Frances Kamm on Ethics and Public Policy

Interviewed by Doug Gavel on 10/18/12

Public policy necessarily involves cost-benefit analyses, tradeoffs and ethical choices that can have real impacts on peoples' lives. Frances Kamm, Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy, has focused her writing and research on normative ethical theory and practical ethics. She is the author of "Morality, Mortality," vols. 1 and 2, "Intricate Ethics," and several other books.

Q. Please explain the concept of normative ethics. What role do normative ethics play in public policy?

Kamm: The idea of normativity is the idea of what people should do or think rather than what people actually do or think. That’s the contrast between normative and descriptive. And normative ethical theory is generally a discussion about what it is about acts that make some right and some wrong.

The relevance of normative ethics for public policy is that we discuss not only individual actions for moral or ethical evaluation but the justice or fairness or overall goodness of a public policy. We use those terms for evaluation and those are morally loaded terms.

One of the things about discussing something like affirmative action, for example – is it fair or unfair? – is that we first engage in what we call “first order moral argumentation,” giving reasons pro or con, trying to reach what we think of as an objective conclusion about this policy. And that’s one element of moral discussion about public policy.

But there’s another element and it gets a little complicated because, even though you’ve done your best, all the interlocutors have done their best to present their reasons and to argue for the truth about the first order claim, there may be residual disagreement. Different people have different arguments that they believe in and then the public policy question is “what law or what coercive set of rules in the society should we have where there is disagreement about the first order moral issue?”

And that introduces a whole new set of moral issues, namely do we have an ethical theory which will explain when we should or should not require people to do things when there isn’t universal agreement? So that’s another specific element of a public policy moral issue as opposed to a private policy, individual action moral issue. 

Q. You teach courses on non-consequentialism and on public action. What are some of the issues you tackle with your students?

Kamm: The non-consequentialism class teaches students to understand one type of ethical theory which claims not that consequences don’t matter, but that they’re not the only thing that matters in deciding whether an action or a policy is right or wrong. I’ll give you an example – suppose there are five people who are dying and you could save their lives by killing one person, getting his organs, and transplanting them. A non-consequentialist will say that even though it’s ordinarily better that five people rather than just one survive, it is not permissible to harm that one person for the sake of the greater good of five surviving because the one has a right over his own body. So it’s not just the good outcome that matters; individual rights matter.

And so non-consequentialists spend a lot of time thinking about what it is to have a right, how come individuals have rights, why is it that we can produce good consequences in some ways and not in others? And this can lead to very practical decision making in such matters as morality of war. Why is it that it’s not permissible to terror-bomb civilians in a war but it might— might I say— be permissible to bomb an ammunitions facility that has the same amount of damage to civilians but as a side effect? So, these issues are very important.

I teach two courses at the Kennedy School. One is a very important required ethics class called Responsibilities of Public Action which is separate from the non-consequentialism class and generally it deals with questions of the justice, legitimacy, and goodness of government policy but it also deals with the role responsibilities of agents who hold governmental roles and what their moral obligations are in this public role.

We know that many of the students taking this class have not taken ethics previously and therefore we try to introduce them to the concepts behind normative ethical theory while providing overview of some different types of ethical theories, and we’re always mindful of the fact that we have to apply our results to problematic cases. We’re always dealing with specific cases and seeing how philosophical or sometimes legal or political theory literature can help us decide what to do in these cases. In particular, we discuss the goodness and legitimacy of policies under the rubrics of liberty, equality and democracy.

For example, under the topic of liberty we discuss whether it is morally permissible – we’re not talking about legally permissible – to allow Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois or to have the government interfere in your food choices for the sake of better health. Under the topic of democracy, we discuss the nature of public deliberation, what sort of reasons people in the public realm should give or not give in discussing projects like the rebuilding of the World Trade Center after 9/11. We also discuss comparable issues in the global context: we deal with the morality of war between nations, the morality of global economic development, the morality of immigration and, in general, the problem of conflicts between different cultures over different values. And then we move on to individual role responsibilities discussing cases like Watergate, and topics like whistle blowing and conflicts of interest. 

A second course I teach, called Moral Controversies and Public Policy, is what’s known as a colloquium class. I meet with the students alone on certain occasions, but for the most part the class consists of sessions open to the Harvard community in which visiting philosophers or other theorists who have also worked in, or advised, governments are questioned on morally important policy issues. For example, this year we discussed the ethics of climate with a philosopher who is an advisor to the State Department, moral issues in government regulation with former regulation chief Cass Sunstein, and the morality of targeted killing using drones with William Galston, a chief advisor in the Clinton administration.

Q. You have written a great deal about moral conduct during wartime. Please discuss some of the ideas you explore.

Kamm:  I have written two books on the subject – "Ethics for Enemies: Terror, Torture & War" and more recently "The Moral Target: Aiming at Right Conduct in War and Other Conflicts."

In the book on terror, torture and war, one of my main conclusions is that it is wrong to narrow the definition of torture too severely to only the most horrific things that people can do to others, so that things like shocking individuals or sleep deprivation could also count as torture. But I also notice that once we broaden the definition to include these less horrific sorts of things, there might be cases in which they could be morally permissible when done to an individual who intends to cause mass destruction if this would help save the lives of people who would otherwise be harmed by that individual. I go on to consider whether there are such cases.

With respect to war and terrorism, I was interested in the view that the intention with which one goes to war is very important in determining whether it's permissible to act. And I wasn't sure that intention really matters for moral permissibility, either in the just war context or in determining why terrorism is particularly wrong.

In the book "The Moral Target," I continue discussion of the morality of starting war and conduct in war, including what we may do to opponent enemy combatants and also civilians, but I also discuss newer issues such as wartime collaboration and the morally correct treatment of people after war, something called “justice after war.” That is, once a war has been concluded and a victor is in control, does the victor have obligations to those they've harmed in the course of the war? Is there a duty to rebuild a country?

Q: As you train and teach public leaders at the Kennedy School, how do you describe your role in the education of future public servants?

Kamm: I think that one of the things that we're trying to do here at the Kennedy School – the people who teach ethics – is to enforce the idea that ethics is a matter of reasoning. And just as they're concerned with learning statistics and decision theory and economics, they ought to be concerned to learn about good reasoning with respect to moral issues and that moral issues are sometimes the most important issues in a public policy decision. Especially if you're a non-consequentialist, the only thing to be considered is not the consequences.

Now the leaders of tomorrow will also face problems just in their roles, aside from deciding about the morality of big public policies. So the question is to aid them in figuring out – how should I reason through my conflicts of interest? How should I think of my responsibilities to those I represent – am I their delegate who just has to transfer or channel their views or am I their educator? Am I as a public leader going to try to educate them to reason about the moral issues and about the coercive possibilities of government?

So I think that in thinking about creating leaders it's very important to develop not only a sensibility or a concern but the capacity to reason through in these dark hours to the right conclusion.

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