The Responsible Administrator is one attempt to respond to the need for a systematic treatment of public administrative ethics that is grounded in both the realities of practice and the requirements of sound scholarship. It is important to identify the particular contribution intended here. The conceptual focus of the book is the role of the public administrator in an organizational setting; the central integrating ethical concept used in dealing with that role is responsibility. The central ethical process adopted for addressing ethical problems associated with administrative responsibility is a comprehensive design approach.
Ethics is defined in various ways, some more technical and precise than others. The usual brief textbook or dictionary definitions define ethics as “the attempt to state and evaluate principles by which ethical problems may be solved” (Jones, Sontag, Becker, and Fogelin, 1969, p. 1), “the normative standards of conduct derived from the philosophical and religious traditions of society” (Means, 1970, p. 52), or “the task of careful reflection several steps removed from the actual conduct of men” concerning “the assumptions and presuppositions of the moral life” (Gustafson, 1965, p. 113). Preston (1996) becomes a bit more specific by suggesting that “ethics is concerned about what is right, fair, just, or good; about what we ought to do, not just about what is the case or what is most acceptable or expedient” (p. 16). M. W. Martin (1995) defines ethics as moral philosophy and stipulates that it includes four main goals or interests: clarification of moral concepts; critical evaluation of moral claims focused on “testing their truth, justification, and adequacy” (pp. 7–8); constructing an inclusive perspective by elucidating the interconnections among moral ideas and values; and providing moral guidance through improving practical judgment.
Gibson Winter (1966) defines ethics more comprehensively by describing the functions it serves in the social world. As an active enterprise, he says, “Ethics seeks to clarify the logic and adequacy of the values that shape the world; it assesses the moral possibilities which are projected and betrayed in the social give-and-take” (p. 218). Anyone engaged in ethical reflection takes on the task of analyzing and evaluating the principles embodied in various alternatives for conduct and social order. Ethics is, according to Winter, “a science of human intentionality” (p. 219).
For our purposes in this book, ethics may be understood as the study of moral conduct and moral status. Ethics and morality are often used interchangeably, but here I will distinguish them. Morality assumes some accepted modes of behavior that are given by a religious tradition, a culture (including an organizational culture), a social class, a community, or a family. It involves expected courses of conduct that are rooted in both formal rules and informal norms. Morality is expressed through such precepts as “decent young people do not engage in premarital sex,” “family comes first,” “one should not conspicuously display one's wealth,” “guests in one's home must always be treated with respect,” “never drive under the influence,” “a day's pay requires a day's work,” “follow the orders of those above you in the organization,” and similar expectations. Sometimes these expectations are written out in codes of conduct or rules, but at other times they are assumed and taken for granted. Typically they are asserted by a tradition, culture, religion, community, organization, or family as simply what is right.
Ethics, then, is one step removed from action. It involves the examination and analysis of the logic, values, beliefs, and principles that are used to justify morality in its various forms. It considers what is meant by principles such as justice, veracity, or the public interest; their implications for conduct in particular situations; and how one might argue for one principle over another as determinative in a particular decision. Ethics takes what is given or prescribed and asks what is meant and why. So ethics as related to conduct is critical reflection on morality toward grounding moral conduct in systematic reflection and reasoning. Ethical reflection also involves an affective element because it often evokes emotive responses of comfort or discomfort, resolution or quandary, and affirmation or antagonism.
Ethics also deals with the moral status of entities such as families, organizations, communities, and societies. Here ethical reasoning is focused on how the characteristics associated with the good family, the good organization, or the good society are grounded in certain principles, values, beliefs, and logical argument. Ethics weighs the adequacy of these attributes and analyzes how they are justified.
Ethics may be dealt with descriptively or normatively. Descriptively, ethics attempts to reveal underlying assumptions and how they are connected to conduct. Normatively, ethics attempts to construct viable and defensible arguments for particular courses of conduct as being better than others in specific situations. This book engages mainly in a descriptive approach to the ethical situation of public administrators and provides some analytical tools, including a decision model for arriving at normative judgments. It does not describe a particular public service ethic, an endeavor I have undertaken in another book, An Ethic of Citizenship for Public Administration (1991), nor does it specifically define a descriptive decision model. Descriptive models developed by others will be reviewed briefly in Chapter Two as a means of providing background for the normative model presented here.
