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‘Ethics’ is a difficult term to define. The meaning, nature and scope of ethics have expanded in the course of time. ‘Ethics’ is integral to public administration. In public administration, ethics focuses on how the public administrator should question and reflect in order to be able to act responsibly. We cannot simply bifurcate the two by saying that ethics deals with morals and values, while public administration is about actions and decisions. Administering accountability and ethics is a difficult task.

“A healthy loyalty is not passive and complacent, but active and critical.” – Harold Laski,

“Without equality, I say, there cannot be liberty.” – Harold Laski

“A government is an institution that holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.”- Max Weber

The levels of ethics in governance are dependent on the social, economic, political, cultural, legal-judicial and historical contexts of the country. These specific factors influence ethics in public administrative systems.

We will discuss the meaning, evolution, foci and concerns of ethics. It will bring out the different dimensions of ethics and their relevance for public administration. The significance of an ethical code for administrators will be analysed and the nature of work ethics will be discussed. We will also examine the obstacles to ethical accountability.


‘Ethics’ is a system of accepted beliefs, mores and values, which influence human behaviour. More specifically, it is a system based on morals. Thus, ethics is the study of what is morally right, and what is not.

The Latin origin of the word ‘ethics’ is ethicus that means character. Since the early 17th century, ‘ethics’ has been accepted as the “Science of morals; the rules of conduct, the science of human duty.”Hence, in common parlance, ethics is treated as moral principles that govern a person’s or a group’s behaviour. It includes both the science of the good and the nature of the right.

The ethical concerns of governance have been underscored widely in Indian scriptures and other treatises such as Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagvad Gita, Buddha Charita, Arthashastra, Panchatantra, Manusmriti, Kural, Shukra Niti, Kadambari, Raja Tarangani, and Hitopadesh. At the same time, one cannot ignore the maxims on ethical governance provided by the Chinese philosophers such as Lao Tse, Confucius and Mencius.

In the Western philosophy, there are three eminent schools of ethics.

The first, inspired by Aristotle, holds that virtues (such as justice, charity and generosity) are dispositions to act in ways that benefit the possessor of these virtues and the society of which he is a part.

The second, subscribed to mainly by Immanual Kant, makes the concept of duty central to morality: human beings are bound, from a knowledge of their duty as rational beings, to obey the categorical imperative to respect other rational beings with whom they interact.

The third is the Utilitarian viewpoint that asserts that the guiding principle of conduct should be the greatest happiness (or benefit) of the greatest number.

The Western thought is full of ethical guidelines to rulers, whether in a monarchy or a democracy. These concerns are found in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Penn, John Stuart Mill, Edmund Burke, and others.

Rawl’s theory of justice revolves around the adaptation of two fundamental principles of justice, which would, in turn, guarantee a just and morally acceptable society.

  • The first principle guarantees the right of each person to have the most extensive basic liberty compatible with liberty of others.
  • The second principle states that social and economic positions are to be:
    • (a) To everyone’s advantage, and
    • (b) Open to all.

A key issue for Rawl’s is to show how such principles would be universally adopted, and over here his work borders on general ethical issues. He introduces a theoretical ‘veil of ignorance’ in which all ‘players’ in the social game would be placed in a situation, which is called the ‘original position’.

Having only a general knowledge about the facts of ‘life and society’ each player is to make a ‘rationally’ prudential choice concerning the kind of social institution they would enter into contract with. By denying the players any specific information about themselves it forces them to adopt a generalised point of view that bears a strong resemblance to the moral point of view.

This view point revolves around moral conclusions can be reached without abandoning the prudential standpoint and posting a moral outlook merely by pursuing one’s own prudential reasoning under certain procedural bargaining.

The gist of wisdom on administrative ethics is that the public administrators are the “guardians” of the Administrative State. Hence, they are expected to honour public trust and not violate it.

Two crucial questions raised in this context are “why should guardians be guarded? And “Who guards the guardian?

The administrators need to be guarded against their tendency to misconceive public interest, promote self-interest, indulge in corruption and cause subversion of national interest. And they need to be guarded by the external institutions such as the judiciary, legislature, political executive, media and civil society organisations. These various modes of control become instruments of accountability.


It is essential to recognise that the discipline of Public Administration has been broadly influenced in the initial stages of its growth, by Political Science and the science of Management. While the philosophical premises of Public Administration were influenced primarily by Political Science, its technological facet was designed by Management Sciences.

