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Normative Theory and Policy Evaluation

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Public Administration & Management:

An Interactive Journal

6, 3, 2001, pp. 87-90

Normative Theory and Policy


Stuart Nagel

MKM-PSO-DSI Center and University of Illinois


An interesting question concerns the ethical obligations of people

who do policy analysis research. Such research often involves ethical

dilemmas that relate to:

1. Whether one's purposes should include prescription or evaluation, as

well as prediction or explanation.

2. Whether or not to work to maximize the interests of a political party,

special interest group, or only general societal interests.

3. Focusing on intended consequences versus all consequences.

4. Efficiency versus equity as policy goals.

5. Evaluation along versus evaluation plus diverse replication as an


6. Cost-incurring versus cost-saving in research.

7. Whether or not to share one's raw data.

8. Research validity versus questionable findings that are not

sufficiently questioned.

9. Whether or not to put people at risk in policy evaluation.

Openness may be the key factor underlying the resolution of ethical

dilemmas in policy evaluation. The situation is like the blue sky laws that

regulate the securities markets. A stockbroker can legitimately sell the blue

sky so long as he informs potential customers and others what they are

Normative Theory


getting. Likewise, policy evaluators may be complying with basic ethical

obligations when they make clear exactly what they are doing on matters

such as in the above nine dilemmas.

Perhaps, however, to resolve these ethical dilemmas, more

affirmative critique may be needed than just openness in reporting one's

research. In the analogy to the blue sky laws, one might argue that a

stockbroker should have an ethical obligation not to sell worthless stock,

rather than merely an obligation to report that she or he is selling stock in a

corporation whose liabilities exceed its assets and which has been taking a

loss in recent years.


In discussing ethical policy analysis, one should discuss both

individual and societal ethics. Individual ethics refer to standards of

professional behavior, as previously mentioned. Societal ethics refer to the

goals that society should be seeking and toward which public policy should

be directed. On a high level of generality, one can say that society should

be seeking to maximize societal benefits minus societal costs in making

policy decisions. The concept of "societal" refers to the collective good in

the sense of such ideas as:

1. The greatest happiness for the greatest number, as expounded by

such utilitarians as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill and to a

lesser extent by American pragmatists such as William James and

John Dewey.

2. Bringing up the bottom with regard to those who are least well off,

as expounded by John Rawls.

3. Doing things that make everyone better off or at

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