THE NATURE AND ROLE OF APPLIED
ETHICS IN THE PUBLIC SECTOR
NKOSINATHI OWEN SOTSHANGANE
There is a widespread concern about corruption in public life. These days we hear a lot about acts of nepotism, theft, bribery, etc. from the public purse. Alongside this there is a general concern about maladministration and inefficiency in the public sector. Something seems to be going badly wrong. A clear code of ethics is required which specifies the guiding moral values or principles that will govern the public service and reduce or prevent the corrupt practices and unethical behavior in question. The basic premise of this paper is first to prove that applied ethics as an area of philosophy attempts to arrive at an understanding of the nature of human values, of how we ought to live and of what constitutes right conduct. We are often faced, at the same time, with the consideration of ‘why we ought to act morally’, for example, that there is a course of conduct which one ought morally to choose, irrespective of one’s likes or dislikes. This action would be the right thing to do despite one’s own self-interest or preferences. That is why we hold individuals responsible for the moral judgements they make, or ought to have made. This aspect of judgement making is the subject matter of moral philosophy and ethics. The fact that there is today corruption and maladministration must therefore be interpreted as a total absence of moral and ethical culture in the conduct of public service. What, if anything, needs to be done to lead a moral and ethical life? What could be a possible remedy to prevent or reduce the unprofessional practices in question?
THE BASIS AND NATURE OF THE MORAL
Most philosophers draw a distinction between ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ while others treat these two concepts as synonymous. For example Gildenhuys (1990:8), Macklin (1982:3) and many other philosophers use the concepts ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ interchangeably; these terms are concerned solely with the elucidation and justification of morality and more generally with questions about how one ought to live, about what could count as good reason for one person acting in this way rather than another, and about what constitutes a good life for human beings. Philosophers such as Kimmel (1996:5), Macklin (1982:3), Hoffman and Moore (1990:1) and others typically describe moral judgements as involving matters of right or wrong, ought or ought not, a good action or a bad one.
Meta-ethics, which was very influential among early Greek philosophers, has received renewed attention in recent years. We now live in a world in which there is a great deal of uncertainty about basic norms and values, and it is also a fact that many of the decisions that confront us these days are much more complex morally and ethically. That is why most philosophers are now expected to be so much more ethically sensitive than they used to be. Some philosophers see this as no more than a natural consequence of the increasing influence of morality on society in general. But others go further and interpret it as symptomatic of the transformation of philosophy into a new type of social institution. As its product becomes more tightly woven into the social fabric, philosophers have to perform new roles in which ethical considerations can no longer be swept aside. What all this means is that public institutions depend on the acceptable moral and ethical bases in order to flourish. It is then possible and even desirable to develop a recipe for moral and ethical behavior among public institutions and public officials with the emphasis upon commitment to moral norms and values. This commitment needs to be supported by an ethical and moral culture in a particular institution. Although it is hard to pin down the meaning of ethics because the views that many people have about ethics are shaky, Hoffman and Moore (1990:1), Gildenhuys (1991:41) and many other philosophers support the conviction that: ‘Ethics is the study of what is good or right for human beings’.
Dowling (sajhe/satho Vol. 13 No. 3, 1999, pp.18-19) also agrees that by ‘ethical’ or ‘ethics’ we mean established norms, practices, policies, rules, or codes intended to guide an individual in terms of good (bad) or right (wrong) behaviour.
In this definition it is obvious that an individual administrator is able to decide morally whether or not to accept or reject a particular ethical rule, or practice, as being a morally right way of behaving. It is obvious from this definition that ethics is a set of rules which sets out what constitutes good (bad) and right (wrong) behaviour. Such rules are usually directed at professional workers, guiding them in the way they ought to choose (or ought not to choose), or guiding them about what it is the right thing (or wrong thing) to do in a given kind of situation. For example, we talk of a moral or ethical person or of an act which is morally or ethically accountable. On what basis do we judge certain forms of human behaviour or decisions taken as right or wrong, good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable? According to Gildenhuys (1991:8), the moral consciousness of any public official will indicate the moral norms which ought to be adopted and integrated into his or her life, taking personal interests into account, as well as considering and protecting the interests of others is acting ethically.