The early Political Science was taught as Moral Philosophy and Political Economy, while its current curriculum is the product of secular, practical, empirical and scientific tendencies of the past century.

The American students of Political Science, in the early years of the last century, were dismayed at the inadequacies of the ethical approach in the Gilded Age. As a result of their interaction with the German universities and the influence on their thinking by scholars such as J.N Burgess, E.J. James, A.B Hart, A.L Lovell, and F.J Goodnow, they sought to recreate Political Science as a true science. They became increasingly interested in observing and analysing ‘actual governments’. Natural and Social Sciences substantially influenced their ideas and approaches.

Later, Logical Positivism of the Austrian School influenced scholars such as Herbert Simon and thus there emerged a booming faith in developing a Science of Politics and a Science of Administration that would be able to `predict and control’ political and administrative life.

As Dwight Waldo comments, the old belief that good government was the government of moral men was thus replaced by a morality that was irrelevant and that proper institutions and expert personnel were the determining factors in shaping good government.

The eminence of Behaviouralism until the mid-1960s further marginalised the ethical issues in the study of Political Science and Public Administration. It was only after the advent of Post-behaviouralism in Political Science and of the accent on New Public Administration in Public Administration that the scientific methods of Behaviouralim and humanistic (read `ethical’) values struck a homogenous chord with administration and the dispute between facts and values was resolved substantially.

The current discipline of public administration accords primacy to the `values’ of equity, justice, humanism, human rights, gender equality and compassion. The movement of Good Governance, initiated by the World Bank in 1992, lays stress, inter alia, on the ethical and moral conduct of administrators.

While the New Public Management movement is more concerned with administrative effectiveness, the New Public Administration focuses on administrative ethics in its broader manifestation. Both the movements are complementary to each other.

John Kennedy, during his Presidency (1961- 1963) had averred: “No responsibility of government is more fundamental than the responsibility of maintaining the higher standards of ethical behaviour.

The ideal-type construction of bureaucracy, propounded by Max Weber also highlighted an ethical imperative of bureaucratic behaviour. Weber (1947) observed: In the rational type, it is a matter of principle that the members of the administrative staff should be completely separated from ownership of the means of production and administration.

Weber’s analysis underscores the need to prevent the misuse of an official position for personal gains. Although his ideal-type construct on bureaucracy is not empirical, yet it has an empirical flavour, for it appears to have taken into account the existential reality of bureaucratic behaviour. From a normative angle – knowing that Weber was not normative in his ideal type constructs – also, the message is clear: Don’t misuse official property for personal benefit.

Most critics of real-world bureaucracies, including Harold Laski, Carl Friedrich, Victor Thompson and Warren Bennis, have criticised bureaucrats for violating the prescribed norms of moral conduct. Even Fred Riggs, while discussing the traits of a prismatic society like `formalism’ and ‘nepotism’ points out the yawning gap between the `ideal’ and the `real’ in administrative behaviour. The deviations from the norms and mores have been too glaring to be ignored. Immoral behaviour thus has become an integral component of `bureaupathology’

Terms Explained

Logical Positivism – Logical positivism, also called logical empiricism, was an early 20th-century philosophical movement that held that a statement was meaningful only if it could be verified or confirmed through experience. Logical positivism relied exclusively on observable events for knowledge about the world, and therefore considered non-observable events to be basically meaningless. In other words, the only truth is what science can prove. Logical positivism, also called logical empiricism, a philosophical movement that arose in Vienna in the 1920s and was characterized by the view that scientific knowledge is the only kind of factual knowledge and that all traditional metaphysical doctrines are to be rejected as meaningless.

Behaviouralismis an approach in political science which seeks to provide an objective, quantified approach to explaining and predicting political behaviour. Its emergence in politics coincides with the rise of the behavioural social sciences that were given shape after the natural sciences.

Nepotism is the act of using power or influence in order to get unfair advantages for friends and relatives.

Bureaupathology – Back in the early 1960s Victor Thompson coined the term bureaupathology to describe organisations in which the smooth running of the bureaucracy took precedence over its real work. The manifestations of exaggerated bureaucratic behaviour. They include resistance to change, an obsessive reliance on rules and regulations, and an individual incapability of responding to unpredictable events. The bureaupath tends to believe the policies and procedures of an organization constitute an end in themselves, rather than a means to an end.

To be Continued…

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