Advances in Ecological Economics series
Chapter C.: Ethical and philosophical limits
As you graduate I want to remind you of something you already know. Since you have not only chosen to study public policy, but have persevered to graduate with a Master’s degree, you must already have rejected the perennial and pernicious philosophical doctrines of determinism and nihilism. That is what I want to remind you of. Determinists believe that there is only one possible future, rigidly determined either by atoms in motion, selfish genes, dialectical materialism, toilet training, or the puppet strings of a predestining deity. If there is only one possible future state of the world then there are no options, nothing to choose from, and therefore no need for policy – or schools of public policy or Master’s degrees in public policy. You should head straight to the unemployment office! You are necessarily non-determinists who must believe that there are at least a few possible alternative future states of the world, and that purposive policy can be causative in choosing among them. Of course there are also many merely conceivable or imaginary futures that really can be ruled out as impossible – such as, for example, growing the economy forever on a finite planet that is subject to the laws of thermodynamics and ecological interdependence. Our commitment to the fantasy of unlimited growth as the foundation of all national policy should top the list of things to be reconsidered. But that is a story for another time. My point for today is that after eliminating all impossible futures we are still left with more than one possible future.
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