According to Ziman, a scientist (Science, 12/04/98, Vol. 282 Issue 5395), ethical issues always involve interests or feelings. Ziman says that ethics is not just an abstract intellectual discipline, it is about the conflicts that arise in trying to meet real human needs and values1 . But being ethical, clearly is not a matter of following one’s interests or feelings. A person following his or her feelings may recoil from doing what is right; in fact, one’s interests might frequently deviate from what is ethical. Velasquez on business ethics (1982:12), also confirms the notion of the necessity of morality and he says:
The moral point of view . . . does not evaluate standards according to whether or not they advance the interests of a particular individual or group, but goes beyond personal interest to a universal standpoint in which everyone’s interests are impartially counted as equal.
To act morally in the public service environment means ensuring that the consequences of the public services are not detrimental to others, or to put this more positively, ensuring that public service activities contribute towards the personal well being of others and of societies at large. But this depends on the gradual creation of a political and public climate favouring impartiality, trustworthiness, a sense of responsibility and accountability, and the maintenance of a high degree of ethical and moral standards in the public sector. For example, it is more important to look honest than it is to get anything done2 .
Since we live in a world in which there is a great deal of uncertainty about basic norms and values, many decisions that confront public officials these days are much more morally and ethically complex. As a result, in the academic field, the subject of philosophy is now striving for excellence in the teaching of ethics in all disciplines. The objective is to develop well-qualified public servants who are impartial and consistent, and who are practically competent persons ready to serve in both public and private sectors. Today the demand is to have well qualified personnel with unquestionable integrity who preserve high ethical standards under all circumstances. In the past few years there has been a growing interest worldwide in the ethics of various spheres of life. We talk of ethics or introducing ethics or philosophy as a subject to be taught not only in academic institutions, but also throughout social, political, economical, and legal life. The emergence of this interest in many fields of studies means that ethics is now recognized as an important subject. Let us now turn to actions which justify the need of ethical and moral conduct in, to start with, social, political, economic and legal life.
CORRUPTION AND MALADMINISTRATION AS MORAL AND ETHICAL ISSUES
What may be publicly considered as a most reprehensible act in one society may not be given similar treatment in another. Consequently, the preparation of a list which includes all forms of unethical conduct is difficult and may be dangerously misleading. However, the following are examples of those activities that according to Dwivedi (1978:8) are generally considered unethical in many countries:
*Bribery, theft, nepotism;
*Conflict of interests (including such activities as financial transactions to gain personal advantage),
*Misuse of insider knowledge;
*Regulating trade practice or lowering standards in such a manner as to give advantage to one or to family members,
*The use and abuse of official and confidential information for private purposes.
Such activities may produce many disadvantages for a society. For example, inefficiency, mistrust of government and its employees, distortion of programme achievements, waste of public resources, encouragement of racial discrimination and eventual national instability. Under what circumstances are these actions called corrupt? It seems best to start by citing an example. By ‘corruption’ we intend ‘the violation of the intent of explicit official laws, rules, and purposes for purposes of personal gain or the advancement of the private agenda’. If, for example, one violates an explicit and public rule in order to further the interests of a private company or corporation, so that its interests come to replace those of the public, this person is guilty of corruption. Samuel Huntington [in Ekpo (1979:314)] writes:
Corruption is a behaviour by public officials, which deviates from accepted norms in order to serve their private ends.
