The Relationship Between Ethics and Public Administration: The Concept of Competing Ethical Obligations
It is not enough that you can form, nay, and follow, the most excellent rules for conducting yourself in the world. You must know when to deviate from them, and where lies the exception.
“You are self-righteous!”, a superior of mine in a guild (a group of people, basically) I am part of in Ragnarok, the popular online game, exclaimed and concluded after reading something I’ve posted in our forums. To add insult to injury, he said that I had “a strong sense of what is right and wrong”. Needless to say, he was polite and refined enough to sugarcoat what is, in reality, an insult to my persona.
Yes, it was within the confines of virtual reality- an online game that is really nowhere near reality to say the least. And, I can say that my personality in real life, in other words, the real “me”, is really farfetched from the façade that I put on whenever I am online. However, it made me rethink the values that I have. Were my beliefs wrong? Why do people think otherwise when I can see no wrong in the actions that I took? What things are universally moral and ethical? Are there even such things?
Suffice it to say that I really had a tough time thinking it over.
Fortunately, I am just a single person and whatever choices I make-what things I’ll consider right or wrong-would have little or no effect, or externality if you like your economics subjects (actually, I do), on other people’s lives. On the other hand, a public official, who has a rather high profile and is someone who is on top of the hierarchy, if you like your Public Administration subjects (I’m not brown-nosing but I like my PS 150 subject), would have a harder time since whatever morality standards, ethics, ideas of right and wrong, or the lack thereof, he or she would subscribe to would affect his policymaking and implementation (administration, in short) and ultimately, the lives of the people under his or her leadership. And, of course, whatever competing ethical obligations a public administrator would have would definitely be more complex than the rather petty concerns of a junior political science student of UP-Manila like me. Is there really a difference between the kind of morality that I, as a private person, have and the kind of morality that a public administrator should have? Dwight Waldo, in his essay Public Administration and Ethics: A Prologue to a Preface, distinguishes between public and private morality and “the possibility of a conflict between them”. According to him, morality in the public office is not necessarily a matter of obeying the law, being honest, and telling the truth---which I personally reckon to be concerns of private, and not of public, morality. Rather, public morality concerns decisions made and action done for the collective good. Jeremy Bentham, in Works, sort of gives us a measure of what might be right and wrong: “It is the greatest good to the greatest number which is the measure of right and wrong”. Logically, the word “public” is relative. For example, if State policies are juxtaposed with the foreign policies, emphasis is given on the latter since the notion of public is usually involved with the notion of the “State” or “nation”. Likewise, public interest is presumed to come before private interests. However, what might be good public may not be moral. For example, if I kill someone and hence be a criminal, it would be “good” or beneficial to the security of the public if I will be sentenced to death. However, the morality of death sentence is still arguable to many.
I am really no big fan especially of the Roman Catholic Church- although I’m Catholic- since it brings out the hypocrisy especially in us, Filipinos. I would be irritated, but sometimes amused, at the sight of people doing the Sign of the Cross whenever the jeepney passes by a church. Hermana Penchang (thanks to PI 100 a.k.a. “Rizal”), who is a character in our national hero’s novel Noli Me Tangere, serves as a perfect example of the hypocrisy I’m talking about. She is the devout Catholic (thus, the title “Hermana”), who, after praying her novenas, going to church, kissing the ass, I mean, hands of the friars, and all, would abuse Huli and treat her rather cruelly. So much for that. However atheistic-sounding (or reading?) I am, religion, or God, does serve its purpose by ensuring that a higher law, obviously distinct by statues or man-made laws, is supreme. This higher law determines what is right and wrong.
Chester Barnard, an administrative theorist, once said that the “chief qualification of an executive is the ability to resolve… competing ethical codes---legal, technical, personal, professional, and organizational codes”. Indeed, Dwight Waldo put it succinctly when he said that: “moral or ethical behavior in public administration is a complicated matter, indeed, chaotic. (Needless to say, a person like me would have little technical and professional codes to follow for obvious reasons.) Consequently, a public administrator would need to have appropriate ability in order to survive an easier-said-than-done condition of complex morality, immense activity, and great responsibility. The reason why incompetent and inutile people (not all of them, actually, but most of them) are running the Philippine government, I’m not so sure of.
