Looking back: Ethics and leadership defined by human superiority (and, I got my diploma!)

diplomaHaving just received my MPA diploma in the mail (it really happened!), I couldn’t help but think back to my experience learning about public policy and administration.  I particularly remember one summer ethics and leadership course, but not for the reasons you may suspect (bad behavior of politicians, anyone?).  I took similar classes in my MSW program years ago so I expected it to be the same. One thing in particular, however, made that course vastly different. The class featured a lot more philosophy. We read Kant, Aristotle, Mill, Rawls…you name it. Or him, I should say. In addition to the fact that we only read the works of men, most of the philosophers defined human morality and similar themes by the superiority of humans over animals. It was a persistent theme. At one point, I tweeted an exceptionally annoying quote:

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Every reading seemed to include something about how humans are better than nonhumans because we can think and they can’t, we’re moral beings and they aren’t. Am I surprised? Not really. Humans have been using superiority arguments forever, to justify cruelty and exploitation, and science keeps proving those arguments wrong. But what was notable was the absolute saturation of this norm of superiority throughout history and philosophy. This course was about ethical behavior and the majority of the readings supported norms that promote violence and exploitation. That certainly gave me pause.

I was never a dedicated student of philosophy, so it would be interesting to get a philosopher’s take on this observation. I’m sure there are many other philosophers out there who don’t promote the might makes right mentality and harmful power-over norms. It would have been nice to read their works. So while this is indeed commentary about how we prepare public service leaders, it is also an observation  – connecting the dots, promoting positive norms, and redefining ethical behavior takes place within the above context.

I remember a very strong sense of being alone in the class. But then I thought of all the connectionists out there who may not have been in my class, but with whom I share community. I actually walked away from this course with hope because instead of reminding me about how hard the work is, it reminded me about this growing movement. We support each other in making holistic change for a peaceful and just world for ALL.

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