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Ethics in Public Administration

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Ethics is not a new topic in public administration, and the amount of information on the subject demonstrates the importance of ethics in the field. For instance, a recent article examined the impact of New Public Management on ethics and found that the framework for NPM has a definite impact of the ethical decisions of administrators (Maesschalk, 2004). Currently, ethics seems an especially urgent aspect of public administration. Whether it is a national leader invoking a “war on terror” or a local city manager proposing an inefficient transportation plan, the consequences are almost always cited as the main reason for an action. Religion or some other value-based rationale may be cited as well, but many times, the reasoning can usually be traced back to how the consequences affect one personally. The most common form of this is the use of focus groups or polls.

Convictions are not found in principles or virtues but in prospects for re-election. In this article we do not argue against consequential thinking, which is an extremely appropriate form of reasoning in the 21st century. Rather we support a more demanding form of consequential thinking which includes the considerations of Utilitarianism, as it would bring public administrators back to their actual duties, namely deciding how to maximize the good of a diverse and complex population. Just as importantly, the environment of public administration in this century is wildly different than it was even ten years ago. Today’s globalized world demands a more comprehensive form of thinking to realize the impact a decision may have throughout the globe.

Ethicists and moral philosophers generally agree there are three major theories in applied ethics. While most would concur that there is not a single correct approach, we tend to have inclinations toward one approach rather than others. The three approaches are Character-based ethics (Aristotle 340 BC – virtue ethics), Rule-based ethics (Kant 1785 – deontology) and Results-based ethics (Mill 1863 – utilitarianism). (Savra, 2007) In recent years, there has been a resurgent interest in Virtue Ethics. According to Aristotle, good traits of character are called Virtues and as such, Virtue Ethics focuses on what makes a good person, rather than what makes a good action. Recently, contemporary authors such as William Bennett have appropriated the notion of Virtue Ethics.

The advantages of Virtue Ethics are that it is intuitive and personal. It is intuitive because it makes sense; our character is central to our ethical choices and personal in that it is a reflection of our individual, unique circumstances. The weaknesses of Virtue Ethics closely mirror the advantages. The personal nature of Virtue Ethics makes it relatively difficult to obtain a consensus and even more difficult to resolve ethical conflict. In application, an elected or appointed official might view truth telling as a Virtue and as such would be resistant to lying, despite the fact that lying could bring about great good for the society in question. Alternatively, civility could be a person’s Virtue and as such, s/he would be reluctant to confront another even when extremely necessary. Rules-Based Ethics and Consequence-Based ethics focus on the action and not the person. In Rule-Based ethics, the right action is that allowed by the rules and the wrong is that forbidden by the rules.

According to Kant, ethical rules are more than compliance with policies. Ethical rules are those that can be universalized; his Categorical Imperative applies to all and therefore is extremely demanding. The advantages of Rule-Based ethics are that they are clear and help to coordinate behavior. The weaknesses are that they can be complex and demanding. In application, an elected or appointed official could be so strongly obedient to rules that s/he is indifferent to an obvious situation of suffering or need. The lack of flexibility in adhering to the rules can become problematic in today’s highly complex political world. It is Consequential or Results-Based ethics that is the central concern of this article. In results based thinking, formally called teleology, there are two dominant lines of thinking, “Ends Justify the Means” and Utilitarianism.

Both consider the consequences as the basis for determining the right action. In Classic Utilitarianism, Bentham and Mill pioneered the moral insight that consequences count. In Utilitarianism, the important consideration is the amount of happiness or unhappiness that is caused. No one’s happiness is counted as more important than anyone else’s; each person’s welfare is equally important. Therefore, right actions are those that produce the greatest possible balance of happiness over unhappiness, with each person’s happiness counted as equally important (Rachels, 2007). From the happiness philosophical stance, comes the Principle of Utility; the greatest good for the greatest number. Practically speaking, this requires measuring/calculating the relative benefits and burdens for all members of society at all times.

In any situation, one should identify all of the consequences of that action for human happiness, weigh the total impact of each option on happiness and select the option that best satisfies the principle of utility. The important aspect of Utilitarianism is its inclusiveness. It is the consideration of all. It is this requirement to be comprehensive that distinguishes it from the more common form of teleological reasoning, “The Ends Justify the Means.” In this reasoning, a “noble end” can be used to justify almost any means. Examples are a policeman withholding exculpatory evidence on a presumed guilty person or a civil servant manipulating data to convince a skeptical funding body. The more demanding, inclusive considerations of Utilitarianism would argue against these actions. Another aspect of “The Ends Justify the Means” that produces even more parochial ethics is the justification can often be traced to the self as beneficiary.

