What do you think?

Today’s extract from What’s Your Problem? Making sense of Social Policy and the Policy Process by Stuart Connor is from Chapter 5 What do you think? which is within part 2 of the text which looks at writing policy

Thought experiment 1

Imagine that you are on a reality/game show in the near future. The increased number of television and digital channels has led to increased competition to attract attention and gain viewers. The show, called Dilemma , puts you in the following real-life situation. In all these scenarios, after the event, should you survive, you will be given a change of identity so that no one will know what you have done and there will also be no legal consequences of your actions. You are standing on a bridge. Beneath you, a runaway tram is hurtling down a track. In its path are five people who will definitely be killed by the tram unless it is stopped. The only way of stopping the tram and saving the people is to jump off the bridge into the tram’s path.

You will be killed, but the five people will survive. Do you jump? However, as you are about to make your decision, the show’s host steps in and changes the scenario. You are still standing on a bridge. Beneath you, a runaway tram is hurtling down a track. In its path are five people who will definitely be killed by the tram unless it is stopped. This time, the only way of stopping the tram is for you, as a bystander, to flip a switch that will divert the tram onto another track. It will still kill one person, but the other five people will survive. Should you flip the switch? Once again, as you are about to make your decision, the host steps in and makes another change. The scenario is repeated. The tram is still out of control, with five people in its path. You are back on the bridge, but now there is man standing on the very edge of the bridge next to you. You realise that with very little physical effort, you could push him off the bridge into the path of the tram. He would undoubtedly die, but he would also stop the tram from crashing into the five people, saving their lives. Do you push him?


This is not a format for a game show, not yet, anyway This is not a format for a game show, not yet, anyway, but actually a thought experiment – an exercise of the imagination that can be used to examine a range of questions, including questions of morality and ethics. For example, did you provide different answers in each of the different scenarios? Did you choose to act in any of these scenarios, or do you think it is unacceptable to kill other people, even it saves more people’s lives? If you did act, did you find it easier to flip the switch than to push the man next to you? If so, why? Did you choose to jump and sacrifice your own life? If not, why is your life more valuable than others’?

The terms ethics is derived from the Greek word ethos , which we discussed in the context of rhetoric in Chapter 3 . Ethics can refer to the customs, habits, character or disposition of an individual, community institution or society. However, ethics is also taken to mean what is good, and how we decide what is good, for individuals and society – part of what is described as moral philosophy . It is these questions of how we should live and act that are of interest in this chapter. This may include arriving at prescriptions or methods for establishing what should be our rights and responsibilities and how to recognise what is right and what is wrong. Of course, when it comes to such ethical questions, religion, cultural traditions, professional associations, laws or the values of parents, friends and community may provide the answers to these questions. However,
an examination of ethics allows us to investigate the assumptions that underpin any inherited notions of what is right and wrong.

Ethics also allows us to consider how we are to act if we seek to go beyond such habits and customs. Ethics doesn’t always show the right answer to a moral problem. Indeed, it may be that there is no one right answer as to what ought to be done. However, a rudimentary understanding of different approaches to ethics does provide a map and set of navigational tools for exploring such debates. In this chapter, you are being asked to consider, not just what your own ethics are, but also what status and role do ethical statements have in your world view. For example, do you think that there are ethical ‘facts’ and therefore your role could or should be to identify these facts and to ensure that people are aware of and then abide by these ethical truths. Alternatively, do you think that ethics is subjective , and your role is to clarify your own ethical position and explore the reasons for this position, while also attending to the ethical positions of others? Now consider the implications of these two different positions for policy. As a moral realist, you may argue that the means and ends of a particular policy are wrong and therefore it should not be permitted. The point being that once the truth is established, there is little room for discussion.

Policy becomes the preserve of authorities who are able to decide the nature of these ethical truths. Alternatively, moral subjectivism means that we can never be certain of the ethical goodness of our policies. We also have to take into account the potential myriad of perspectives on what counts as an ethical policy, which also may require us to leave open the possibility that our own view of ethics can be revised, particularly as we have now introduced some doubt as to what is right and wrong.

The approach from moral realism appears to leave little room for debate, while moral subjectivism can lead to a cacophony of dispute and disagreement, with no apparent criteria or mechanism by which to resolve such disputes. Arguably, this is  where policy comes in again, for not only may a policy be intended to do good, but the process of policy making also has the potential to provide a forum for exploring, examining and challenging what is the good to be sought in the first instance. This is part of the role of the analysts, as discussed in Chapter 4 , but is also an issue to be described further in Chapter 7 . For the moment, though, this chapter is concerned with identifying the potential terms of such a discussion and the different approaches available for deriving ethics and what counts as the qualities of goodness that are to be realised. To this end, three approaches, namely consequentialist, deontological and virtue ethics, are outlined and summarised in Table 5.1 . These three approaches do not exhaust all the potential ways of examining ethics, and this overview should not be considered as providing a comprehensive account of each. Rather the aim is to draw attention to some of the key features, assumptions and implications of these ethical approaches for engaging with the problem policy process.

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