Ethics and Public Policy
This paper discusses the application of the major ethical theories of consequentialism (utilitarianism), deontology, and virtue ethics to a specific policy question, namely how to improve the nutrition of the nation’s poor and to reduce the rise in food insecurity. It also discusses the implications of ethical theories such as determinism and moral relativism. First, the theory is discussed in the abstract, followed by an exposition of how the theory relates to real-world practice. The paper concludes with a more general reflection on the implications of ethical theories for public policy-makers. The specific merits of virtue ethics are stressed vs. The more extreme and polarizing views of deontology and consequentialism.
An ethical dilemma: Food insecurity
One of the dilemmas facing public policy-makers regarding food insecurity and the need to improve the diet of poor Americans is the balance between individual liberties and the need to collectively improve the health of the nation. A number of proposals have arisen from time to time, with varying levels of success, to limit the amount of sugar, sweet drinks and unhealthy foods that are disproportionately consumed by the poor. These proposals include improving the nutrition of school lunches; banning certain items from the EBT (electronic benefits transfer or ‘food stamp’ program) list of items that can be purchased with such benefits; and limiting the amount of soda that can be purchased at any one time. While these limits may reduce the temptation of eating unhealthy foods, there are also concerns about excessive government intervention in people’s diets, particularly the lives of the poor and disenfranchised who cannot speak for themselves.
One common ethical perspective to use is that of consequentialism, or solely focusing on the consequences of specific actions. Perhaps the best-known format deployed with a consequentialist mindset is that of utilitarianism, which stresses doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. A way to think of utilitarianism in public policy terms is the cost-benefit analysis, whereby the costs of an action (financial costs, opportunity costs, the costs to individual liberties) are weighed against the potential benefits. “Consequentialists hold that choices — acts and/or intentions — are to be morally assessed solely by the states of affairs they bring about. Consequentialists thus must specify initially the states of affairs that are intrinsically valuable — often called, collectively, ‘the Good'” (Alexander & Moore 2012).
For example, one common proposal to improve people’s diets is to set limits upon the calories, sugar, and other nutritional components of school lunches, given that children and adolescents eat a disproportionate number of their daily calories in school. From a utilitarian standpoint, children who receive subsidized or free school lunches might see a substantial improvement in their health — the type of poor, often non-white children who tend to suffer in disproportionate numbers from both obesity and food insecurity. From a utilitarian perspective, the only question would be if the policy was actually effective, concerns about an individual student’s ‘right’ to consume junk food or an individual parent to monitor the diet would be irrelevant.
However, there have been protests to these policies from a rights-based concept. For example, the students of Wallace County High School in Kansas even created a YouTube parody, “We Are Hungry” that complained about the new federal calorie and nutrition restrictions on school lunches. “Protesters in Kansas and elsewhere say 850 calories isn’t enough for some high-schoolers, particularly athletes who can burn calories by the thousands” (School lunch protest video, 2012, CS Monitor). On one hand, some students (particularly students in affluent districts with many afterschool commitments who might not be able to eat dinner until very late at night or students in this largely farm-based Kansas district) might suffer as a result of these restrictions while advocates of limiting calories and improving nutrition for students would argue that given that the problem for the majority of students in America is that they are getting too many rather than too few calories, a utilitarian calculus would err on the side of attempting to improve the health of students who are overweight.
From a deontological perspective, however, the emphasis is not on the consequences of the action but upon the reasoning of the person behind the decision and the need to uphold eternal moral laws. “In contrast to consequentialist theories, deontological theories judge the morality of choices by criteria different from the states of affairs those choices bring about. The most familiar forms of deontology, and also the forms presenting the greatest contrast to consequentialism, hold that some choices cannot be justified by their effects — that no matter how morally good their consequences, some choices are morally forbidden…for such deontologists, the Right is said to have priority over the Good. If an act is not in accord with the Right, it may not be undertaken, no matter the Good that it might produce” (Alexander & Moore 2012). Deontologists believe that consequences are unpredictable, thus the best way to behave morally is to do the right thing in principle.
A good example of deontological principles in action regarding government regulation of eating habits can be seen in regards to the ban on extra-large sodas in New York City. While the ban may have had some good effects, given that soda calories are nutritionally empty calories and people who have excess weight are more likely to consume sugary soda in excess, it was ultimately declared unconstitutional in the court system. “The law, which would have prohibited those businesses from selling sodas and other sugary beverages larger than 16 ounces (473 ml), violated the state principle of separation of powers,” the First Department of the state Supreme Court’s Appellate Division said” (Bloomberg’s ban on big sodas is unconstitutional, 2013, Reuters.). Ethically speaking, legal scholars often take a deontological perspective: even if a law may have positive social effects, if it violates constitutional principles it cannot be allowed to stand. The Court found that the way in which the law was written was unfairly discriminatory — for example, stores like 7-11s could still sell Big Gulps because they were technically supermarkets, although restaurants and movie theaters could not. Even if a law might have a good effect (resulting in people drinking less sugary soda, it must still adhere to legal principles).
Another ethical system is that of virtue ethics, which stresses the need for persons to have a good character more so than focusing on consequences or moral principles. Inherent to the perspective of virtue ethics is that situations may change, and thus the specifics of an ethical decision may need to shift even though the moral ‘core’ of the person should remain unchanged. “Virtue ethics is a broad term for theories that emphasize the role of character and virtue in moral philosophy rather than either doing one’s duty or acting in order to bring about good consequences. A virtue ethicist is likely to give you this kind of moral advice: “act as a virtuous person would act in your situation” (Athanassoulis 2014). Fostering ‘the good person’ rather than the ‘good decision’ is the focus of virtue ethicists. In terms of public policy, this idea of nudging people to make better decisions can be seen in examples such as allowing people to shop at farmer’s markets with their EBT or the push to stock grocery stores in low-income areas with healthier foods.
