Ethics Primer

The Ethics Primer for Public Administrators in Government and Nonprof it Organizations

Second Edition

James Svara Research Professor, School of Public

Affairs Arizona State University Phoenix, Arizona

Visiting Professor, School of Government University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, North Carolina


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The ethics primer for public administrators in government and nonprofit organizations / James H. Svara, PhD, research professor, School of Public Affairs, Arizona State University. — Second edition.

pages cm Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-1-4496-1901-5 (pbk.) 1. Health services administrators—Moral and ethical aspects. I. Title. R724.S83 2015 174.2—dc23 2013034748

6048 Printed in the United States of America 18 17 16 15 14 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1


This book is dedicated to my students at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, North Carolina State University, and Arizona State University, with whom

I learned a lot about ethics.





CHAPTER 1 Introduction—and a Pop Quiz Pop Quiz: Do You Have a Code of Ethics? Understanding the Setting for Administrative Ethics The Setting Continued: Differences Between Government and

Nonprofit Organizations Overview

CHAPTER 2 Administrative Ethics: Ideas, Sources, and Development Definition and the Sources of Ethical Ideas Your Code Compared to Others Ethical Development Basic Components of Administrative Ethics Other Definitional Issues: Distinctions Between Ethics, Morality, and


CHAPTER 3 Refining the Sense of Duty: Responsibilities of Public Administrators and the Issue of Agency

The Responsibilities of Democratic Public Administrators Responsibilities to Elected Officials and to the Organization: The

Question of Moral Agency Do Role and Structure Allow Administrators to Be Responsible for

Their Actions? Are Public Administrators Accountable Agents? Complementarity as Conceptual Foundation for Administrative

Responsibilities Building a Model of Administrative Ethics with Duty at the Core

CHAPTER 4 Reinforcing and Enlarging Duty: The Philosophical Bases of Ethical Behavior and the Ethics Triangle

Virtue and Intuition Advantages of the Virtuous Approach Disadvantages of the Virtuous Approach Problems with Over- and Underutilization

Deontology and the Principle-Based Approach Issues in the Principle-Based Approach Advantages of the Principle-Based Approach


Disadvantages of the Principle-Based Approach Problems of Over- and Underutilization

Consequences-Based Ethics: The Utilitarian Approach Advantages of the Utilitarian Approach Disadvantages of the Utilitarian Approach Problems of Over- and Underutilization

Using the Approaches Together Logic of Combining Approaches Examples from Ethics Guidelines

The Ethics Triangle Promoting Use of the Ethics Triangle

CHAPTER 5 Codifying Duty and Ethical Perspectives: Professional Codes of Ethics

Breadth and Purpose of Codes Enforcement of Codes Restating the Purpose of Codes of Ethics Incorporating Codes into Your Own Professional Standards

CHAPTER 6 Undermining Duty: Challenges to the Ethical Behavior of Public Administrators

Explanations Based on Bad People/Bad Systems Failings Due to Shortcomings by Normally Good and Decent

Officials Unethical Choices Shaped by Circumstances

CHAPTER 7 Deciding How to Meet Obligations and Act Responsibly: Ethical Analysis and Problem Solving

Advantages of Analysis Stages and Steps in Problem Solving Model Applying the Problem Solving Model Problem Solving and Action

CHAPTER 8 Acting on Duty in the Face of Uncertainty and Risk: Responsible Whistleblowing

Conditions for Responsible Whistleblowing Retaliatory Techniques Steps to Protect Whistleblowers Who Are Whistleblowers?

CHAPTER 9 Elevating Ethical Behavior in the Organization Strengthening Organization and Management Culture Clear Expectations, Effective Training and Advice, and Mechanisms

for Control Positive Management Practices Adequate Channels for Complaints and Values That Encourage


Dissent Equity and Involvement in Dealings with the Public

CHAPTER 10 Mandating Duty: External Measures to Promote Ethics Open Meetings Laws and Freedom of Information Requirements Inspectors General and Auditors State Ethics Laws

Those Covered by Provisions Conflict of Interest

Disclosure Prohibitions and Controls Postemployment Restrictions Whistleblower Protection Administration and Enforcement

Assessment of Ethics Laws

CHAPTER 11 Conclusion: The Duties of Public Administrators

APPENDIX 1 Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch

APPENDIX 2 Code of Ethics for Government Service

APPENDIX 3 American Society for Public Administration’s Code of Ethics with Practices

APPENDIX 4 International City/County Management Association Code of Ethics with Guidelines

APPENDIX 5 The Code of Ethics for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Organizations

APPENDIX 6 American Institute of Certified Planners Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct

APPENDIX 7 Organizational Ethical Climate Survey





Ethics is an essential aspect of public service, but it is often left out of discussions on the development of the field and its major functions. Ethics is sometimes treated as a specialized topic studied for its own sake. For ethics to guide the attitudes and behavior of public administrators, it must be integrated into the way administrators think about their practice and incorporated into their everyday behavior.

I come to the exploration of ethics from a general scholarly interest in political- administrative relations. In my research and teaching, I seek to understand how public administration contributes to the political process, how politicians and administrators interact with each other, and how administrators relate to citizens. Examining these topics naturally brings up the issue of appropriate limits and goals, particularly regarding the behavior of public administrators. What is, and should be, the role of professional public administrators in governance? What are the characteristics of political-administrative relations? What do we expect administrators to do—and not to do? How do administrators relate to citizens? How should they balance their accountability to elected superiors and their professional standards with their responsibility to the public? The normative side of each of these questions involves “big” ethical issues, and these are the focus of this text.

