The Ethical Dimensions of Policy Analysis


The field of public policy is dominated by the social sciences. Schools and departments of public policy and public administration are largely populated by economists, political scientists, and sociologists, and the vast majority of work in prestigious public policy journals employs empirical methods. This is unsurprising, in one respect, for collecting data, predicting and identifying the causal impacts of policies, and understanding political institutions and processes are massive, important tasks that require the tools of the social sciences. It is surprising, in another respect however, since much policy scholarship and analysis aspires to offer recommendations to policymakers, and recommendations necessarily involve evaluative judgments, for example, that the status quo is deficient and that a certain course of action will make things better. To defend such judgments, policy scholars and analysts cannot appeal to the social sciences alone for these judgments concern the realm of values, not facts. Instead, careful ethical reflection and analysis is required. This need for ethical reflection in public policy is particularly evident in the practice of policy analysis, a principal analytic tool of the field. Policy analyses involve the identification of policy problems, the specification of criteria for evaluating possible solutions, and the recommendation that a policy option offers the best balance of trade offs. This identification of bads, the specification of goods policies should realize, and the weighing of these goods with the judgment that policymakers should or ought to pursue this course of action or that, are all deeply ethical activities. Ethical reflection and analysis is thus a constituent feature of policy analysis, and like the amassing of evidence and projection of outcomes, this reflection and analysis may be performed well or badly. The overall aim of this book is to provide students, scholars, and practitioners of public policy with guidance regarding the ethical dimensions of policy analysis. My aim in this chapter is to set the stage, providing an overview of these dimensions. After providing a brief overview of the practice of policy analysis, I identify the steps of an analysis where analysts must make ethical judgments in order to move forward, and fully articulate the ethical questions they must confront and take a position on.

Author Profiles

Douglas MacKay
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill


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