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Law, Morality and Policy Intertwine as Professor Looks at How and Why

Madison Powers

December 16, 2008 - He says the question underscores what he hopes to teach his students – how to apply various philosophical theories to analyze current policy issues and decisions.

“In terms of solving practical problems, one should not be too tied down to a narrow ideological commitment,” says Powers, who is also director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics. “These kinds of narrow ideological things are largely unhelpful and largely unreflective philosophical commitments.”

Policy from a Philosophical Viewpoint

The professor focuses on the moral relation between the state and the individual and the intersection of bioethics and political morality. And as a Georgetown professor for more than 20 years, he has built upon that work to help his students debate opposing ideas about the role and responsibilities of government.

He aims to help his them step back and examine policy questions through a range of philosophical theories – both ancient and contemporary. The resulting debates are fueled far more by ideas than by the ideological squabbles that often plague modern political discourse.

Before taking the professor’s Ethics, Law and Morality course, Alisha Crovetto (C’10) says she never considered the limits of state power from a formal philosophical or moral approach.

“I’d read Aristotle, Mill and Locke in other classes, but never with a focus on the relationship between the individual and her government,” she says. “Now, when I engage in discussion about whether the government is adopting a policy that is too paternalistic or is failing to take necessary steps to protect its citizens, I have respected philosophical arguments I can draw on to support my claims.”

A Moral Perspective on the Law

Powers’ numerous books and publications tackle issues such as the moral foundations of health policy, gender and AIDS, justice and genetics, privacy issues and health care reform – all interests born from his previous career as a Tennessee lawyer.

As an attorney, worked on antitrust cases in health care and civil rights cases.

While he felt his work had made a difference in the lives of many across the country, he says nine years in the courtroom began to push him in a new direction.

“I got interested in the relationship between law and morality and how judges decide tough questions,” says Powers, who later received his doctorate in political philosophy and the philosophy of the law at Oxford University.

Robert Veatch, professor of medical ethics in the Kennedy Institute, describes his colleague as one of the great minds advancing the difficult debate on economics and social justice in health care and attributes that to his law background.

Powers is committed to “the idea that great progress comes from interdisciplinary work on difficult medical issues that have social and political overtones,” Veatch says. “He’s taken his career as an attorney and supplemented it with the serious study of philosophy as it impinges on public policy.”

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