John Gaus (1950) argued many years ago that a theory of public administration is also a theory of politics. I agree and hope to make the case for a further broadening of our understanding of the field. A theory of public administration in the political process is also a theory of ethics.

I believe that the same logic also applies to understanding the ethics of administrators in nonprofit organizations because of the basic similarity in the nature of administrative responsibilities in the governmental and nonprofit sectors. The city manager who works with the city council and serves the public, and the nonprofit executive director who works with a board of directors and serves clients, share many important characteristics in their work, in the ethical challenges that they face, and in their duty to serve. The text is also concerned with administrators who have little direct interaction with the public, whether in national or state government or in nonprofit organizations.

This text is a primer that introduces the reader to the fundamentals of administrative responsibility and ethics. It links these ideas to the nature of the administrative process and the work of professional administrators. It seeks to help the reader understand why ethics is important to people who choose to be administrators in governmental and nonprofit organizations and how to relate their own personal values with the norms of the public sector. Furthermore, the text offers assistance in working through the complexity and controversy surrounding ethical problems in public administration. It avoids prescription—thou shalt, thou shalt not—as much as possible and seeks instead


to enable the reader to form his or her own judgments about ethical choices. It is an introduction to fundamental issues that equips readers to make informed choices about their own behavior. It also provides a foundation for exploring the topic in more depth in other courses or training opportunities.

I approach this text with 16 years of teaching ethics and professional practice—a core course in the master of public administration (MPA) degree—and more years teaching related topics. I hope to create in these words-on-pages some of the dynamic exchange that occurs in the classroom as students grapple with the important issues in administrative ethics. From this experience, I know quite well that this text does not “teach” ethics, in the sense of trying to fill in a blank slate. The reader already has a basic understanding of what it means to be an ethical person. Like my students, the reader comes to this text with a reservoir of ethical and moral values upon which he or she can draw.

In addition to my teaching, I bring perspectives from the experience of being an administrator, a program director, and department head. Some important generic issues in supervision, interpersonal relations, resource use, reporting, and planning are encountered even in the rather disorganized sphere of academic administration. I also benefited greatly from a year on leave working in Washington, DC, from 1976–1977 at the Department of Housing and Urban Development as a National Association of School of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) Fellow. Furthermore, a lot of my research and training involves interacting with politicians and administrators, both in the United States and other countries. I think that I have come to appreciate the kinds of challenges that administrators face and how often there is an important ethical dimension to these challenges.

My research reflects a blending of my early focus on urban politics and political leadership and my deepening interest in administrative leadership and values. I explore professional administration in a political context. Although much of my writing has focused on local government, my teaching addresses issues at all levels of government and in nonprofits. I conduct empirical research on topics that have a normative dimension and examine the normative implications of my quantitative research. I have merged empirical research findings with analysis of the development of public administration to suggest a new (but I believe historically grounded) way to conceptualize political-administrative relations. This approach stresses the complementarity of politics and administration rather than a dichotomy or strict separation as the conceptual foundation of the field. This model informs my approach to administrative ethics.

The Ethics Primer for Public Administrators in Government and Nonprofit Organizations, Second Edition presents a simple theme that, of course, gets complicated in the telling. People enter the field of public administration, just as the reader enters this text, with an interest in public service and a set of values shaped in part by that interest. These values reflect most of the essential elements of ethical thinking, but they are not developed in a very sophisticated way. Like most adults, people who have not formally studied administrative ethics tend to have values that are grounded in respect for conventional norms. Also, they tend to have fairly substantial respect for people in positions of “authority.” This condition creates tension between the sense of duty to serve and act responsibly, on the one hand, and the deference to the superiors and


established rules, on the other. Most people who have not expanded their knowledge or thought systematically about ethics and the nature of public service are dependent on external sources of direction.

I hope this text will help the reader broaden and deepen his or her understanding of the nature of the public service duty and major approaches to thinking about ethics. I hope the reader will internalize this knowledge so he or she is able to form independent judgments about ethical options based on universal values. The reader will not necessarily reject the external influences he or she receives, but will be better able to weigh his or her own reasoned sense of what is right against what others say is right. Finally, I hope the reader will be able to use this knowledge to take actions that are ethically sound based on a careful consideration of all the relevant options. Because the reader is already or is preparing to become an administrator who is responsible for directing other persons and shaping his or her organization, I hope this text will also help the reader see ways that he or she can raise ethical awareness in others.



I have been a member of the faculty in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University and want to thank my colleagues and students there for their support of my research on ethics. I also want to express my gratitude to a number of colleagues and students at North Carolina State University who helped, both directly and indirectly, with the original text. Debra Stewart helped me understand the importance of the development of ethical reasoning and how it changes over time. Jim Brunet offered comments, suggested sources, and made a test drive in a class he taught with an earlier version of the manuscript. Former doctoral students Dr. Jack Kem and Dr. Julie Raines wrote dissertations on ethics topics and added to my knowledge of the issues and the literature in administrative ethics, and current doctoral students Ljubinka Andonoska and Chin-Chang Tsai at Arizona State University conducted research that contributed to the new edition of the text.

I have had unique opportunity to work on the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) Code of Ethics review process for the past two years. I am grateful to the 31 members of the working group who diligently examined the current Code of Ethics and thoughtfully proposed revisions that build on ASPA’s prior codes. It was a pleasure working with Jim Nordin, member of the ASPA National Council and retired federal government administrator, who co-chaired the working group with me. My understanding of professional ethics has been deepened by this experience.

My wife, Claudia, has been both patient and supportive over the extended period of this writing project. She is also a model of the ethical professional who exemplifies the duty to service at the highest level in her practice of medicine.



