Spotlight: Ethical Shock Trooper


Ronald Howard sits behind his desk in the School of Engineering at Stanford University and talks about the world almost the way a happy Buddhist monk would. He smiles benignly and speaks of a free-market, individualist—in other words, a libertarian—society as an "enlightened" society, a society with compassion and heart. It's not what one expects from a man who directs teaching and research in the Decision Analysis Program of the Stanford Engineering-Economics Systems Department. Conversely, one does not expect a person who shows intense concern for the plight of dolphins and whales to be the author of highly technical books like Dynamic Programming and Markov Processes or Dynamic Probabilistic Systems. But that's Ron Howard.

He must be another academic recluse, right?—cloistered in the ivory towers of Stanford where college professors have the luxury of theorizing about the real world without taking part in it. Not so. After serving as an associate professor of electrical engineering and then industrial management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned his degrees in engineering and economics, Howard went on to work as a consultant to General Electric, Xerox, and SRI International. He has applied his expertise in decisionmaking to an interestingly varied set of problems, from investment planning and research strategy to hurricane seeding and nuclear-waste isolation.

In fact, Dr. Howard is credited with creating the field of "decision analysis" in 1964 and continues to dominate the field. One bit of evidence of the practicality of his work is the success of the consulting firm he founded last August. Today, with 30 employees, the Strategic Decisions Group counts many of the country's largest oil, metals, chemicals, and financial institutions as clients. "When they have a complex, significant decision," Howard explains, "we help them think the problem through."

The influence of the Strategic Decisions Group, based in Menlo Park near San Francisco, goes beyond that of improving the economic behavior of profit-maximizing firms. The question of ethics is interwoven into all of Howard's work; he approaches all decisions with individual rights firmly in mind. Besides making businesses more aware of the effects of their policies on individuals, Howard frequently has extensive conversations with the leaders of some of the world's largest corporations on the issue of individual liberty.

Ethics and the individual are the main subjects in another area of Howard's endeavors. He has introduced and taught two new courses at Stanford—"Introduction to Voluntary Social Systems" and "The Ethical Analyst." He is the founder and director of the university's Decisions and Ethics Center. In his courses and through the center, Howard deals with the individual decisionmaker and the ethical systems that are available to guide that individual, as well as the effect of policy decisions, especially in the government sector, on individuals.

The field of decision analysis has proven to be a very successful professional vocation. His graduates are hired immediately, most by companies founded by past graduates. But the research that Howard takes part in and directs is having other effects, as well. Government decisionmakers involved in ethically sensitive areas—medical treatment and eminent domain, for example—often have never before been confronted with analysis of their behavior. "They are usually shocked," Howard laughs. It's not an issue of different ethical systems, he says—"we have one and they don't."

In addition to an ethical system, Howard's people have an "inside position" from which to criticize "the pseudo-sciences used to justify government programs." "Ethical for us means preserving the freedom of individuals—leaving them alone, basically," says Howard. "We can confront the advocates of cost-benefit analysis in social programs, used to push people around, on their own ground, with big formulas and giant computers." He smiles and then waves his arm in a gesture of dismissal. "We can outdo them, actually." Then, leaning forward with a gleam in his eye he confides softly, "We are the shock troops of ethical analysis."

Ron Howard can, in fact, be a little shocking himself. One doesn't expect a man who has been published internationally on semi-Markovian decision processes, stochastic models of consumer behavior, and Bayesian decision models for system engineering to come up with a statement like, "You don't hear the word love enough in libertarian circles."

Howard is optimistic about the future of freedom because "enlightenment is not like calculus or mechanics," he says, integrating science with psychology again. "The libertarian philosophy, like geometry, can be figured out after the basic principles are understood. It is not limited by the number of teachers. It is like a seed that grows of itself."

On the negative side, Howard sees serious problems with the stance of those who espouse individual liberty. "We come through as being indifferent to suffering." He sees a dichotomy between the minds and the hearts of liberty's advocates and urges that people show that they care when advocating individualist principle in touchy areas like rent control, abortion, social security, pollution, and endangered species.

"Many people are scared of freedom," Howard says. "We need more people who value freedom over the government's promise of security.…When other people see the promise of a free and compassionate life, they will demand a libertarian society. All we must do is create the vision." Ron Howard is hard at work using all the tools of science—to create a vision.

Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.