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CONTEXT OF ETHICS AND ITS SIGNIFICANCE FOR PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION

Ethics, whether in an entire society, or in a social sub-system, evolves over a long period of time and is influenced, during its nurturance and growth, by a variety of environmental factors. Administrative ethics is no different. It is the product of several contextual structures and it never ceases to grow and change. Let us now look at some of these contextual factors that influence ethics in the public administrative systems:

The Historical Context

The history of a country marks a great influence on the ethical character of the governance system. The Spoils System in the USA during the initial phase of the American nation vitiated the ethical milieu of the American Public Administration. “To victor belong the spoils” asserted American President Jackson.

Things would have continued the same way had not a disgruntled job seeker assassinated President Garfield in 1881. Garfield’s assassination spurred the process of civil service reforms in the USA, and the setting up of the US. Civil Service Commission in 1883 was the first major step in this direction.

India has witnessed a long history of unethical practices in the governance system. Kautilya’s Arthashastra mentions a variety of corrupt practices in which the administrators of those times indulged themselves. The Mughal Empire and the Indian princely rule were also afflicted with the corrupt practices of the courtiers and administrative functionaries, with ‘bakashish’ being one of the accepted means of selling and buying favours.The East India Company too had its share of employees who were criticised even by the British parliamentarians for being corrupt.

The forces of probity and immorality co-exist in all phases of human history. Which forces are stronger depends upon the support these get from the prime actors of politico-administrative system. What is disturbing is that a long legacy of unethical practices in governance is likely to enhance the tolerance level for administrative immorality.

In most developing nations having a colonial history, the chasm between the people and the government continues to be wide. In the colonial era, the legitimacy of the governance was not accepted willingly by a majority of population and therefore, true loyalty to the rulers was a rare phenomenon.

Although the distance between the governing elite and the citizens has been reduced substantially in the transformed democratic regimes, yet the affinity and trust between the two has not been total even in the new dispensation. Unfortunately, even the ruling elite does not seem to have imbibed the spirit of emotional unity with the citizens. The legacy of competitive collaboration between the people and the administrators continues to exist. The nature of this relationship has an adverse impact on ‘administrative ethics’.

The Socio-cultural Context

Values that permeate the social order in a society determine the nature of governance system. The Indian society today seems to prefer wealth to any other value. And in the process of generating wealth, the means-ends debate has been sidelined.

Unfortunately, ends have gained supremacy and the means do not command an equal respect. A quest for wealth in itself is not bad. In fact, it is a mark of civilisational progress. What is important is the means employed while being engaged in this quest.

We seem to be living in an economic or commercial society, where uni-dimensional growth of individuals seem to be accepted and even valued, where ends have been subdued by means, and ideals have been submerged under the weight of more practical concerns of economic progress.

Can we change this social order? Mahatma Gandhi very much wanted to transform the priority-order of the Indian society, but there were hardly any takers or backers of his radical thinking that was steeped in a strong moral order. To put it bluntly, ever since Gandhi passed away, there has been not a single strong voice in independent India challenging the supremacy of ‘teleology and unidimensionalism’.

Neither have our family values questioned this unilinear growth of society nor has our educational system made serious efforts to inject morality into the impressionable minds of our youth. We have starkly failed on these fronts. The need is to evolve fresh perspectives on what kind of the Indians we wish to evolve and how? Till then, efforts will have to be focused on the non-social fronts.

The issues of morality may or may not be rooted in the religious ethos of a society. Indian religious scriptures do not favour pursuit of wealth through foul means. Interestingly, Thiru Valluvar’s Kural, written two thousand years ago in Tamil Nadu, emphasises that earning wealth brings fame, respect and an opportunity to help and serve others, but it should be earned through right means only.

Can this dictum form the basis of our socio-moral orientation? The level of integrity among Protestants and Parsees is believed by some to be relatively higher when compared to other religions and one can find the roots of such integrity in the well-ingrained mores of these religions.