Introduction—and a Pop Quiz

This text is a primer on administrative ethics, a term that refers to the ethics of persons who occupy career leadership and staff positions in government and nonprofit organizations. It brings to mind oxymorons, which are a form of satiric humor. “Military intelligence,” “jumbo shrimp,” and “airline food” are popular examples. To be honest, “administrative ethics” is probably pretty high on the list of commonly used oxymorons, but more to the point at the start of this text is the possibility that “ethics primer” itself connects two elements that are incompatible. To cover a complex topic such as ethics in the public service in a small, introductory book may seem to be an impossible task. Is it sufficient to briefly introduce and provide initial instruction—the dictionary meaning of a primer—for a subject as weighty as administrative ethics?

Based on my experience in teaching administrative ethics in a short-course format and as a component in a broader course for many years, there is an important precondition. What makes it possible to introduce this vast topic in a meaningful way is the fact that the reader already knows a great deal about ethics. I am assuming that the reader is an adult—young or otherwise—who is either interested in entering the public service or already works for a government or nonprofit organization. As we shall see, both relative maturity and self-selection for a public service position are important to one’s knowledge of and attitudes about administrative ethics.

Ethics is fundamental to one’s work in public service. This does not mean that it is simple or should be treated in a simplistic way. Still, if the topic cannot be discussed in a concise and straightforward way, ethics will be irrelevant to many of the people who work in public service. There are challenging standards and values that should be upheld, and these may be understood in broad terms as well as being the subject for specialized study. This text does not start the process of finding ethics, but it does provide an introduction to examining the nature of standards to which public administrators should adhere in order to meet their far-reaching responsibilities and challenges. Stated differently, this primer is not intended to give the reader a little bit of ethics that might be expanded by additional study. The intention is to provide a lot of ethics with an introduction to their origins and meaning that can be expanded with additional study as well as with reflection based on growing experience.

The tone of this text is personal, the style is a dialogue, and the purpose is exhortatory. The first and second person will be used extensively. “I” will direct comments to “you.” It is not possible to create the interaction of the classroom, but an effort will be made to encourage an exchange in which your response in the form of answers to questions that I pose will help to carry forward the dialogue. Finally, I believe that knowledge provides the basis for understanding and action, and the discussion in this text will provide extensive information. The underlying intent,


however, is not pedagogical; that is to say, to teach you the subject of administrative ethics. The purpose is to exhort you to engage yourself in ethics, to be more aware of the ethical dimension of public service, to be ethical in a more thoughtful and thoroughgoing way than before, and to do more to encourage others to be ethical.

Implicit in this intent is an approach to ethics that stresses both reducing unethical behavior and promoting the exercise of positive ethical responsibilities. Too often discussions of ethics in the public sector focus on unethical practices and ways to avoid or prevent bad behavior. These important topics are addressed, but more attention is given in this discussion to actions that administrators should take. Harm comes from inaction—the failure to do what is right to meet the highest standards—as well as from engaging in clearly unethical actions. It is important to recognize that doing what is right can raise complex issues and require courage.

Thus, the purpose of the text is to promote ethical behavior by public administrators on both individual and organizational levels. Specifically, the text enables the reader to do the following:

1. Appreciate that ethics is integral to the nature of democratic public administration 2. Understand the responsibilities of public administrators and the bases of

administrative ethics 3. Understand the tenets of the codes of ethics for various professional organizations

in the public sector and how they are applied 4. Be aware of and avoid the pressures and forces in public administration that can

contribute to unethical behavior 5. Develop the knowledge and skills needed to deal with ethical problems that arise

in public service 6. Strengthen the ethical climate in organizations

All of these serve to support ethical action. It is obvious that this text will cover a great deal of intellectual territory. The

discussion of topics is limited to the presentation of the material that is relevant to the line of argument that I am developing. Necessarily, this approach leaves the reader without the full exposition of a topic that it would receive if it were being considered on its own. Readers may pursue topics in more depth by following the guide to the literature provided in the endnotes. I seek to offer a serious but accessible conversation about ethics in the text, and a more scholarly examination of ethics in the endnotes.

POP QUIZ: DO YOU HAVE A CODE OF ETHICS? I do not expect that you will already have a well-formed, explicit code of ethics that you follow in your administrative work. Before examining the subject matter of this text in more depth, however, it is useful to establish a baseline. Here are some questions you can answer for yourself before proceeding further in the text:

What is or should be your code of ethics for work in government or nonprofit organizations?


What are the standards of right and wrong that should guide your work—the “do’s and don’ts” of public service?

If you will take the time now to record your thoughts, we will refer back to what you have written and compare your responses to other professional students in public administration.

UNDERSTANDING THE SETTING FOR ADMINISTRATIVE ETHICS The discussion of “administrative” ethics applies both to those who work in government and in nonprofit organizations. Our appreciation of “new governance” includes the recognition that public needs are addressed by organizations in both the public and nonprofit sectors (Kettl 2002). Why is ethics a special concern in these particular organizations? It is important that administrators operate within legal and organizational controls. They serve the public, but not as private professionals who operate on a fee- for-service basis. Although there are important differences between the two sectors, the similarities are even greater and staff members in each can benefit from knowing more about the ethical challenges of the other.

To simplify the discussion throughout the text, four terms will be used generically to describe both the governmental and nonprofit setting: organizations, administrators, political superiors, and citizens or clients.

