Friday, November 02, 2007

The Difficulties of Good Works

This article from the Washington Post, "Fulfillment Elusive for Young Altruists In the Crowded Field of Public Interest," is depressing. It's nonetheless important to read, especially for my students.

As you know, I teach some of the philosophically-inclined courses in a school of public policy. My students are all grad students, both Masters and Ph.D. students, and a diverse, international group.

The doctoral students often have their careers already up and running. They usually come from some experience in government or international agencies such as the World Bank, and are earning Ph.D.s as an extension of theoretical research or fieldwork they've already been doing.

The Masters students also often come from work backgrounds, but they're often less sure about what they're going to do, and even want to do, after the degree. They're all very sharp and motivated. The Masters students, especially, are often quite activist and idealist. They're doing environmental policy or social policy or international development not because they've spied some self-interested fit into a good job and salary. They all want these things and rightly so. But they're taking these routes because they've seen a real, existential problem, and want to work on solving or at least mitigating it: poverty, climate change, economic development within fragile ecosystems, welfare reform, biodiversity loss, etc. They sometimes do go on to do precisely what they want to do. Sometimes, however, they find themselves beholden to the ways and means of Policy World, which constantly carves away at their intentions and goals, reshaping them into disposable, substitutable policy workers. The former is much less a matter of intelligence and motivation as it is luck. It's luck because, as the WaPo article points out, the world in which you can put to use an intelligent mind committed to good causes is tightly constricted.

One might say that the problem is the competitive surplus of such graduates in a limited market. I say that the limited market itself is the problem - it suggests a climate of unhealthy social, political, and economic priorities. And I think this runs even to those agencies, NGOs, and so on ostensibly committed to good causes. Much of the international development world, for instance, is dominated by large grant-seeking outfits committed more to perpetually funding themselves than to thinking imaginatively about how to solve the problems that ostensibly give their existence any meaning at all or to actually doing the work. Creative ideas, genuinely good work, and moral commitments are at a serious disadvantage in this basically corrupt environment.

Curiously, the grad students generally take to the more philosophical courses. One is required of all students, but the others are electives. Every semester, I can count on teaching small-ish seminars of some of the best and brightest students we have at the school. It's not as if philosophy has much of a role in the Policy World. It doesn't. The Policy World bumps along with the usual unexamined sets of assumptions, axioms, and methods - many or most of them drawn from economics - even when philosophical analysis could help in determining where these assumptions, axioms, and methods lead to unwanted policy outcomes for reasons beyond the orthodox assumptions, axioms, and methods. I see the students engage in intelligent reflection (often publishable!) on the philosophical features of policy.

Philosophy and idealism, in the non-philosophical sense of the term, don't necessarily go together. Read your Emil Cioran if you doubt this. But philosophy can help in reconstructing institutions, assumptions, axioms, and methods when one suspects that there's something awry in the going institutions, assumptions, axioms, and methods. I don't approach this in an a priori way, where all we have to do is get our philosophical theory right and then apply it. I approach it as an ongoing project of thought thinking about both the problems of experience and the means of description and interpretation that we have at any given moment for understanding those problems. Through this experimental process, we might be able to do some re-descriptive and re-interpretive work towards better understanding the problem at hand and how we might move towards resolving it, always looking for diverse conceptual and normative tools to put to use or trying to create them when they're not at hand. The students' idealism suggests that they've already done quite a bit of philosophical reflection and so I seek to help analyze it, critique it, refine it, nurture it, and put new epistemological and ethical tools at their disposal.

These students head into the policy world. They're smart and motivated and not unwisely idealistic. Now, I understand fully that idealism is always going to be tempered by the realities of the workaday world, economic realities, feasibility considerations, and the structures and goals of institutions through which we live and work. But these are also all alterable, even if such reconstructions take place slowly. My worry is when people with good minds, thoughtful goals, and who are driven to contribute in meaningful ways to society discover that the inherited world has little space for such things. Further, future generations won't inherit a world of decency and opportunity because the people who could help create such conditions encountered insurmountable barriers to doing so.


MT said...

I think I realized all this as a sophomore, if not earlier. I think I have a gift for rationalizing inaction and despair. The thousand points of light are little flames and the economy is the ocean.

Graeme said...

We have an economic system that discourages this sort of thing.

troutsky said...

idealism itself is subject to this process of normative categorization and as expectations are lowered and lowered.. The cynicism takes hold. A hedge fund manager walks away with multi-million dollar parachutes and the activist/advocate can't put tires on his/her car.

helmut said...

These students aren't blind. They usually recognize the limitations. The thing is that you're better off going to business school or law school if you want to work at all in policy. That suggests a primitive form of policy making in itself - business pushes and law pulls.