Corruption takes place when a public servant, in defiance of prescribed norms, breaks the rules to advance his or her personal interests. We are concerned here with public office or public institutions together with public officials, which behave in both unexpected and unacceptable ways. What constitutes unexpected and unacceptable behaviour may seem to be a rather personal and individual judgement, but to some extent they are members of groups with ground rules regulating behaviour. Regardless of how dedicated they may be to personal gratification, group members operate under some constraints if the group is to survive. If any group as a public institution is to continue as an operating entity, there must be some agreement among the members regarding how they are to act towards one another and at least a tacit consensus on what constitutes unacceptable behaviour. What is at issue is the existence of a standard of behaviour according to which some actions break some rules, written or unwritten, regarding the proper purposes to which a public office or a public institution may be put. For example, if a person is able to use his or her influence to gain or receive something that is not justified under a country’s legal and administrative regulations.Dwivedi (1978:15), ‘Corruption can exist only if there is someone willing to corrupt and is capable of corruption’3 .
On the other hand, Ekpo (1979) argues that corruption in a modernized society is thus, in part, not so much the result of deviance of behaviour from accepted norms, as it is the deviance of norms from the established patterns of behaviour. New standards and criteria of what is right and wrong lead to a condemnation of, at least, some traditional behaviour patterns as corrupt.
What is at issue in all the cases of corruption cited is the existence of a standard of behavior according to which the action in question breaks some rule, written or unwritten, about the proper purposes to which a public office or a public institution is put. The moralist, for example, has his or her own idea of what the rule should be. The actors in the situations concerned create their rules. It may be the same as the moralist (they may regard themselves as corrupt); or quite different (they may regard themselves as behaving honorably according to their standards, and regard their critics’ standards as irrelevant); or they may be "men of two worlds", partly adhering to two standards which are incompatible, and ending up exasperated and indifferent (they may recognize no particular moral implications of the acts in question at all – which obviously is quite common). Corruption naturally tends to weaken or to perpetuate the weakness of the government bureaucracy. In this respect, it is incompatible with political, social and economic development. "The corruption of one government, . . . is the generation of another"4 .
Corruption and maladministration are among the most important unethical (wrong) conduct in the public sector. Current writing about corruption has attempted to challenge the earlier speculation that corruption is a phenomenon with no negative consequences. Huntington (1979:313) has argued that corruption takes place when a civil servant is in defiance of prescribed or accepted norms, breaking the rules to advance his or her personal interests. Thus it is the behavior which deviates from the duties of one’s public role because of private pecuniary or status gains or violates rules against the exercise of certain types of private influence. This includes such behavior as bribery (if a public official accepts gifts from thankful members of the public, for services rendered, this does not count as gratitude but as bribery); nepotism (which is a use of the power to advance the interests of friends or of a member of one’s family); misappropriation (which is illegal appropriation of public resources for private use); theft (which is taking money or property meant to benefit the public with the intention of permanently depriving the public of it); etc.
To maintain a high level of integrity in the public sector is an absolute necessity. However, according to Caiden (1982:16), those who mean to take charge of the affairs of government should remember two of Plato’s rules:
Firstly, to keep the good of the people clearly in view so that regardless of their own interests they will make their action conform to public interests; and
Secondly, to care for the welfare of the public and not serve the interests of a certain individual so as to betray the rest.
Put differently, today the demand is for the impartial treatment of all relevant similar cases, men and women, black and white, young and old, rich and poor. According to Plato, deviation from these expectations contributes to the immoral and unethical actions. In 1983 the World Bank observed [Gould and Amaro-Reyes (1983:3)] that a general attitude of ambivalence and disrespect for such rules is a characteristic cause of unethical acts. Many philosophers wrote extensively to show circumstances under which some actions are called corrupt. For example, in John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, when assessing beliefs, actions and practices in terms of their being morally right or wrong, only the consequences (or results) count: ‘an action is right if it results in the general happiness, wrong if it does the reverse’.
The general happiness results if we tolerate all other-regarding individual actions4 . The purpose of the institution of morality, utilitarians insist, is to promote welfare by minimizing harms and maximizing benefits. In short corruption is wrong insofar, as it tend to produce pain and displeasure. If corruption and maladministration neither promote pleasure nor prevent pain for the general good they are not morally wrong from a utilitarian point of view. It is generally accepted that administration must be efficient in the sense that the objectives of public policy are securely attained without unnecessary delay, discourtesy, losing of records, failure to answer effectively, and so forth. Administrative officials must satisfy the general body of citizens that they are proceeding with reasonable regard to promote the balance between the public and private interests.