Organizations refer to governmental entities such as a city government as well as to nonprofit organizations. Depending on the context and the nature of the organization, the term will encompass the specific unit to which one is assigned; for instance, a section, the whole department, or the entire organization. For example, a municipal police officer will deal with some ethical issues in his or her area of assignment, such as the patrol division, with some in the department as a whole and with others as an employee of city government. For a staff member in a small nonprofit agency, the distinctions may not be useful or necessary, but larger nonprofits will have similar divisions.

Administrators refer to the civil service or career staff in government and the professional staff in nonprofit organizations. These positions range from the top executives (city managers in municipal government or executive directors in nonprofit organizations) to the staff members who handle a variety of specialized tasks. Some will have supervisory responsibilities and, therefore, are the administrative superiors of the staff they supervise. Others work without subordinates; for example, analysts and many frontline service providers including teachers, counselors, eligibility specialists, or police officers.

Political superiors, on the other hand, refer to persons who set the official goals and policies for the organization and oversee the administrators. In government organizations, this category includes both elected executives and members of legislative bodies as well as the politically appointed and politically oriented top layer of officials chosen by political executives such as the president, governor, or “strong” mayor. In local governments and special purpose agencies such as school districts, the political


superiors hold positions such as council member, board member, or commissioner. In nonprofit organizations, these persons sit on the board of directors.

Finally, the words citizens and clients refer to persons served by governmental and nonprofit organizations. In some respects, this is the least satisfactory of the generic terms. When stressing the recipients of a service, the word client is generally a suitable term for both government and nonprofit organizations, but it works less well for persons who are audited by an IRS agent or given a speeding ticket by a police officer. Those who do not choose their treatment may not feel that they are a “client” or are being “served,” but we will still include them in this category. Citizen implies not just the person who is impacted by organizational action, but also the person who provides the support and legitimacy for government (Denhardt and Denhardt 2011). Citizenship has come to be intermixed with the discussion of immigrant status, and to some it is a legal term reserved for those who are native-born or naturalized in the United States (Lucio 2009). We will consider citizens to include all residents who are members of the community that interact with government. How officials in governmental and nonprofit organizations interact with residents who are not documented is an important ethical issue.

The term citizen does not have the same meaning for the nonprofit organizations whose leaders are not chosen by or directly accountable to the public. Still, nonprofit organizations also have broad responsibilities to persons beyond those who receive services or provide contributions. If a nonprofit organization is perceived by the public to be wasteful and ineffective, it will probably not be able to survive just because it keeps a small group of clients happy. Furthermore, nonprofits operate within a legal framework that is sanctioned by government and the people. Thus, the basic idea of a service and fiduciary relationship between the organization and the people or some segment of it is common to the public and the nonprofit sectors.

These terms suggest the four responsibilities that are shared by government and nonprofit administrators. These responsibilities are the foundation for identifying the nature of the duty of public administrators: their responsibility to serve individuals, their responsibility to be accountable to the “people” and promote the public interest, their responsibility to their organization, and their responsibility to political superiors and to uphold the law and established policy. Some administrators in governmental and certain nonprofit organizations have the authority to exercise coercive power to support the discharge of their assigned responsibilities.1 Others in government and nonprofit organizations invite persons in need to accept services or assistance; they don’t coerce them to do anything. Frequently, it is citizens who initiate the contact to request or demand actions, remedies, or attention. In any of these circumstances, public administrators relate with citizens in a distinctive way. This is not a market-exchange relationship in which a service or commodity is offered, and customers can decide whether the price and quality are acceptable. In some interactions between citizens and officials, citizens are dependent and vulnerable and have no other source for the service. In other interactions, citizens are the “bosses” of officials. The citizens or clients who interact with public administrators have reason to expect that they will be treated fairly and with respect, that they will be informed and listened to, and that they will receive the service or benefit that they deserve.

The responsibility to the people—to serve the public interest—means that


administrators should also go beyond one-on-one encounters with individuals to consider general concerns of groups of people or society as a whole. Promoting the public interest requires attention not only to current citizens but to future generations as well (Frederickson 1997). Public administrators’ awareness of social needs and changing conditions provides the basis for identifying possible changes in procedure or policy that they may initiate or propose to administrative or political superiors. They also have a broad responsibility to make good use of the resources that have been entrusted to them whether they come from taxes or contributions.

Public administrators should also be responsible to the organization of which they are a part. This does not mean that the administrator is totally bound by the organization or loses his or her own voice in discussions of ends and means. Still, public administrators are not sole practitioners like physicians or accountants who can set up their own practice. They operate within an authority structure, they work with others to advance organizational mission, and they have a responsibility to make the organization as strong, effective, and ethical as possible.

Administrators also have a responsibility to their political superiors. This relationship involves a complex mixture of control and freedom, accountability and independence. Political-administrative relations based on shared responsibilities are essential to the duty of the public servant.

THE SETTING CONTINUED: DIFFERENCES BETWEEN GOVERNMENT AND NONPROFIT ORGANIZATIONS There are basic similarities in the positions of administrators who work in government and in nonprofit organizations. Still, it is important to recognize some significant differences between these types of organizations as well.2 Nonprofit service organizations arise from a concern about an unmet need. Ott and Dicke (2012, 3) describe their origins in this way:

Throughout the history of the United States, individual citizens repeatedly have recognized a need or a problem, attracted others who share their concern, and built a voluntary constituency that was committed to ameliorating, solving, or eliminating it, even if the issue and the people associated with it were socially undesirable at the time. In instance after instance over the decades and centuries, this voluntary process has been used to influence changes in public policy and government support—or tolerance—for what was originally an unacceptable cause, case or issue, whether it be unacceptable politically, socially, or religiously.