Ethics may be viewed from either or both of two major orientations: deontological and teleological. Deontological approaches to ethics focus on one's duty to certain ethical principles, such as justice, freedom, or veracity, without regard for the consequences of one's actions. Teleological ethics, in contrast, involves a concern for the ends or consequences of one's conduct. This is the position most notably associated with utilitarianism and its calculus of the greatest good for the greatest number. This book assumes that most of us undertake decisions using both of these perspectives most of the time. That is, we consider principles that are important to us in a concrete situation and then ask ourselves what the consequences of acting on those principles are likely to be. The decision-making model presented in the next chapter combines deontological and teleological orientations.
Doing ethics, then, involves thinking more systematically about the values and principles that are embedded in our choices than we do when we make choices on practical or political grounds alone. As we reflect on these implicit values, we ask ourselves how they are consistent with our duties and toward what ends and consequences they lead. Keeping in mind the obligations and goals of the roles we occupy, we seek to rank-order them for each particular ethical decision we confront in the course of carrying out a specific role.
The relationship between law and ethics often comes up in the discussion of specific cases. My answer is that law specifies the moral minimum. It is the minimum level of conduct that we as a society agree to impose on all of us through the threat of force and sanctions. Ethical considerations are often involved in deliberations about proposed legislation, but once crystallized into law, the conduct prescribed is assumed to be backed up by the coercive power of government. However, from an ethicist's point of view, law must always stand under the judgment of ethics. Sometimes laws may be deemed unjust and therefore unethical. Those who believe so may challenge those laws in the courts as inconsistent with the human rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, or they may engage in civil disobedience, even to the point of being arrested and going to jail.
Both kinds of challenges occurred during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) engaged in litigation against unjust segregation laws in the American South. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others employed civil disobedience by sitting in at segregated facilities, refusing to sit in the back seats on buses, and demonstrating against segregated schools even when ordered by legal authorities not to do so. Sometimes laws need to be challenged on ethical grounds. In the long tradition of civil disobedience exemplified by Gandhi and King, the key proviso is that one must be willing to accept the consequences of one's actions in order to demonstrate commitment to ethical principles over what are considered unjust laws. That is, one must be willing to suffer fines and imprisonment in order to evoke a response from the larger society to bring about change in the laws in question.
The terms role and responsibility are peculiarly modern in connotation. Both suggest a worldview in which the power of tradition is broken and human beings are left to construct a world of their own making. Roles must be devised and responsibility defined as ways of reestablishing obligations in our modern, pluralistic, technological society. Technology is applied not only to production but also to society itself.
Winter (1966) observed: “Responsibility is a relatively new term in the ethical vocabulary, appearing in the nineteenth century with a somewhat ambiguous meaning. The term evaluates action and attributes it to an agent; it does so in lieu of cosmic or natural structures of obligation. The historical awareness of the nineteenth century, the scientific and technological revolutions, and the collapse of metaphysical systems had undermined fixed notions of obligations. The term ‘responsibility’ was a way of filling this gap by defining the scope of accountability and obligation in contexts of law and common culture” (pp. 254–255).
Similarly, Richard McKeon's study (1957) of the emergence of the term in Western thought reveals that responsibility first appeared in English and French in 1787. It was used initially in reference to the political institutions arising out of the American and French revolutions, but its use continued through the nineteenth century. When “constitutional government was vastly extended, in scope of operation and in spread among nations, as a result of contacts of cultures and peoples” (p. 23), the concept of responsibility became increasingly significant as a way of defining a common set of values among people of divergent cultures and traditions.
The concept of role then becomes a convenient way to package expectations and obligations associated with the modern world. As we cease to view social functions as received intact from the past and see them instead as manipulated and created anew, we take upon ourselves bounded obligation in the form of various roles. People exercise responsibility and are held responsible in society when they accept and carry out an array of more or less well-defined roles: employee, parent, citizen, group member. The most problematic roles are those not clearly defined, usually because there is little agreement about the boundaries of responsibility associated with them. What does it mean to be a responsible parent in the first decade of the twenty-first century? Or a responsible spouse, responsible citizen, responsible politician, or responsible public administrator?
