What is the right thing to do? Listen.

by Shea Robison

Idaho State University

As an administrator, and as a person, what is the source for good action in this world?  On the surface, this appears to be a sophistic or obtuse philosophical question, but it is a question that actually lies at the heart of not just public administration, but of living in the world itself: Not only how are we to administrate well, but also how are we to live well in this world?

Both acting and living well in this world are reasonably premised upon our actions coinciding with the true operation of the world as it actually is, or that our knowledge of the world accurately guides our actions.  The problem with such an approach in public administration is that, as evidenced by the long and ongoing history of the academic study of public administration, we do not have any such access to the Truth about the world of administration as it actually is – other than at best we only partially or contingently understand the world of administration.  The same state of affairs holds equally for the world at large, especially in ethical terms; for all the scientific knowledge we may have gained about our world through physics or genetics, for example, even these areas have unanswered questions and significant theoretical blindspots, and the tentative knowledge we do have does not of itself provide any clear-cut ethical prescriptions.  In the end, we are still left with the question of how are we to know to act and to live well in this world.

According to Michel Foucault’s close reading of the Western canon, there are two primary modalities in Western thought for living truthfully, what Foucault refers to as “Platonism” and “Cynicism,” or belief in an ideal world upon which our present world is derived versus belief that the world we are in is the only world there is.  In “The Courage to Listen: Government, Truth-Telling, and Care of the Self,” the authors rely on Michel Foucault’s rendering of these two primary modalities to suggest the latter as the proper orientation for both ethical (or ‘right’) administration and ethical living.  The authors contrast the otherworldly Platonic ‘care of the soul’ with the Cynical or Socratic ‘care of the self’ as distinguished by their emphases on the source of knowledge – Platonic knowledge is exclusive and timeless and apart from existence, while Cynical knowledge “focuses on the unique contours of material existence and sees truth as manifested through that very existence.”

The authors identify the application of this care of the self as applied to public administration through the practice of parresia, or truth-telling, first through the “questioning and testing of one’s way of life and relationship to oneself,” and second through the social practice of speaking freely in public.  In both cases, the key practice as identified by the authors is that of listening.  In the first case, the administrator listens to himself or herself in the context of his or her surroundings as the means for determining right action; in the second, through listening the administrator fosters free dialog among the parties involved in their area of administration as the means for discovering right administrative action.

This combination of personal and public listening is similar to the concept of public administration as a Nietzschean Joyful Science I have written about in a previous post.  In both approaches, the vocation of public administration is not separated from one’s actual life but rather both are intertwined in a process of personal and public realization.  The objective in both is not to divine the fundamental principles of administration, but rather to discover those principles which apply best in the perpetual process of becoming that is public administration.  Also, in both the Foucauldian and Nietzschean approaches the social and the personal depend upon one another, as personal listening and realization depends as much upon the social context for guidance as the ethical development of the public sphere depends upon persons who are engaged in this active process of personal listening.

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