Wheare (1973:11), on the other hand, describes maladministration as an action based on, or influenced by, improper considerations or improper conduct of the public affairs. The matters handled by public officials, no matter how small and unimportant they seem to them, usually are very important to the individual claimant or client. According to Fieldman (1977:80-87), in any community without a general consensus on moral norms and values, authentic and sound society is actually impossible. Gildenhuys (1991:44) describes maladministration as ‘a wrong action’ because maladministration frequently transgresses the ethical norm of "respect of other persons". In brief, this means that showing respect to others, is how everyone wants to be treated him or herself.
This presupposes a number of practical conditions. For example, if a public official considers an act to be personally morally right, he or she must consider any relevant similar act to be right for the same reasons. This is one version of the principle of impartiality, that is, ‘I should respect others (as persons) because this is how I would want to be treated myself’5 . Among many underlying philosophical questions we need to consider this ethical norm are when one says that the public official is morally obliged to show respect for other persons, what exactly is he or she supposed to do; why should they show such respect; how exactly are they to show this respect?
Kant, on the other hand, (1972:91) puts the matter in the following way: Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end. Kant is convinced that all rationally thinking people should be able and willing to ascribe to a basic rule that can be expressed in the following formula: ‘Always act in such a way that you are willing to make the principle of your action into a universal law’6 .
The idea is that officials should treat other people as ends in themselves, never as means to their own ends. This means that each person’s interests should be counted as being of equal value. I may justify the principle in roughly the same way as Kant by arguing that it is rational to treat all prima facie like cases. Thus, Kant wishes public officials to ask themselves two questions before deciding on a certain course of action or practice:
- What would the world look like where the principle of action that is considered here becomes the basis of everyone’s action?
- Would we be willing to live in such a world? (cf. Velasquez (1985:70).
Velasquez is convinced that such a strategy would improve the quality of moral decision-making and enhance the respect that people pay one another. This is a principle of consistency. There is a strand of thought associated with Kant, according to which an assessment of any judgement in terms of being morally right or wrong must include considerations of consistency and impartiality. Roughly, the required rendering of consistency states that:
When a person considers an action to be morally right (good, obligatory), he or she must consider any relevant similar act to be right for the same reasons, and this must apply to any moral judgement that is universally conceded.
The concept of corruption, that is, bribery, graft, patronage, nepotism, fraud, theft, etc., does not vary between Christian and Muslim, African and European, American and South African, primitive man and Minister of the Crown.To maintain a high level of integrity in the public sector is an absolute necessity. The purpose of ethics in the public sector is to eliminate the uncertainty between what seems to be right and what is in effect wrong. As the practical problems of maladministration and corruption are ethical issues, solving these problems lies within the precepts of ethics. Ethics is a moral science, an exposition of what is good or bad, right or wrong. Ethics is concerned with the development of human behaviour according to certain moral norms. What is judged morally wrong will be always wrong, especially if it has deleterious effects, and of course, if it is destructive and incompatible with a system of public order. Corruption is among the most important manifestations of unethical conduct in the public sector. Let us now consider some measures to prevent or reduce unprofessional actions or the practices in question.
POSSIBLE REMEDIES FOR CORRUPT PRACTICES AND MALADMINISTRATION
The issue of remedies is only a small part of the large subject of how to ensure good public administration. Although it is small, it is important, and likely to become increasingly so. As a matter of fact, much is currently being said and written about the possible remedies or measures to control both corruption and maladministration. It would be a mistake to think that there is no cause for everyone’s concern, particularly philosophers or ethicists. Public service decisions and actions are thought to need more social, political, economic, and legal control. A new focus on the moral-ethical aspects of public life is called for. It is essential that measures exist; even if they cannot eradicate corruption and maladministration completely, at least they can play an effective role in controlling occurrence of both unethical and immoral actions or practices in question.
