I am a public administration student at the University of Nevada, Reno, and what my studies this semester have taught me is that there is no true way to separate politics from policy and administration. The way in which we govern, the bureaucrats that we ask or need to govern, and the decisions that are made will always be political because it is not possible to take self-interest out of the decision making process. We can be technical and rational in our approaches to a problem or in our implementation of policy, but ultimately the direction and base of our decision making is a value judgement. Rational thinking can establish the best means by which we can accomplish something but the ends are always value judgements that we make.
With that in mind, we can use empirical evidence to shape our decision making and we can base our ultimate goals on evidence and research, but we should recognize that the goals we set are ultimately shaped by value judgements, even if they are reasonable value judgements. This is where Peter Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do, comes in. Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, and his recent book focuses on effective altruism and how to live a life that is more impactful and like the title suggests, provides the most good to humanity.
At one point in his book, which I read well before my venture into a public administration masters program, he focuses on moral decision making from the point of reason. In synthesizing other philosophers he writes,
“A reasonable person seeks to hold beliefs that are in accord with the relevant evidence and values that are not open to reasonable criticism by others. … Sound ethical decisions as those that others cannot reasonably reject. Granted, all this leaves open what values are reasonable, but at a minimum reasonable values are values that are not influenced by biased thinking and hence can be defended to others.”
Values and moral judgement can flow from rational thought as an individual expands their perspective and synthesizes more information. Self reflection and moral considerations can help an individual develop a worldview where their ethical frameworks are shaped not by emotion but by empirical evidence and rational thought. We can develop strong arguments that the moral and ethical world views created in this manner support the ultimate well being of all humanity, but first we must establish what we will use as our measure, and in his book Singer suggests that we use suffering as our measuring stick. The more our actions reduce suffering across the globe, the more our actions are in line with rational values that can be empirically measured and rationally defended.
Where I see an ultimate breakdown is that the ultimate decision, that humans should act to reduce all suffering on the planet, is still a value judgement. It is one that can be reached through rational thought and relative to other goals can be defended through reason, but it is still a value judgement that we put forward. I agree with Singer and find his arguments for effective altruism incredibly motivational, but I think we must accept that our rational thought process is only establishing rational means to achieve a value based end, and we should develop a more open and honest forum for discussing the ends that we aim for.