In the above examples, a “guilty person” is jailed but the policeman might also consider the likelihood of a commendation or promotion. Or the civil servant might see a pay raise as a collateral benefit. “The Ends Justify the Means” can easily become Ethical Egoism, where self absorption, gratification and justification become the real reason for consequential reasoning. Utilitarianism and its requirement to think about the greatest good for the greatest number discourages such ethical egoism (Hinman, 2003) Utilitarianism in public life has one great benefit; its impartiality, and one great weakness; it can be overly demanding. A Utilitarian legislator whose daughter has cancer would be required to vote against cancer funding if that funding would yield less utility than the alternatives. As impersonal and demanding as the previous example is, Utilitarianism is not without its advocates.

Peter Singer, the Australian ethicist at Princeton, recently proposed that Bill Gates could give more of his money than he famously did. Practically, the greatest benefit of the Utilitarian mode would be the requirement that all should at least be considered. This consideration would certainly influence all public decisions, international and domestic, even if deontological and virtue ethics were part of the moral reasoning (Singer, 2006). It seems, however, most consequential thinking in public life is less inclusive than Utilitarianism. “The Ends Justify the Means”reasoning seeks to use an admirable goal, such as the spread of democracy, to justify decisions that are not in the best interest of the whole. Other than the parochial approach, the most notable deficit of this approach is that while it seems objective it invariably tends to benefit the self or Ethical Egoism.

Take the earlier example of the legislator whose daughter has an incurable disease. What if the legislation was for an extremely rare disease that only infected 500 individuals worldwide? Under the banner of consequential thinking, he could lead a campaign to use public funds for research, when the real intended beneficiary was his daughter. In the realm of public administration, what is legal is not necessarily ethical. Whether we like it or not, public administrators always work within some kind of legal framework, and this legal framework may not necessarily fall under what we perceive as ethical. Ethics, according to Nigro and Nigro, are statements, written or oral, that prescribe or proscribe certain behaviors under specified conditions.

Furthermore, values, according to Redfield, are conceptions, explicit or implicit, distinctive of an individual or characteristic of a group, of the desirable which influences the selection from available modes, means, and ends. The values held by persons or groups can be most accurately determined through the careful observation of their behavior over time, or more specifically, by noting how he or she acts in specific situations. In the same light. for Richard Means, values involve deep emotional commitments to certain cognitive views of public objects. They stand behind rational social action and are the engines of human activity insofar as that activity is social. So, judging from these definitions, values and ethics go hand in hand, but these two concepts cannot be directly equated with each other.

George Frederickson discusses general assertions regarding ethics and public administration. First and foremeost, there is the classic question of whether persons in public administration are good or bad. From here, he differentiates a political person between an administrative person. The political person includes both elected and politically appointed officials while the administrative person is the merit-based civil servant and certain executives appointed on the basis of professional rather than political criteria. Judging from these definitions, we can clearly see that political and administrative persons are inherently different from each other. For the political person, personal gain, with the absence of controls and enforced standards, will precede public interest.

On the other hand, administrative persons or professionals belonging to different fields define ethics rather differently from the former. Stemming from these differences, definitions of what constitutes ethical behavior actually varies depending on profession, setting, and culture. The same is true with what constitutes corruption for attitudes toward corruption appear to be situationally determined. Therefore, all of these states that the classic question of whether public administrators are good or bad is just a mere rhetoric for the standards of what is good or bad are actually situational, depending on the setting and the task. The second point Frederickson asserts is that the question of rightness or wrongness of decisions rests on two broad philosophical traditions.

First is the deontological approach which is most particularly associated with philosophers Aquinas and Kant. In this approach, decisions are based on duties or principles that are either right or wrong in themselves, the results being irrelevant to moral judgement. In short, decisions that are made are based on fundamental principles. The second approach is the teleological approach. Most particularly associated with Mill and Bentham, in this approach, decisions are judged by their consequences depending on the results to be maximized. These results can be judged on the basis of the individual, the family, the neighborhood, the group or organization, the political jurisdiction, or the nation-state. Correspondingly, in the modern context, this approach is referred to as utilitarianism.

Within the public-sector where leaders are held accountable to a wide variety of citizenry and stakeholders, public leaders are often expected to meticulously conform to standards higher than those aligned with personal morality. Accordingly, several scholars and practitioners have attempted to address the issue of ethics in public administration. Yet, many of the values which have frequently been associated with ethics in the public-sector are often explored independent of the broader subject of leadership. In general, however, many of the values commonly associated with theories of leadership, such as transformational and transactional, can similarly be associated with the ethical values and expectations of public officials—potentially allowing for the incorporation of these ethical considerations into an integrated approach to public-sector leadership.

