05/02/2012 03:20 pm ET Updated Jul 02, 2012

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

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.

This piece was originally published in the Harvard "Citizen" and at The Wheat and Chaff.