Consequentialism And Public Policy

When it comes to public policy, there are many different ways that decision makers can go about handling their business. Public policy is difficult business, of course, and it is something that different decision makers handle very differently depending upon their own personal style. To suggest that public policy is determined by one sort of reasoning would be incorrect. Across the spectrum of public policy, there are many different motivations that go into making the various public policies that guide the country on an everyday basis. Consequentialism has a strong influence on public policy, of course. Public policy makers are charged with the duty of working their way through the different steps that might take place if they choose to pass a policy. What impact will this policy have on different kinds of people? What are the various effects or consequences that will occur if this particular policy is actually passed? These are the important questions that end up going into public policy making. However, one cannot simply choose to follow consequentialism if one wants to have success in public policy. Virtue ethics and deontology are also very important for policy makers. Because public policy spans a number of different categories, from public health all the way down to criminal justice, there have to be different approaches employed in order to come away with a solid public policy approach. Consequentialism is not the only thing used in public policy, and this is proper, as it should not be the only thing used in order to create effective public policy.

While it is important what effect a policy might have in a direct sense, policy makers have to consider more than just the direct effects. In order to understand this point, one might look to something like torture policy. A consequentialist approach would undoubtedly want to assess the level to which a policy achieves the desired impact. For instance, if the desired impact in the foreign relations or intelligence sense is to acquire more information, then a consequentialist approach might be said to provide individuals with the ability to extract that information. If a person is tortured, or they are hit with the threat of torture, then they might give up the information. The consequentialist, using a utilitarian approach to ethics, will take a look at this and see that when one person is tortured in this sense, that is one person who endures pain or injury. If the torture is done properly, though, that person’s testimony or information might allow the government to save many lives. For instance, what if a person was tortured in the lead-up to September 11th? What if the person’s information could have helped the government catch the men who were responsible for the attacks on that date? Under this arrangement, the consequentialist would see that the positive impact of the torture would far outweigh the negative because society would derive the greatest benefit from that particular action. This creates long-term issues of benefit versus cost, and the benefit to society would almost certainly be positive if one looks at things through this lens. Of course, the United States, like many countries, does not use this approach to torture. While it has been suggested that the US used waterboarding in the War on Terror, this has been condemned, and it is certainly not American policy to do so. This is because, in some realms, it is important to use other forms of ethical reasoning, including deontology.

The deontological thinker might note that there are some categorical imperatives that matter no matter what the consequences might be. For instance, should it not be true that human beings have value and that all people deserve to have their dignity respected? Another rule might be that torture is something that disrespects the dignity and humanity of people. If these two rules are put together, then it becomes exceedingly clear to the deontological thinker that torture is wrong. Even if it might have a positive impact from a utilitarian perspective, the rules of life are still broken, and thus, the action or policy is the wrong one. From a public policy perspective, policy makers have made the decision that some things are too important to be left to a simple “plus or minus” approach that comes with consequentialism. Some things implicate larger moral questions, such as the value of human beings, and this creates a problematic situation for policy makers who want things to be simple. This is fertile ground for the utilization of virtue ethics.

Virtue ethics is also an approach that is employed in some situations, including when considering whether torture is the right method for extracting information. According to a person who practices virtue ethics, the qualities that one wants to exude are most important when determining the right action to take. For instance, with virtue ethics, one could take two different approaches to the question of torture. One might ask what things the country as a whole would like to display. Does the country as a whole want to demonstrate to the world that it is above things like torture? According to many, this is what powers some of the American policy on foreign affairs in general. The US is seen as being the global police force. In this role, the US is always looking to assert its moral dominance as a matter of fact. If the US is going to have the ability to legislate morality around the world, then it needs to maintain its place as a moral leader. This can only happen if the US is above some of the things that other countries happen to do. This is one of the primary reasons why so many American policy makers disfavor things like torture when they are attempting to set how the US is going to move forward with its policy approach. There is another way to look at virtue ethics in this perspective. Public policy is ultimately a large scale concept that is executed by individual human beings. While “torture in order to get information” might be a large-scale plan, in order for this to work, individual human beings have to carry out the torture. With this in mind, many public policy makers choose to use virtue ethics in order to justify not putting individuals in the difficult position of having to complete torturous acts.

While it is true that things like torture are outside the bounds of consequentialist policy, there are some ways in which consequentialist reasoning is used in the formation of public policy. While the system seems to operate based upon categorical rules, and based upon ethical imperatives, when it is dealing with human beings in the foreign policy and criminal justice realm, other forms of domestic policy are dealt with using a utilitarian approach for the most part. For instance, one needs to only look at public health policy in order to understand the approach that government actors take in determining public policy. For instance, there are many different policies designed to keep the public safe from harm. Children are required to be vaccinated in order to attend public schools. When people are found to have harmful diseases that can be passed to others, the government can sometimes choose to quarantine them. This happened with the ebola scare, as the government put the clamps on people who could be potentially harmful to those around them. These policies tend to take a look at what things might be best for the greater good rather than respecting the individual dignity of human beings. Think of the woman who was required to stay in her home because she had been in contact with people who had ebola. This, of course, was a violation of her individual rights, but it was justified by the thought that doing so would keep many people from potentially being dangerous. This was a consequentialist approach to be sure. The consequences of allowing her to run free in society would be very serious indeed. She could not only pass this on to one other person, but start an epidemic among the population. The bigger goal of government policy makers was to ensure that the disease was contained and could not be spread in a fast way that the government could not control. The consequence of having one woman quarantined was that the woman would lose her rights for a short period of time. Looking at the plusses and minuses in this situation, it became apparent to all people involved that by restricting her rights, the greatest amount of good could be done for the greatest amount of people. This was a consequentialist approach to things, and it was ultimately one that won out among people of all different political stripes.