Now, going to the meat of the topic, Waldo suggests, although at the same time admits that it is merely arbitrary and is subject to indefinite expansion, twelve sources and types of ethical obligations to which the public administrator is expected to respond (NB: not in logical ordering):
1. Obligation to Constitution
It is symbolized and solemnized by an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. I bet most of us are aware of this since President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has invoked it so many times---to uphold her regime and remain in power, of course.
2. Obligation to Law
Codes of conducts are institutionalized through legislations and creation of government agencies. For example, we have the Civil Service Act, as well as the Civil Service Commission, to ensure that civil servants act properly and ethically. Obviously, that cantankerous librarian in the CAS library is not aware of this.
3. Obligation to Nation or Country
This is dissimilar to obligation to regime (constitution) since it is nobler. I’m going to hand it over to our hero, arguably the one who should be the national hero, Gat. Andres Bonifacio:
Aling pag-ibig pa ang hihigit kaya
Sa pagkadalisay at pagkadakila
Gaya ng pag-ibig sa tinubuang lupa,
Aling pag-ibig pa? Wala na nga wala.
-Excerpt from Pag-ibig sa Tinubuang Lupa
4. Obligation to Democracy
This is the perceived obligation by the public administrator to the people. It states that the will of the people is supreme. “Honesty A” (U.S. President Abraham Lincoln) once said: “…That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
5. Obligation to Organizational Bureaucratic Norms
This can be further divided into two: generic and specific. Genetic obligations are deeply-rooted, perhaps in human-nature, certainly in history and culture while specific obligations will depend upon circumstance.
6. Obligation to Profession and Professionalism
Every profession, or a well-developed occupation, has an ethos that acts to shape the values and behaviors of members. This ethos concerns actions pertaining to fellow professionals, clients, patients, employers, and perhaps humanity in general. For example, a teacher should be very respectable, both in physical looks and intellect, in order for him or her to be considered a good member of the said profession.
7. Obligation to Family and Friends
Obligation to family is bedrock in most if not all morality. This is especially true in the Philippines where families are tightly-bonded or closely-knit. It is the center of loyalty and values. Friendship, on the other hand, is less than the family, but shares with it the immediate, personal bond.
8. Obligation to Self
William Shakespeare put it succinctly when he said, “This above all, to thine own self be true.” The argument for it is that if you have regard for yourself, then you’ll have regard for others, that doing one’s duty must be based on personal strength and integrity. Of course, this is not so common in the Philippines where self-serving interests and obligations thrive.
9. Obligation to Middle-Range Collectivities
Party, class, race, union, church, interest group, and others make up these so-called middle-range collectivities. In a sense, it is halfway between the self or family and the nation.
10. Obligation to the Public Interest or General Welfare
Since the people are supposed to be the patrons, their interests and welfare should be prioritized. However, it is notoriously difficult to measure or operationalize.
11. Obligation to Humanity or the World
“An obligation is owed to humanity in general, to the world as a total entity, to the future as the symbol and summation of all that can be hoped.” Enough said…
12. Obligation to Religion or God
Religion, as stated earlier, plays a big role in ethics. Obligations imposed by religion or God is not doubted even by atheists.
Notwithstanding the multiple and diverse sources of ethical obligations, the modern world is distinguished by “moral decay” and falling apart from religious beliefs (which play a big part in ethics) and an equal rise in the belief in science and its positivist, formal, and rather mechanical aura. It has coincided with what Waldo calls the “Organizational Revolution” wherein there is vast increase in the number, size, variety and power of organizations including the ones that are part of the bureaucracy. Hence, public administration is implicated. However, the increase in the size merely lead to erosion in the development of organizations’ ideas and standards of morality and ethics. Waldo, suggests a solution: to study the old and dilapidated foundations of morality, and using what can be learned from them to make a new, and more contemporary foundation that is more responsive to the modern times.
At the end of the day, we still end up with the realization that ethics is relative and there is no one, definite source of rules of what is right or wrong primordially because of the presence of several sources of ethical obligations. And, doesn’t that mean that we’re self-righteous and, there’s just many of us so self-righteousness is mistaken to be righteousness?
Well, as for now, I will have to be thankful that I’m doing this for my Public Administration class and not for actual matters for I resent the day that I will have to choose between seemingly-coequal obligations. Indeed, being a leader is no walk in the park. Unfortunately, PS 150 isn’t either. Not that I’m complaining and bitter, it’s just that I didn’t expect writing in public (blogging) in Public Administration class. Hahaha