I have a reduced teaching load this year, because of my responsibilities as Graduate Supervisor for our Master’s in Public Policy and Administration program. My two courses are:

Modern Challenges to Governance

I gave this course for the first time in the winter of 2017. It covers a range of challenges, such as climate change, globalization, inequality, the influence of money on politics, and so on. Here’s the introductory blurb from the course outline:

“What is real is what you have to deal with, what won’t go away just because it doesn’t fit with your prejudices.”

Charles Taylor (Sources of the self, 59).

“I am not a great believer in man-made climate change. I’m not a great believer.”

Donald Trump (Interview with Washington Post, March 21, 2016)

“Nous courons sans souci dans le précipice, après que nous avons mis quelque chose devant nous pour nous empêcher de le voir.” [“We run carefree into the precipice, having put something in front of us to hide it from sight.”]

Blaise Pascal (Pensées, ¶183.)

“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

Joni Mitchell (Big Yellow Taxi)

“Extend and pretend” describes a behaviour frequently used in financial markets. What happens, for example, when a borrower cannot repay a bank loan? If the bank classifies the loan as a bad one, it takes a loss on its books, and the officials who agreed to the loan look bad. What to do? One can extend: extend to the borrower a new loan to pay back the old one. And pretend: pretend that somehow or other the causes of the borrower’s failure will go away. And so the challenge of dealing with the problem is simply booted forward in time, for someone else to deal with, sometime or other.

The broader political analogies of this behaviour are clear. In the world of politics and policy many actors have an interest in simply extending current practices, and pretending that serious challenges aren’t real. And there are few incentives within the political and bureaucratic systems of modern democracies to encourage taking a long view, and building policy around that.

So one of the personal challenges you will face should you dwell in the world of politics and policy is that you may find there’s a “whole lot of pretendin’ going on.” You need to reflect upon how you will handle that. Much is at stake: the pretending can protect certain narrow personal goods: getting reelected, for the politician, staying out of trouble, for the civil servant. But it also threatens many things of great value. To counter this, you will need critical thinking, the ability to detect the many ways we refuse to engage with reality, and also appreciative thinking, the ability to identify those important goods that are worth defending.

Ethics for Public Policy

Course overview

In your social science training, you have probably come across a certain outlook, which I term the “binary view.” Some examples: One methods text declares that “Ideologies contain many normative assumptions, statements, and ideas.” The social sciences, on the other hand, “offer descriptive statements (‘this is how the world operates’) and explanations” (Newman 2011, 59). In like spirit, another methods book states that “today social theory has to do with what is, not with what should be” (Babbie 2013, 6). Another textbook informs us that any economist seeking “intellectual integrity and respectability” will respect the boundary between “normative economics, which is shunned, and positive economics, which is embraced.” The unfortunate who crosses that line “is practicing normative economics and is operating as a politician or preacher and not a scientist” (Gebremedhin and Tweeten 1994, 19).

The binary view presents policy analysis with a sharp dilemma. We may approach this through a piece of research textbook advice that is typical of the view: “Ultimately, deciding the best or most desirable application of knowledge is a subjective, individual activity” (Manheim and Rich 2006, 2). While many social scientists may nod their heads at this piece of folk wisdom, policy analysis faces a difficulty, because it is intrinsically concerned with “the best or most desirable application of knowledge.” Policy analysis is practical reflection, reflection on the question “what is to be done?” Hence it is involved in its essence with matters of value, since “What is to be done?” always involves the question, “what is worth doing?”, along with other normative questions (e.g. “What means are permissible to do it?”).

Much policy analysis, unfortunately, attempts to determine “What is to be done?” while continuing to embrace the binary view. This course pursues an entirely different path. It asserts that reflection on “What is the right thing to do?” need not be a “subjective, individual activity”: it can be a rigorous, shared activity that can yield results that are often more trustworthy than those produced by a supposedly rigorous “policy science.”

This course seeks:

  • To provide an introduction to some influential ethical approaches, and to some critiques of each approach;
  • To understand the potential relevance of each approach to the world of policy; and
  • To examine specific policy issues from an ethical perspective.
Updated: January 2022