However, the simple presence of grocery stores is not enough to ensure that people inevitably avail themselves of healthier options. According to The New York Times, a longitudinal study of “young and middle-aged adults, found that while fast food consumption was associated with fast food availability for low-income people, consumption of fruits and vegetable and diet quality were not related to the availability of grocery stores” (Bornstein 2012). In other words, habitual consumption of junk food can be a hard habit to break and there must be a moral education in the virtues of health combined with such increased access. It is not enough to merely make healthier food available but people also must be able to understand the personal consequences of eating unhealthy foods.
All three of the major ethical theories — consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics — presuppose a certain degree of moral choice and autonomy for the moral actor. Although all systems may attempt to influence that choice, ultimately the ethical system is based upon a presumption of freedom of choice. However, as more has come to have been known about human biology, there is a countervailing sentiment that are greater percentage of our behaviors may be genetically determined than previously believed. Certain individuals may have a predisposition to obesity, for example. Also, certain factors in the environment (such as food insecurity and a lack of access to food while a child) can influence the expression of certain genes and thus influence later eating habits and bodily weight in a fashion that an individual cannot easily change. Determinist views of ethics stress the ‘predetermined’ nature of ethical decision-making. “The theory of Universal Causation maintains that everything in the universe (including human action) has a cause which precedes it” (Free will and determinism, 2011, RS Revision).
Of course, determinism is a relatively old philosophy (the ancient Greeks and the Puritans were famous believers in unalterable fate). However, only recently has the influence of genetics begun to raise speculation about the degree to which people can or cannot control their fates. According to the “thrifty genotype’ hypothesis, the same genes that helped our ancestors survive occasional famines are now being challenged by environments in which food is plentiful year round” (Obesity and genetics, 2014, CDC). This suggests that people should not be blamed for their inability to lose weight, given that genes in conjunction with changes in the environment make weight loss more difficult for them, just as it is harder for some people to learn calculus or how to play the clarinet.
A final, commonly expressed ethical theory is relativism, or the notion that ‘everything is relative’ — i.e., that morality and ‘the good’ lie not in objective truth but in our subjective perceptions. “Ethical relativism is the theory that holds that morality is relative to the norms of one’s culture. That is, whether an action is right or wrong depends on the moral norms of the society in which it is practiced. The same action may be morally right in one society but be morally wrong in another” (Velasquez 2014). This idea might suggest that the idea that being overweight is bad is a historical attitude, rather than something that is objectively true and the reason that obesity has come to be seen as negative is because food is less scarce than in previous eras. Poor people today tend to consume more rather than fewer empty calories, the inverse of what was true in the past when only the wealthy could afford food in large amounts, desserts, and prepared foods. However, this would seem to be a denial of a great deal of scientific evidence suggesting obesity is unhealthy (although a relativist might point out that many behaviors are unhealthy but not all are stigmatized as obesity). In general, relativism is not particularly useful from the point-of-view of a policy ethicist, given that some sort of a proactive stance must be taken regarding human health and there is often public demand that the government address specific issues, even if what issues are most critical may be contentious.
From a public policy standpoint, utilitarianism is often the way that issues are reviewed. Every decision has an opportunity cost, including a financial one, and policy experts must be mindful of this. It is impossible to do ‘everything’ and ‘please everyone’ so doing the greatest good for the majority of one’s constituents is often the best alternative. However, from a deontological perspective, the laws of the land must still be respected. Simply because a policy might improve the lives of the majority of the nation or even be approved of by the majority of Americans does not mean that it is constitutional.
Personal and professional leadership in public policy often means striking a balance between utilitarianism and deontology. Perhaps this is why the less absolute perspective of virtue ethics seems more applicable to public policy: focusing on improving people’s decision-making capacities with more choices rather than prescribing solutions and limiting their rights can be a more refreshing perspective to take, particularly with the thorny issue of lifestyle-related diseases and complaints. Professional integrity means embracing a constituent-first philosophy and balancing the needs of the individuals and the community. Virtue ethics also stresses the need for policy makers themselves to be good people and to make educated and informed decisions on a case-by-case basis.
Discussing ethical dilemmas in a class setting has proven to be invaluable for me because it enables me to understand how to apply ethical theory to specific situations and to become that ‘good’ person of virtue. It is very easy to explain ethical theories in words, but theories do not mean very much to a professional acting in the public interest unless there is a critical examination of how they relate to the real world. Understanding ethics has made me more convinced than ever before that we cannot be doctrinaire in approaches to difficult problems and need to seek creative and flexible solutions rather than adhering to a very rigid model of cost-benefit analysis. Public administrators are ultimately there to help people better their lives, not simply to focus upon reaching certain ‘goal’ numbers.
Athanassoulis, N. (2014). Virtue ethics. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved http://www.iep.utm.edu/virtue/
Alexander, Larry and Moore, Michael. (2012). Deontological ethics. The Stanford Encyclopedia
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Bloomberg’s ban on big sodas is unconstitutional. (2013). Reuters. Retrieved from:
Bornstein, D. (2012). Time to revisit food deserts. The New York Times. Retrieved from:
Free will and determinism. (2011). RS Revision. Retrieved from:
Obesity and genetics. (2014). CDC. Retrieved from:
School lunch protest video: “We are Hungry” parodies new menus (+video). (2013). CS Monitor.
Velasquez, M, Andre, C., Shanks, T.S.J., & Meyer, M.J. (2014). Ethical relativism.
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