Nonprofits have freedom and flexibility not available to governmental organizations. This freedom applies to generating resources, but nonprofits lack the relatively certain revenues of government and the coercive power to enforce the collection of taxes. Nonprofits have a basic mission that is central to the work of the organization, and it is usually much narrower in scope than the typical general-purpose government. Nonprofits are sometimes referred to as mission-driven organizations. In a sense, the mission has an overriding impact on all those who work for a nonprofit, and this


condition differentiates it from government. Consider this comparison. City council members are elected to determine the mission and goals of their city government; the choices the members make may be hotly debated within the council and in the larger community, and the specific goals may change dramatically over time. On the other hand, the persons who work in a nonprofit as board members or as staff members typically begin with a commitment to the organization’s mission. They are expected to allow the mission to “drive” them, although they make the detailed decisions about how to translate the mission into reality at a given time. If some persons want to pursue the mission differently or pursue a different version of the mission, they may choose to leave and even to start their own organization.

This option points to another basic characteristic that makes nonprofits distinctive: nonprofit organizations are competitive service organizations. They do not have a monopoly on the provision of a service, as is sometimes the case of government agencies. In addition, they do not provide a product through the market, as is the case of businesses. Still, they offer a purpose, a service, or a product that benefits society (like government) in a competitive setting (like business). To succeed, they must attract clients, volunteers, supporters, and contributors in the face of other organizations that are trying to have the same success. Thus, the staff members in nonprofit organizations are public servants who operate in a more open, flexible, and competitive environment. The underlying presumption of this text is that the shared commitment to serve (as well as the absence of profit motive) makes the staff in nonprofit and governmental organizations more alike than different.

OVERVIEW What can this text do—and not do? It most certainly cannot “teach ethics” by specifying what is the “correct” way to behave. Furthermore, it does not “teach ethics” in the sense of introducing the reader to a previously unknown subject or by treating the reader as an ethical blank slate. You come to this text and an interest in administrative ethics with a reservoir of ethical and moral values on which you can draw. Hopefully you recorded some of those values earlier when you completed the pop quiz about your code of ethics. Rather, I write this text with the intention of helping you to understand the integral role of ethics in public administration, organize your thinking about ethics, understand the sources of ethical thinking and linkages between your personal values and the ethical values of public service, and heighten your awareness of the ethical content of work in the public sector.

If the grasp of basic ethical concepts and standards is widespread, awareness of the full range of ethical standards that apply to public administrators is less well developed. Furthermore, sophisticated and reflective ethical reasoning and the knowledge, commitment, and determination to be an autonomous ethical actor are often lacking. The text seeks to encourage you to attain this level of ethical reasoning and to enable you to do so. It seeks to arm you with the resources to recognize ethical problems that require your attention and to assert your ethical values even if others may pressure you to act unethically by commission or omission, that is, the failure to act. Finally, the text encourages you to not only steer clear of unethical behavior and helps you to avoid


ethical pitfalls but also to embrace the importance of discharging positive ethical responsibilities—doing good as well as not doing bad.

The effort starts in the next chapter where we consider the nature of ethical ideas and from where they come. We also examine more fully the various levels of ethical reasoning and help you understand where you are compared with a range of possibilities. Throughout the text, a touchstone of administrative ethics is public duty. In the chapter on refining a sense of duty, we seek to show duty as more active rather than reactive. One view of duty defines serving the public in terms of observing the law and obeying superiors. A refined sense of duty is based on careful reflection about the nature of responsibilities to the public, political superiors, and the organization. It also requires that you develop a reasoned view about your obligations and the constraints under which you operate as an individual engaged in public service. This refined sense of obligation supports postconventional ethical reasoning. The chapter on reinforcing and enlarging duty will broaden the discussion to examine the philosophical perspectives on virtues, principles, and consequences that contribute to universal standards of ethical behavior. This chapter also presents a complete model that incorporates the expanded sense of duty and philosophical perspectives, complementing the examination of the basic elements of a model of administrative ethics presented in the chapter on the ideas, sources, and development of administrative ethics. The “ethics triangle” provides guidance based on the ethical ideals of public interest, justice, character, and the greatest good. The model will be used as a framework for examining codes of ethics for professionals in government and nonprofits in the chapter on codifying duty and ethics.

Later chapters will consider ethical challenges and actions. The chapter on undermining duty identifies the extensive factors that can undermine ethics. The chapter on deciding how to meet obligations explores complex ethical problems and presents a guide to problem solving in these situations. The special considerations and complexities of a particular kind of ethical problem—whistleblowing—are presented in the chapter on acting on duty in the face of uncertainty. The distinction between internal complaints and going outside is examined along with the choice between public and anonymous whistleblowing. The chapters on elevating ethical and mandating duty explore ways to promote ethics through the actions of managers and supervisors within organizations and through external mandates, particularly ethics laws. The concluding chapter, on the duties of public administrators, summarizes the obligations and responsibilities of public administrators who are committed to a principled, virtuous, and utilitarian sense of public duty.

1 For example, a nonprofit organization that provides training in a welfare-to-work program will determine whether a client meets prescribed criteria that permit the person to continue receiving benefits. 2 The scope of nonprofit organizations is large and they vary considerably in their degree of formality. This text is written for administrators in nonprofits as opposed to board members, and I assume that they work for tax exempt 501(c)(3) organizations as defined by the Internal Revenue Service. The purposes for which these organizations are created are “charitable, religious,


educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals.” The meaning of charitable includes the following activities: “relief of the poor, the distressed, or the underprivileged; advancement of religion; advancement of education or science; erecting or maintaining public buildings, monuments, or works; lessening the burdens of government; lessening neighborhood tensions; eliminating prejudice and discrimination; defending human and civil rights secured by law; and combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency” (Internal Revenue Service 2012).