A person taking a deontological approach to public policy making would have almost certainly wanted to look at a categorical rule about the woman’s dignity. For instance, the woman might be seen as an autonomous person whose rights should be respected. She should be given the opportunity to go out and attend her job, and to do the things that she does on a daily basis. The deontological approach might not look to the consequences of this decision, but rather, it would say that the person should have dignity that is respected regardless of what might happen. Even if she could present a danger to the outside world, her own rights and dignity are more important than the danger that she might present. Of course, when looking at this kind of decision, it may be right to consider the consequences rather than just operating on the basis of a single rule. This shows at its core that government policy making is not about doing things in only one way. Rather, it is about doing things in multiple ways, and using the approach that best suits the situation that one finds himself in. When one is making policy in one area, it might be best to use categorical imperatives, while in other areas, it might make sense to use a consequentialist approach. Nowhere are these differences more important than in the context of certain items from the Bill of Rights, including freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech presents an area where both of these approaches are used at the same time. As with many of the constitutional provisions that are out there, the Supreme Court has worked hard to establish various rules that govern different situations. On its base level, there is an understanding that freedom of speech is a categorical rule. The overarching constitutional perspective provides a clear understanding that freedom of speech is not something that should be disrespected, but rather, it is something that must be protected as a matter of policy. This is deontological, understanding that some things should just be, regardless of what might result. For instance, there are some things that a person might say to another person that serve no purpose. A person looking to another person and offering an insult is not a nice person, and that speech serves little purpose except to harm. This speech is still protected, though, just on the basis of speech itself being important enough to respect. This is where the concept of content-neutral speech comes from. In many cases, the courts will not even look to the content of the speech in order to see whether it passes constitutional muster. They will, instead, look hard to the nature of the speech. Political speech, for instance, is protected very much by the first amendment, and there is not much analysis done on what is actually said. As long as the speech is political, the words themselves matter very little. This is the deontological approach shining through, with society coming to an understanding that it is critical to accept freedom of speech and protect it just on the basis of what it represents.

When looking at freedom of speech, though, there are other areas in which a consequentialist approach is used. For instance, there are exceptions to the first amendment that apply when “fighting words” are used. If a person uses words that incite another person to become violent, then that speech is not protected by the first amendment. This is a consequentialist approach. Policy makers take a look at what could happen when fighting words are uttered. From that analysis, these policy makers see that when fighting words are uttered, it is often the case that violence and instability occurs. With this happening, the principle of free speech becomes much less important, and protecting society from the consequences that might occur as a result of that speech becomes much more important. The same can be said of a person who shouts “fire” in a crowded theater. This, of course, is an excited utterance out of a person’s mouth. If one was operating out of a purely deontological perspective, then one might say that because something is a form of speech, then that something demands protection. The consequentialist, though, looks at this and determines that the effects of this speech are too much for society to bear. When a person shouts “fire” in a crowded theater, that person can cause people to stampede toward the door. That person, for no good reason at all, creates a situation where others might be injured as a result of his speech. When making this policy, individuals are taking a look at the benefits against the costs for a particular action. They are not looking at this as a general rule, but rather, they are considering in turn the direct things that follow when an action is taken. This is a consequentialist approach at its core, and it is likely the right approach.

When one is making policy, one should do more than just apply one kind of reasoning to one’s decisions. Being a public policy maker in today’s society is very difficult, as there are many different competing concerns that one must take into account. The criminal justice system serves many different goals. It tries to keep people safe, it tries to rehabilitate offenders, and it tries its best to show the world that the US is a place where people are treated with fairness and dignity. Because of this, there have to be different types of moral and ethical reasoning in place depending upon the situation. In some cases, as with the exclusionary rule that governs the collection of evidence, a pragmatic consequentialist approach is needed. This allows trials to flow naturally while not compromising the rights of the offended to too great a level. Beyond that, one might look at things like torture. There is no consequentialist argument against torturing a person who has killed another person. However, there is a deontological argument that should be used, as the US needs to send a message that each citizen requires dignity. Policy making requires one to at times draw arbitrary lines about issues. When should one type of reasoning be used, and when should another be employed? These are hard questions, and they may be the kind of questions that make a person want to use only one type of reasoning at any given point. However, it is clear to any person who studies public policy that policy makers are more than willing to use many different approaches depending upon the complexity of the problem that they are facing and the type of solution or goal that they are working toward.

In summary, public policy making is difficult and serious business that is absolutely not for a person who is not willing to compromise. At the end of the day, public policy is about coming up with solutions that will serve the goals and ideals that the country is looking for. In some realms, a consequentialist approach is utilized. The country makes the difficult decision that it would like to consider the implications of a policy, and it would like to choose the policy that protects the greatest number of people or provides the greatest amount of happiness for the country at large. In other cases, as with the criminal justice system or in some elements of foreign policy, there are deontological approaches that are utilized. The US being what it is, and the US trying to put on the face that it puts on, categorical imperatives often reign supreme, with the country respecting rules about the dignity of human beings and their rights, even if following those rules might produce a poor result from a consequentialist perspective.


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