It is essential to remember that both corruption and maladministration pervade the entire environment and do not necessarily focus on a particular area, and that whatever measures will be implemented need to take into account the broad spectrum of both occurrences. In my opinion, corruption refers unequivocally to blatant and deliberate dishonesty in the use of public money and goods, while maladministration is rather a dysfunctional condition in which the taxpayer is the loser but in which the official is not necessarily enriched. These two phenomena, however, are closely related and could possibly be placed on a continuum with corruption as the extreme pole on the negative side. But when remedies are being considered it quickly becomes clear that one has to do with differing issues, although there are points of contact. Wheare (1973:11) described maladministration as:
Administrative action (or inaction) based on or influenced by improper considerations or conduct. Arbitrariness, malice or bias, including discrimination, are examples of improper considerations. Neglect, unjustifiable delay, failure to observe relevant rules and procedures, failure to take relevant considerations into account, failure to establish or review procedures where there is a duty or obligation on a body to do so, are examples of improper conduct or maladministration.
In sum, corruption and maladministration result in an erosion of confidence in many public institutions and its public servants. Practically all countries have enacted some kind of corrective and punitive measures to deal with ethical offenses in public service. It seems profitable to consider the nature of ethics in the light of what qualities one would expect to find in public officials who are to serve society effectively. The parallel step now is to ask what qualities one would look for in a public official. There are certain beliefs, items of knowledge, abilities, that qua public officials need if they are effectively to use the formal criteria (as they must if they are rational) and more especially if they want to flourish in their conduct of public affairs:
1. In order to be able to respect other persons, an official needs to believe in the importance of their needs and their interests as other persons like themselves.
2. In order to be impartial, the official ought to see a given situation from the other person’s point of view, as well as his own. If this is correct, then he or she will need the ability to understand the emotional states and feelings of others as well as his or her own.
3. A more practical implication of the rule concerns the knowledge of such things as the relevant area of the law, the social norms, the conventional expectations of society at large and of different social groups. This means that he/she should be adequately informed.
4. Another practical ability the official needs is that of communicating his or her thoughts and feelings to others consistently.
5. The official needs also to have thought out choices of actions and possible ways of dealing with problems in advance of situations requiring a rapid response. That is why such positions require training and qaulifications.
6. Finally, a public official needs to develop a motive to behave in a way that fulfils the idea of showing respect to others, even when they are troublesome or disrespectful towards him.
Taken together all these qualities constitute a quite extensive positive element implied by the Kantian notion of respect for other persons. In the final analysis, however, these measures can be truly effective only if political leaders denounce unethical conduct, especially by setting exemplary conduct for the community in general. Any attempt to prepare ethical guidelines which are universally applicable is exceedingly difficult. What is more feasible is to suggest general principles, which may be modified depending upon the unique needs of a particular country and its special administrative units. According to Dwivedi (1978:25), the general principles which should govern the conduct of a public servant are based on the premise that the maintenance of high standards of honesty, integrity and impartiality are essential to assure proper performance of government tasks, the maintenance of public trust and the confidence and respect of the citizens for their government.
To achieve a high standard and to prevent and discourage the occurrence of unethical activities, public servants must know what those activities are and what remedial action may be taken against infractions. A set of ethical guidelines or a code of conduct serves this purpose. The foundation for a code of ethics is the provisions of law relating to public offences, the requirements of public service, and the performance of public servants. It is important to recognize that the existence of an official code does not in itself impute any lack of integrity and honesty on the part of employees. Rather its main objective is to assist employees in determining the proper course of action when faced with uncertainty regarding the propriety of a contemplated action. The main aim is to prevent employees from unwittingly falling into a situation of conflict of interest, to guide them away from perversion of their integrity by bribery, theft, nepotism, fraud or other corrupt inducements, to help them identify what is permissible and what is not, and to indicate possible courses of action when the impermissible threatens or is brought to their knowledge. According to Steinberg and Austen (1990:33-34) acceptance of public employment adds new factors, namely, that of confidence in the integrity of government and ethical practice on the part of elected, appointed officials. Like it or not, public officials are bound to accept the admonition which says: ‘do not pervert justice or show partiality, do not accept a bribe, for bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous.’ An ancient line of philosophical thought attempts to demonstrate that to act rationally is to act ethically8 .