Administrative Ethics: Ideas, Sources, and Development

Filling in the content of administrative ethics will proceed in two stages. In the first stage, we will define ethics in general and administrative ethics in particular and examine the prevailing or conventional model of ethical thinking among public administrators. This is called the basic ethics model. Subsequently, the major approaches to ethics will be examined in more depth, and an advanced ethical model will be developed.

The first questions pursued in this chapter are big ones. What is ethics, and how does administrative ethics differ from other standards of behavior? Where do ethical standards come from? An important source of standards is philosophy and its major theories of ethics. However, our discussion of the sources of ideas for administrative ethics will focus initially on the ethics derived from the nature of the administrative position itself; in other words, the standards and expectations that are based on a duty to serve the public. It will then be possible to consider how this duty-based ethics is linked to other approaches that draw on philosophical arguments. Finally, it is important to consider how ethical thinking develops and the alternative levels of ethical reasoning. Not all persons think about ethics in the same way or have the same depth of ethical reasoning.

The responses from other students who completed the pop quiz about what is or should be their code of ethics are linked to the sources and levels of their ethical reasoning. There is some direct evidence from the student responses as well as results from other research to justify the conclusion that the characteristics of the basic ethics model are widely held. If you have not completed the pop quiz, backtrack to the introductory chapter before going further. This chapter concludes with an examination of other key concepts and considers what ethics shares with morality and legality, and how it is different from these concepts.

DEFINITION AND THE SOURCES OF ETHICAL IDEAS A general definition of ethics follows:

Ethics refers to well-based standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of duties, principles, specific virtues, or benefits to society.1


This definition identifies four dimensions or sources of ethics, one based on the nature of public service and three based on the philosophical perspectives to ethics:

1. Duties: The behaviors expected of persons who occupy certain roles; that is, the obligations taken on when assuming a role or profession

2. Virtues: Qualities that define what a good person is; moral excellence 3. Principles: Fundamental truths that form the basis for behavior; “kinds of action

that are right or obligatory” (Frankena 1963, 49) 4. Benefits to society: Actions that produce the greatest good for the greatest


For persons who work in government and nonprofit organizations, duty has a special importance. They must serve the public, fulfill the expectations of public office, and be trustees of public resources. These are the actions required by their occupation or role independent of—but reinforced by—other ethical considerations.

The ethics of public administrators begins with and is grounded in duty. Duty is an old-fashioned term that at first glance may seem too narrow to be more than the starting point for developing administrative ethics. In a narrow view, duty implies the restricted range of actions one is required to take without question, as in the phrase “It is my duty to…”. Ethics implies a broader range of expected behaviors and reflection about what should be done, and definitions of duty can encompass such views. Duty means the “action required by one’s business, occupation, or function” but also “the action or behavior due by moral or legal obligation.”3 Thus, duty implies obligations, responsibilities, and meeting expectations that are imposed on the individual from outside sources. This is the tradition of external control that was promoted by Finer (1941), who argued that elected officials should exercise minute control over administrators. In this view, the most important duty is to obey authoritative orders.

Duty, however, also entails choice on the part of the officials who accept the norms established by others and augment them with their own commitment. Cooper (1982, 112) notes the following observation of Fritz Morstein Marx:

Judicial redress, official liability, and the whole gamut of disciplinary measures are poor substitutes for a sense of duty. No formal device for accountability can give us a clue as to the components of answerable conduct. One cannot commandeer responsibility. One can only cultivate it, safeguard its roots, stimulate its growth, and provide it with favorable climatic conditions.

Thus, duty as an internalized set of values is the foundation for accountability. Others have also recognized the centrality of duty and seen it as an orientation that

draws out a broad range of responsibilities. For example, Mark Moore (1981, 5) distinguishes the narrow requirements from the broader possibilities in this statement:

The duties of public officials are not simply to be passive instruments in policy-making but to work actively in establishing goals for public policy in their area, and in advocating those goals among the people who share their responsibility. In short, they have the opportunity and duty to conceive of and pursue the public interest.

Thus, duty entails not only internalized standards but also the responsibility to take


actions, such as making proposals or investigating problems, to advance the public good.

Public administration ethics is rooted in duty in the sense that persons who seek positions in government or nonprofit organizations (or who pursue educational programs to prepare themselves for such positions) are commonly motivated by a sense of duty to serve, sometimes called the public service motivation (Perry and Wise 1990). They wish to help others, to benefit society, or to serve the public interest. The public service motivation is indicated by an “attraction to policy making” and the political process; “commitment to the public interest/civic duty,” for example, doing “what is best for the whole community”; “compassion” or being “moved by the plight of the poor”; and “self-sacrifice” that is indicated by a commitment to work “for a cause bigger than myself” or being “prepared to make enormous sacrifices for the good of society” (Perry 1997, 187). The indicators are not ethical commitments in themselves, but they provide the basis for ethical values rooted in duty.

With a bit more thought, one could identify ways that administrators should handle key relationships guided by duty. The relationships are the interactions with the public, with the organization of which one is a part, and with political superiors—either elected officials (or their appointees) in government or boards of nonprofit organizations. Public administrators should not lie, withhold information, or put their own interests above serving the public. They should be accountable to their superiors and to the public. The point of these examples is simple: without even considering ethical theories or philosophy, it is possible to elaborate an extensive list of standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do based on a sense of duty as a public servant. Thus, it is useful to start with duty-based ethics because it is obviously related to many important aspects of public service work. Furthermore, this is the kind of ethical reasoning that students in public administration and persons entering public service start with.

