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Volume 26 Number 3



  • Introduction: Ethics and Public Policy
    Carol Bacchi and Paul Jewell

    Public policy affects people’s lives. That is its very intention. How public policy is formulated, what drives it and how it is implemented is scrutinised by scholars and students in law, politics, social administration and philosophy, not to mention the citizens who are its recipients and the professionals who work within it. Since people’s wellbeing is affected by public policy, policy issues seem clearly to be ethical issues. Yet rarely are they represented as such.

    Intrigued by this phenomenon, the contributors to this special edition got together to address three related questions. 1. Why are some policy issues described as ethical and others not? 2. How do issues become defined as “ethical” in policy? 3. What are the ethical implications of how issues are defined in policy?

  • The Ethics of Problem Representation: Widening the Scope of Ethical Debate
    Carol Bacchi

    This paper makes a case for extending the scope of ethical reflection and debate in public policy beyond the current tendency to confine ethical scrutiny to the behaviours of individual politicians or public servants, and/or to a restricted set of issues characterized as “moral” issues, decided by “conscience” (eg abortion, euthanasia, etc.). It argues that reflecting on the ways in which public policies construct or represent social “problems” provides a rationale for broadening ethical scrutiny to the basic purposes of government. This is because the ways in which policy “problems” are represented (problem representations) have a range of ethical implications for targeted groups and individuals and for the general population, in terms of people’s sense of self-worth, their participation in democratic decision-making, and their ability to live full and meaningful lives.

  • Ethics and Issues in Public Policy
    Chris Provis

    Several reasons can be identified which discourage issues from being defined as “ethical” issues in public policy making. One is the cost of resolving ethical issues, another is that it is harder to predict what the outcomes will be of argument and discussion about ethical issues, and a third is that identifying issues as ethical makes salient the prospect for allocating moral responsibility and blame. Efforts to increase the scope of market mechanisms are associated with avoidance of ethical issues, since markets offer routine, quasi-mechanical processes to resolve disagreement. However, to avoid definition of issues as ethical problems tends to push aside some concerns which it is important to address as part of human life.

  • Problems, Policies and Ethics in Health Care
    Wendy A. Rogers

    There are three factors necessary for the successful implementation of a policy. First, a problem has to be identified in a way that invites action. Second, there must be a policy that fits the problem in question. And third, there must be the political will to tackle the problem with the policy. Each of these factors is necessary but not sufficient for policy development; implementation requires a happy conjunction of all three. To date there has been little overt ethical analysis in relation to policy development by those identifying as ethicists. This paper describes three potential roles for ethics analysis in the problem policy-politics nexus, arguing that ethicists have a role to play in the identification of problems and in the substantive and procedural evaluation of policies. In addition, wherever ethics language is used overtly, ethicists have a duty to investigate and offer critiques of the notions in question, both on their own merits and against accepted usage and normative frameworks.

  • Policy as Ethics: Sterilisation of Girls with Intellectual Disability
    Paul Jewell

    Any public policy could be seen as an ethical issue, but only some are represented as such and debated using ethical terms. If a policy is generally accepted by the community, then it will not be seen as a controversy meriting debate. If a policy is contentious, protagonists may call upon a variety of paradigms to advance their positions or seek resolution, using, for example, legal arguments, or medical justifications. If there is no such agreed paradigm, the controversy may be framed as an ethical issue. An illustrative example is the debate concerning the sterilisation of young women who have intellectual disabilities. Are there any circumstances in which it is justifiable for parents to arrange for the sterilisation of their daughter who has an intellectual disability such that she is unable to make such a decision for herself ? There is a debate about the role and responsibilities of the family in deciding whether or not to seek sterilisation, and, in contrast, the role of the state in demanding that such decisions be monitored and authorised.

    The issue is fundamentally ethical, but attempts to resolve it have been medical and legal. The debate has been conducted through the procedures of guardianship boards and courts, through academic articles, and in mass media. The problem is seen by some as a private matter, by others as a medical one, by some as an example of prudence and care and by others as an example of eugenics. This paper offers an explanation of why some issues are deemed by the community to be ethical in nature. It provides an ethical analysis of the sterilisation debate, reveals an over-emphasis on rights at the expense of other ethical strategies and concludes that informed ethical commentary can further resolution where medically informed legal approaches have been unsatisfactory.

  • Contesting Representations of Poverty: Ethics and Evaluation
    Angelique Bletsas

    This paper starts from the proposition that poverty is a contested concept and that debates about poverty are about more than questions of measurement and technical definition. Debates about poverty, I argue, are ultimately debates about the appropriate role of governments in the alleviation of poverty, and hence are about governance. On these grounds I claim that evaluations of competing conceptions of poverty should be interrogated not merely for their technical or epistemological soundness, but also on ethical grounds. To develop this argument, I explore representations of poverty in government policy. I look briefly at the Commonwealth Government’s1 understanding of poverty and more comprehensively at the South Australian Government’s Social Inclusion Unit. I find that, in both examples, poverty is represented to be an outcome of the poor choices of individuals, and proceed to reflect upon the inadequate ethical and governmental commitments that I find this particular representation of poverty entails.
  • The Ethics of Problem Representation in Public Education Policy: From Educational Disadvantage to Individual Deficits
    Peter McInerney

    This paper explores the ways in which notions of educational disadvantage have been reshaped and redefined in policy discourses during the ascendancy of neo-liberal governance in Australia. Over the past decade there has been a pronounced shift away from social democratic tradition of social justice towards more market-individualistic approaches that have called into question the ethical responsibilities of governments when it comes to challenging inequitable educational policies and practices. Commonwealth policy now leaves little place for socially produced disadvantage, as manifestations of disadvantage are typically described in educational terms and hence to be redressed by schools. What is most disturbing is that the problem is now being constructed around individual deficits, rather than structural inequalities. I conclude with a brief outline of ethical alternatives to current policies.

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