Thus, this paper is an attempt to explore the subject of public-sector ethics and its relevance to an integrated leadership approach (where ethical considerations are incorporated into a leadership framework that includes both transactional and transformational factors) Ethics and public service values are important elements in comprising the “body and soul” of public administration (Menzel, 2003). Accordingly, several scholars and practitioners have sought to identify and understand the ethical responsibility of the public administrator and have also attempted to offer applied ethical guidance and structured theoretical frameworks for use within the sector (Cody & Lynn, 1992; Cooper, 1990; Denhardt, 1988; Rohr, 1978). From ethical principals to recommendations, scholars and practitioners have attempted to classify what are, or should be, the foundations of administrative ethics, the appropriate ethical behaviors of public leaders, and the ethical role of the public administrator.

Yet, very often the subject of administrative ethics and the ethical qualities considered fundamental to the public administrator’s role are explored independent of values which are also associated with leadership. In his book Ethics for bureaucrats: An essay on law and values, Rohr (1978) argues that regime values are the normative foundations of administrative ethics. He later defines regime values as the values of the political entity “brought into being by the ratification of the Constitution that created the American republic” (p. 59). Frederickson (1983) however calls for a renewal of civic virtue in defining a central value of public administration, and Cooper (1991) similarly argues that public administration should seek its ethical identity in the ethical tradition of citizenship.

Accordingly, Stivers (2001) sets forth the major ingredients of a citizenship ethic in public administration as authoritative judgment, the public interest, citizenship as education, and community. Further in addressing the moral and ethical obligations of public administrators, Moore (1976) states that public-sector obligations arise from three different realms which includes: (1) respecting the processes that legitimate the actions of public officials, (2) serving the public interest, and (3) treating colleagues and subordinates with respect, honesty, and fairness. Hart (1984) argues that public administration is a “moral endeavor” that requires special moral obligations and unique moral character. While Stewart (1985) similarly notes that “the role of a public administrator carries a kind of moral weight not found in private sector counterpart roles” (p. 490).

Bailey (1965) suggests that the ethical dilemmas facing public administrators requires specific attitudes that must be aligned with unique moral qualities, and Waldo (1980) identifies more than a dozen sources of obligations relevant to the conduct of the public administrator’s role. Cooper (1987) further presents twenty specific virtues that directly relate to three broad “realms of obligation” for public servants, and Denhardt (1991) identifies the “moral foundations” of a public administrator’s role as honor, benevolence, and justice; while Cohen & Eimicke (1995) reduce Carol Lewis’ (1991) twenty-one rules of thumb for the ethical behavior of a public administrator to five simple principles: (1) obey the law, (2) serve the public interest, (3) avoid doing harm, (4) take individual responsibility for the process and its consequences, and (5) treat incompetence as an abuse of office.

Warwick (1981), in identifying some of the common ethical dilemmas faced by public officials in the exercise of discretion, offers five ethical principles of guidance: (1) the exercise of discretion should serve the public interest, (2) public officials should push back bounds on rationality so that deliberation may take place, (3) public officials should provide truthfulness in the discharge of official responsibilities, (4) public officials should demonstrate procedural respect, and (5) public officials should exercise restraints on the means chosen to accomplish organizational ends. Warwick (1981) further specifies the four sources of ethical decision making by public-sector leaders as public interest, constituency interests, personal interest, and bureaucratic interest.

Similarly Cooper (1990) identifies the sources as individual attributes, organizational structure, organizational culture, and societal expectations. In his article Integrity in the public-sector, Dobel (1990) states that “public officials need a complex array of moral resources to exercise discretion,” (p. 354) and that adequate discretion by public officials “should be seen as an iterative process among three mutually supporting realms of judgment” (p. 354). Thus he argues that regime accountability, personal responsibility, and prudence are the keys to ethical decision making for individuals in the public-sector (Dobel, 1990). Further in addressing even the possibility of administrative ethics, Thompson (1985) claims that administrative ethics is possible if the field can overcome “the burdensome commitment to neutrality and the aversion to assigning individual responsibility for collective actions” (p. 555).

However O’Kelly & Dubnick (2005) unconvinced of this position argue that: [The world of a public administrator] is a world of multiple, diverse, and often conflicting expectations (Dubnick & Romzek 1993)…Effectively operating under such conditions renders the possibility of administrative ethics, in the sense posited by Thompson…incomplete and inappropriate, if not impossible. (pp. 395-396) In general, leaders in the public-sector are expected to maintain a level of morality and integrity which serves the interests of society while at the same time demonstrates personal responsibility, diplomacy, and truthfulness.

Thus given these views, many people might say that the ethical role of the public administrator can be summed up as follows: serve the public interest while being fair, honest, lawful, trustworthy, and doing the least amount harm. However, it is impossible to fully understand the ethical responsibility associated with the public administrator’s role, and the means needed to maintain an ethical public-sector environment when explored independent of the broader subject of leadership. Leadership is fraught with ethical challenges, and potentially even more so within the public-sector where leaders are held accountable to a wide variety of citizenry and stakeholders.

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