Summary of "American Ethics and Public Policy"

Summary of

American Ethics and Public Policy

By Abraham Kaplan

Summary written by T.A. O'Lonergan, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: American Ethics and Public Policy, Abraham Kaplan, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), 110pp.

American Ethics and Public Policy is a philosophical examination of the relationship between ethics and public policy which refers one to standard philosophical works.

American Ethics and Public Policy will be useful for those who wish to understand the ethical basis for public policy. Kaplan begins with an examination of the metaphysical and empirical foundations of American values. Kaplan asserts that the drive to uncover the metaphysical principles underlying political values is "... a search not just for ultimate premises, but for conclusions, too." The author discusses what he asserts to be the three main paths which Americans have traditionally taken in search of these underlying premises and conclusions: social religion, moral intuition, and empirical science. In searching for an explanation of the empirical foundation of American values Kaplan asserts that natural rights can be "... made all of a piece with the stuff of concrete experience." Kaplan asserts natural rights to be of an empirical nature because, "... whatever their source, they are known only in experience."

Kaplan examines what he terms the 'dualistic code' by which he means the cultural dualism which arises out of the response to assertions that American materialism prevents the sort of life in which one might strive toward human excellences. From here the author moves toward an examination of American pragmatism in which he relies heavily on anecdotal references to Russell and Dewey. Moral absolutism and a code of conformity are discussed in an effort to explain American values. This discussion concludes that the "... American moral code is absolutist and conformist." However, the assertion is, this is not the absolutism or conformity of dictatorships or totalitarian states. In an attempt to expose the relationship between morality and the law the author asserts a distinction between the two. Kaplan evidently disagrees with Dworkin's assertions in this regard.

From the discussion of the relationship between morality and the law, Kaplan moves toward a discussion of morality and power. After arguing that the latter does not determine the former he moves to praise for American political ideals, discounting the common criticisms directed toward them. Kaplan offers a methodology of morals which he supports with reference to the Federalist Papers. The author's examination leads him to the conclusion that: "Whatever its shortcomings, it is the old-fashioned American dream that brought America moral greatness." Kaplan's arguments fail to support this conclusion.

American Ethics and Public Policy is a cursory look at the relationship between ethics and public policy. One may benefit from examination of the works to which Kaplan refers for a broader look at the ethical basis of American values.