The problem is that although public administrators are responsible for certain duties (those that constitute the professional role), they sometimes believe they are obligated to act otherwise. This occurs because administrators, along with everyone else in modern society, maintain an array of roles related to family, community, and society, each carrying a set of obligations and vested with certain personal interests. The quite common result is conflict among roles as these competing forces push and pull in opposite directions. The effects of these conflicts are compounded by the range of discretion administrators must exercise. The intent of legislation is frequently stated in broad language, leaving the specifics to administrators. Consequently, ethical standards and sensitivity are crucial to the responsible use of this discretion.
The Responsible Administrator
The responsible administrator is one who is responsible in the two senses I have discussed briefly here (this subject is treated more thoroughly in Chapter Four). Responsible administrators must be able to account for their conduct to relevant others, such as supervisors, elected officials, the courts, and the citizenry, which means being able to explain and justify why specific actions they took resulted in particular consequences. They must also be able to act in ways that are consistent with their inner convictions as professional guardians of the public good. That is, being a responsible administrator includes having both objective accountability for conduct and subjective congruence with one's professional values. Ethics is the most fundamental way in which one satisfies both kinds of responsibility. Responsible administrators must be ethically sophisticated enough to reason with others about the ways in which their conduct serves the public interest and have sufficient clarity about their own professional ethical commitments to maintain integrity and a sense of self-esteem.
What, then, is the difference between an ethical administrator and a responsible administrator? A public administrator who has been properly socialized may be able to act in accordance with the common good some or even most of the time, thus being an ethical administrator some or most of the time, yet not be able to give specific reasons for his or her conduct when questioned or challenged, and perhaps not even be able to understand in a self-conscious way why he or she acted in a particular way. Understanding one's motivations and being able to explain and justify the actions that flow from them are the essential qualities of the responsible administrator. This book seeks to provide the concepts, theories, and techniques for responsible administration.
All too many treatments of professional ethics stop with a conceptual and theoretical philosophical analysis of typical ethical problems. Some lead to a desired solution or a prescribed set of ethical norms, whereas others elucidate the problem, offer some analysis of various alternatives, and leave the reader with the implication that all are of equal value. In this book a design approach is adopted as the central organizing ethical process. This orientation assumes that there is no single best solution to a significant ethical problem but rather numerous possible solutions, some of equal value and some of greater or lesser worth. The task is to design a response to a problem at hand that addresses the immediate short-term situation but also looks to the wider organizational, legal, and social contexts for the longer-term answers.
Practicing administrators cannot live exclusively in the realm of philosophical reflection but must connect such considerations to action and organizations. As Caroline Whitbeck (1996) suggests, “People confronted with ethical problems must do more than simply make judgments. They must figure out what to do” (p. 9). Far from simply assuming that ethics is a matter of looking for an ideal rational solution to an immediate problem, Whitbeck argues that a person confronting an ethical problem should be thinking like a designer. “Design problems,” she points out, “are problems of making (or repairing) things and processes to satisfy wants and needs” (p. 10). And this “making” and “repairing” always involves constraints—in time, money, power, the ability to persuade, and the strength to absorb consequences. For public administrators the design of a viable and acceptable solution to an ethical quandary always takes place in the context of organizations that will support some kinds of conduct and impede others. A workable resolution of an ethical problem cannot ignore that organizational context.
Following Whitbeck, the approach developed throughout this book is one of considering the facts of a situation—its social and organizational context, its constraints, opportunities, and implications for all concerned—and then advocating the design of courses of action that may include changes in organizational structure, culture, rules, policies, and procedures. It is assumed that there are several conceivable alternative courses to consider before selecting, not an ideal or perfect solution, but the best among an array of possibilities, some of which may be equally acceptable. This design approach assumes that it is always possible to improve on any solution given moral imagination, ingenuity, and creativity and that one must always bring these qualities to bear on important ethical quandaries. But administrators have limited time to exercise their inventiveness and finally must act in the short run while planning for the future.
Thus, as the chapters unfold, the meaning of responsibility in the public administrative role will be developed by leading the reader through considerations of the elements involved in designing what to do in the face of ethical uncertainty and challenge. H...