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Saturday, July 09, 2005

The O'Neill factor....

Friend Ciarán has rightly expressed concern about the reactionary response to recent events in London, and rightly so. Even I weighed in at a point on the thread of comments. As it happens, I am reading a work of political and ethical philosophy at the moment that is directly relevant to the questions raised by this controversy -- Onora O'Neill's Towards Justice and Virtue : A Constructive Account of Practical Reasoning (TJ&V).

O'Neill's extended neo-Kantian analysis is an effort to "construct" an approach to resolving the seeming conflict between two schools of thought on the nature of justice and ethics, one that stresses the need for universal principles of justice for ethical behavior and the other emphasizing the need for virtue to contend with the situational nature of ethical challenges. Applying the logic of practical reason to this task, O'Neill provides a solid rationale for skeptics like me to abandon our agnostic position.

A digression to explain my view of ethics. Whether it makes any sense to others or not, I see two approaches to questions of ethics, the behavioral and the normative. I don't doubt the existence and important role that ethics and "morality" plays in decision making and social choices, but I am "Simonesque" in my sense that we are probably wasting our time in attempting to develop or validate some normative position. This doesn't mean we can't study the role that ethics plays in social life in general and administrative life in particular, but there are limits to what we can know --and these limits must be acknowledged and honored unless we make the explicit decision to engage in the normative project. Our task as students of administrative ethics, therefore, should be descriptive with the intent of developing empirically (behaviorally) grounded theories of the role that ethics plays in social and administrative life.

TJ&V has me rethinking that position, however. After highlighting the problems with the extreme positions on justice and virtue, O'Neill presents a coherent argument reflecting the reasonableness of a constructivist perspective that includes a carefully elaborated strategy for designating the relevant domain of an ethical position as well as the structure and content of the ethical principles that can be applied within that domain.

Of particular relevance to the controversy over a response to terrorism, O'Neill establishes the foundation for a universalizable principle that rejects systematic and gratuitous injury against a population. Here is a normative position that makes practical and empirical sense, and it goes to the very heart of the injustices being advocated by some who would take the war on terror to the next level....

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