It is possible to expand duty-based ethics by thinking about the qualities that a person should manifest and the actions that he or she should take because that person occupies a position as a public servant. Public administrators should be honest, independent, competent, and committed to doing their best, and they should demonstrate integrity. These are virtues. They should treat all persons fairly and equally, observe the law, and follow the direction set by their leaders and their organizations. These are principles. Public administrators should try to achieve the greatest good for the most people. This is a beneficial consequence. Thus, the other dimensions of administrative ethics based on the philosophical traditions of virtue, principle, and consequences are integrally linked to conceptions of duty. These reflect common patterns of ethical thinking. In the following section, we will examine how well-established these types of thinking are in adults, particularly those attracted to public service.

Each of these dimensions can be expressed in a basic question:

• What are the expectations of persons holding public offices? (duty) • What are the qualities of a good person? (virtue) • What is the right thing to do? (principle) • What is the most beneficial action to take? (consequences)


The framework for ethics developed in this primer is not a contest between perspectives but rather a blend of perspectives. One approach is not superior or first in the sense that it is the beginning of ethical thinking from which the rest follow. As we shall see, young adults have developed most of these aspects of ethical thinking to some extent and can use them without difficulty. Still, duty has a special salience and relevance for persons who are attracted to public service positions. The service orientation seems the proximate reason for pursuing the position or career whereas the other approaches help to shape how one serves others and handles the challenges that are encountered in a public service position and career. Thus, duty is central to administrative ethics.

YOUR CODE COMPARED TO OTHERS For many years in my course on ethics and professional practice in public administration, I have been asking students in the first class session to answer the question, “What is or should be your code of ethics for work in government or nonprofit organizations?”4 As a method of examining ethical attitudes, there are some important disadvantages to using this exercise. It is done without warning and opportunity for preparation or much reflection. There is no way of knowing the level of commitment to the items that are listed, much less whether students’ actions will match their ethical intentions. Still, I feel that the exercise can be illuminating for several reasons. First, the lack of preparation contributes to spontaneity. There is no time to develop an elaborate set of statements that may not reflect the values students actually hold. Second, the responses give some indication about the nature of ethical reasoning that public administration students use. Once written, the ethical statements (or tenets) become explicit, but before the exercise, they have been implicit. These ethical standards are present without necessarily being consciously organized. Students often comment that they have never considered their code of ethics before doing the exercise, but they clearly have ethical ideas in their minds.

Students provide varying but usually extensive responses. Each distinct idea with clear ethical content is counted as a tenet. There are several features of the codes that are worth noting. Less than 1 in 5 students list only 3 or fewer tenets, and 2 in 5 provide 4 to 6 tenets. The remaining students—over 40%—list 7 or more tenets, and 15% list 10 or more. For those who could list only 3 or fewer distinct tenets, one would have to feel some concern about the limited scope of their ethical commitment (or how seriously they took the exercise). Still, a short code can be thoughtful and encompass several important concerns even though the code is not comprehensive. In the following example, a student in my spring 2002 class identified 3 of the types of ethical reasoning:

1. The first tenet of a code of ethics would be honesty. (virtue) 2. The second tenet would be to the follow the law. (principle) 3. The third tenet would be to be a just public employee. Meaning: a public

employee should always evaluate how his or her behavior affects the public, and the employee should always remember that he or she was hired to work for the public. (duty)


A student in 2009 provided several examples of each type of ethical reasoning:

1. Never harm individuals. (principle) 2. Never deceive others, be honest. (principle/virtue) 3. Never favor individuals, remain unbiased and equal. (principle) 4. Develop policy that is fair and equal. (duty) 5. Listen to others, value people’s opinions. (duty) 6. Be responsible for one’s actions, even if you make mistakes; own up. (duty) 7. Don’t steal. (principle) 8. Weigh all options when making decisions, don’t be in rush. (sound practice)

From examining these statements, it is clear that most students carry around in their heads something approximating a code of ethics before they have taken a course on professional ethics. Still, the scope of values and expectations incorporated in that code varies considerably. How does your code compare in terms of its length and scope?

Each statement was examined to determine what approach to ethical thinking is reflected: duty/public service, virtue, principle, consequences, or some other source. Obviously, this is a subjective judgment. The following guidelines, which were used in making the classification, are based on the characteristics of each approach to ethics. Tenets that stressed public service or behaviors that are expected because one is a public employee were classified as duty based. Tenets that included general statements about what one should do were classified as principle based. For example, saying “An official should not deceive the public” was considered a duty, whereas the statement “A person should never lie” was considered a principle. Tenets that stressed qualities (how a person should be as opposed to what he or she should do) were considered virtue based. For example, in contrast to the principle about not lying, “One should be honest” is considered virtue based. A tenet that stressed doing what helped the most people or produced good outcomes was considered consequentialist, whereas a general statement about promoting the public interest was considered duty based. To give examples, the classification for the tenets in the examples just given was indicated in brackets at the end of each tenet. The summary classification of the reasoning contained in the student statements suggests the characteristics of a basic model of ethics. It is presented in Table 2–1.

Table 2–1. Type of Ethical Reasoning Reflected in Statements

Percentage Number Based on duty/public service 37.4% 325 Virtue 20.9% 182 Principle 28.9% 251 Consequences 0.8% 7 Professional standards 10.5% 91 Other 1.5% 13

100.0% 869


Note: A total of 131 students listed 869 separate tenets.