The key contribution of this paper to the public officials in their conduct of public affairs is to recommend such moral principles as: consistency, impartiality, responsibility, accountability, trustworthiness, and maintenance of a high degree of ethical and moral standards in the public sector. Hence the mission is to develop more who are well informed in the light of the qualities the community should expect to find in them as public servants with unquestionable integrity, who preserve high ethical standards under all circumstances. According to Cloete (1992:171) public functionaries should always be informed of the rules which apply in the work situation and which govern their conduct.
To discover the nature of ethical life with the moral principles central to good public administration is an intellectual task similar to the discovery of mathematical truths. Just as untrained people cannot know the latter, though they may accidentally hit upon the correct answer, so the former cannot be known either. Only as a result of the right kind of training does one have the capacity to know what is moral. Only if a public official has knowledge of objective moral principles can he or she be assured of leading an ethical and moral life. From this argument it follows that training is necessary for the high practical skills required and relevant for positions of public service.
1. The Official ethos of the public administration systematically shuts out all such considerations.
This is what Frank Anechiario and Lerone Kuo believed in (Municipal Agency Commissioner in the New York City, 1991), Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 25 No. 1, Spring 1995, pp. 147-161.
2. On this point see Dwivedi (1978), Public Service Ethics, University of Guelth: Guelth.
3. See Harrington, J. (1950), A History of Political Thought, rev. ed. New York, Henry Holt.4. According to Mill, J.S. (1960), people choose to follow the rules which in any situation maximizes the general happiness, that which produces the most benefit to the largest number of people.
5. According to Downie and Telfer (1969:93), showing respect to others as persons is how everyone want to be treated himself and this presupposes a number of practical conditions.
6. The best known proponent of such a rule based theory is Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).
7. Colin Leys says this when arguing about "What is the Problem about Corruption?"See TheJournal of Modern African Studies, Vol 3 No. 2, 1965, p. 217.
8. From the context of this paper, it follows that a code of ethics, stipulated as a set of rules which sets out what constitutes good or bad, right or wrong behavior is necessary to lay down the general principles upon which more specific provisions may be built as required by individual circumstances. This is to identify moral principles central to good public administration.
Caiden, G.E. (1982), Public Administration. California, Palisades Publishers.
Cloete, J.J.N. (1992), Public Administration and Management. Pretoria, van Schaik.
Dwivedi, O.P. (1978), Public Service Ethics. Guelth, University of Guelth.
Ekpo, M.U. (1979), Bureaucratic Corruption in Sub-Saharan Africa. Washington D.C., University Press of America.
Feldman (1978), Introductory Ethics. Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall.
Gildenhuys, J.S.H. (1991), Ethics and The Public Sector. Cape Town, Juta and Company.
Gould, D.J. and Amaro-Reyes, J.A. (1983), The Effects of Corruption on Administrative Performance. Washington D.C., The World Bank.
Harris, A. (1970), Thinking About Education. London, Heinemann Educational Books.
Hoffman, W. (1990), Business Ethics. New York, McGraw Hill.
Kimmel, A.J. (1996), Ethical Issues in Behavioural Research: A Survey. Cambridge, Blackwell Publishers.
Maklin, R. (1982), Man, Mind and Morality: The Ethics of Brhaviour Control. Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall, Inc..
Steinberg, S.S. and Austern, D.T. (1990), Government, Ethics and Managers: A Guide To Solving Ethical Dilemmas In Public Sector. New York, Quorum Books.
Velasquez, M. (1982), Business Ethics. South Africa, Southern Books.
Wheare, K.C. (1973), Maladministration and Its Remedies. London, Stevens and Sons.
Ziman, J. (Science, 12/04/98, Vol. 282 Issue 5395, p 1813, 2p, 1c, 1bw).