of Ellsberg and others who were so involved in the tragedy of US Vietnam policy during the 1960s it takes on more significance than any scholarly explication. Since my course is based on the use of movies to get across the lessons of public sphere ethics, I plan to use this work in conjunction with the documentary about McNamara, 'The Fog of War"....

One of the drawbacks of focusing too much on ethical dilemmas as reflected in cases is that I tend to neglect discussions of what might constitute appropriate ethical or moral standards for the public service. My usual approach in the past has been to get such discussions out of the way during the initial weeks of the course with a broad survey of traditional ethical and moral theories covering the "usual suspects" from Plato and Aristotle to Rawls. Reviewing that approach in anticipation of this fall's class, I realize that what I have been doing in the past is spending most of the semester debunking the relevance of such standards and getting students to think of ethics as the practice of "thoughtfulness" in the manner of Arendt's approach. All well and good, but in the process I have definitely neglected to address the question of what constitutes thoughtfulness.

On that point, I have been ruminating on the lessons learned by my recent reading of Onora O'Neill's book which has made me more respectful of the normativist project pushed by her and other neo-Kantians (as well as friend Ciarán...). But getting this across to MPA students is no easy task, and I don't dare risk assigning book length presentations at the O'Neillian or Rawlsian level. I am thinking more in the order of Ignatieff's essays on dealing with terrorism.... Perhaps readers of this post (who have gotten this far) can suggest alternatives....

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