Nevertheless, it is only one point of view, as there are several other religious and secular groups, which are known for their high moral conduct. The cultural system of a country, including its religious orientation, appears to have played a significant role in influencing the work ethics of its people. For instance, the stress on hard work, so characteristic of the Protestant ethics, has helped several Christian societies to enhance their per capita productivity. While Judaism has valued performance of physical labour by its followers, the Hindu and Islamic societies, on the other hand, have generally considered physical labour to be of lower rank than the mental work.

Work ethics may or may not be linked with religious moorings. These are subjective issues but make for an interesting study. The family system and the educational system are influential instruments of socialisation and training of the mind in its impressionable years. If the values inculcated through the family and the school have underscored honesty and ethics, the impact on the mind-set of citizens is likely to be highly positive and powerful

Legal-judicial Context

The legal system of a country determines considerably the efficacy of the ethical concerns in governance system. A neatly formulated law, with a clear stress on the norms of fair conduct and honesty, is likely to distinguish chaff from grain in the ethical universe.

Conversely, nebulous laws, with confusing definition of corruption and its explanations, will only promote corruption for it would not be able to instill the fear of God or fear of law among those violating the laws of the land and mores of the society.

Besides, an efficient and effective judiciary with fast-track justice system will prove a roadblock to immorality in public affairs. Conversely, a slow-moving judiciary, with a concern for letter rather than the spirit of the law, will dither and delay and even help the perpetrators of crimes by giving them leeway through prolonged trials and benefits of doubt.

The Political Context

The political leadership, whether in power or outside the power-domain, is perhaps the single most potent influence on the mores and values of citizens. The rulers do rule the minds, but in a democracy particularly, all political parties, pressure groups and the media also influence the orientation and attitudes on moral questions.

If politicians act as authentic examples of integrity, as happens in the Scandinavian countries, or as examples of gross self-interest, as found in most South Asian countries, the administrative system cannot remain immune to the levels of political morality. The election system in India is considered to be the biggest propeller to political corruption.

Spending millions on the elections `compels’ a candidate to reimburse his expenses through fair or foul means – more foul than fair. While fair has limits, foul has none. It is generally argued that the administrative class – comprising civil servants at higher, middle as well as lower levels – emerges from the society itself.

Naturally, therefore, the mores, values and behavioural patterns prevalent in the society are likely to be reflected in the conduct of administrators. To expect that the administrators will be insulated from the orientations and norms evidenced the in society would be grossly unrealistic.

The argument, propounded here, has a convincing logic, yet there can be a counterpoint that the rulers are expected to possess stronger moral fibre than the subjects. Since there are hardly any instrumentalities to protect and nurture administrative morality vis-à-vis the general social morality, such an expectation remains at the most an elusive ideal.

Hence, there is an obvious need to go deeper into the problem. The behaviour of politicians has a demonstration effect on civil servants. Besides, the capacity of the less honest political masters to control civil servants is immense. It is ironical that the moral environment in a country like India is designed more by its politicians than by any other social group.

The primacy of the political over the rest of systems is too obvious to be ignored. If the media is objective and fearless, its role in preventing corruption can be effective. It can even act as a catalyst to the promotion of ethical behaviour among administrators.

Hence, those who own and manage the media should understand their wider social and moral responsibilities. The trend in this direction is visible now with many television channels regularly airing their ‘expose’ on malpractices in the system. This role of the media is important if performed with intent of social responsibility rather than sensationalism.

The Economic Context

The level of economic development of a country is likely to have a positive correlation with the level of ethics in the governance system. Even when a causal relation between the two is not envisaged, a correlation cannot be ruled out.

A lower level of economic development, when accompanied with inequalities in the economic order, is likely to create a chasm among social classes and groups. The less privileged or more deprived sections of society may get tempted to forsake principles of honest conduct while fulfilling their basic needs of existence and security.

Not that the rich will necessarily be more honest (though they can afford to be so), yet what is apprehended is that the poor, while making a living, may find it a compelling necessity to compromise with the principles of integrity. It is interesting to note that with the advent of liberalising economic regime in developing nations, there is a growing concern about following the norms of integrity in industry, trade, management and the governance system on account of the international pressures for higher level of integrity in the WTO regime. This is what Fred Riggs would call `exogenous’ inducements to administrative change.


To be Continued…

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