Based on this analysis of all statements, duty-based reasoning is the most common, representing over one-third of all tenets that could be classified. Principle-based and virtue-based reasoning are also very common. The following is a list of examples of each type of statement ordered from most to least common within each category.

Statements based on duty or public service:

• Serve the public. • Avoid conflict of interest or personal gain. • Promote the public interest. • Act as a steward of public resources. • Take responsibility for actions; be accountable. • Share or disclose information to the public. • Blow the whistle (report) on wrongdoing.

Statements based on virtue:

• Display honesty. • Show integrity. • Be respectful. • Be consistent. • Avoid impropriety.

Statements based on principle:

• Follow the laws, policies, or regulations. • Act with fairness. • Treat all equally. • Protect confidential information. • Follow the Golden Rule. • Do not lie.

In addition, a modest number of statements are based on standards of professional practice rather than other forms of ethical reasoning. Examples are maintaining a professional demeanor, sharing credit with coworkers, or taking time to make decisions.

It is interesting to note that students do not use consequences as the basis for ethical tenets. It seems likely that making choices to produce good outcomes is common behavior, but it appears that students do not necessarily see such behaviors as ethical in nature. In fact, the argument that the “ends justifies the means” is likely to be seen as a rationalization for a questionable action rather than an ethical justification. One may choose to take the action justified in this way, but it is not considered to be ethical. It appears that consequentialist thinking is not an important aspect of a basic approach to


administrative ethics. It is also possible to focus on the overall code of each student (as opposed to

analyzing the breakdown of the separate tenets). Almost every student in this exercise includes in their code at least one tenet that is based on duty or commitment to public service. Almost as many—approximately three out of four—use principle and virtue as the basis for tenets. As noted, very few use consequentialist reasoning.

Thus, all the approaches except consequentialism are present in the thinking of most public administration students. Still, from the samples that are offered, it is apparent that none of these ways of thinking about ethics in public administration is fully developed. This suggests that the underlying concepts are not fully understood before students have undertaken formal study of administrative ethics. With study and reflection, it is possible to deepen ethical thinking by more fully understanding the ethical approaches that are being used informally and by more clearly linking these approaches to the issues and challenges of public service.

What about the code that you wrote? How many tenets did you include, recognizing that you may have combined more than one in a single statement? What kinds of reasoning were reflected in your tenets?

Another vantage point on the nature of ethical standards comes from a study of practitioners in state and local government. In survey of 52 administrators in state and local government in midwestern states, Molina and McKeown (2012) examine the importance assigned to 30 value statements drawn from the public administration literature. Thirteen of these statements were in the upper portion of the rankings based on two measures. The average importance based on a 4-point rating was greater than 3.5; that is, their overall assessment tended to be that the value is “always important.” In addition, these values were most likely to be included in a separate list provided by the respondents of the top five values that they found important in their work as an administrator. The values with the definitions offered by Molina and McKeown are included in Table 2–2 along with the percentage of respondents who consider the value to be always important and who include it in the top five list.

The two approaches to assessing importance indicate some differences. If the inclusion of a value in the top five list suggests that these are the core values that are given precedence or relied on in the toughest decisions, then the values of benevolence, incorruptibility, serviceability, and humaneness may be left out. Even lawfulness, effectiveness, and impartiality are included in the top five by less than one in four of these practitioners.

As in the students’ codes of ethics, the most importance is assigned to values grounded in virtue and the duties that promote public service. Principles are underrepresented in the choices of practitioners, although the list from which they chose did not include the simple values of treating all persons with fairness and treating all persons equally. Two of the values in the top 13 may be considered ethical in the sense of being a standard of rightness, or they might be viewed as indicators of professionalism. Administrators with high professional competence are committed to achieving effective results and to acting based on expertise. Viewed from an ethical perspective, a good administrator does not tolerate a lack of commitment to results or acting in ways that are not consistent with competence, skill, and knowledge.


Table 2–2. Most Important Values to Practitioners

Data from Molina, Anthony DeForest, and Cassandra McKeown. 2012. “The Heart of the Profession: Understanding Public Service Values.” Journal of Public Affairs Education 18: 375– 396, Tables 2, 3, and 4. “Approach to Ethics” category added by author.

The values that are rated lower than those included in Table 2–2 or are less likely to be included on the most important list offer insights into the ethical views of practitioners. The more demanding virtue of courage was ranked lower (considered always important by 48%). Values with a greater social dimension are ranked lower.


These are promoting the public interest (42%), promoting social justice (38%), and advancing sustainability (19%). Values that deal with the administrator’s orientation to citizens and encouraging their participation were less likely to be viewed as always important.5 These values are the following:

• Transparency: To act in a manner that is open and visible to citizens, customers, and other relevant stakeholders (46%)

• Inclusiveness: To act in a manner that includes citizens, customers, and other relevant stakeholders in the decision-making process (37%)

• Responsiveness: To act in a manner that is in accordance with the preferences of citizens, customers, and other relevant stakeholders (27%)

• Representative: To act in a manner that is consistent with the values of citizens (23%)

• Pluralism: To act in a manner that seeks to accommodate the interests of a diverse citizenry (21%)

• Participative: To act in a manner that promotes active citizen participation in administrative decision making (15%)

These practitioners evidence a strong commitment to serve the public, but assign less importance to incorporating them in the process of governance.

Over half (54%) feel it is always important to act in a manner that promotes the organization’s interest—an orientation that can lead to slighting other values. Many assigned high importance to obeying superiors (40%) but relatively few view collegiality (i.e., acting loyally toward their colleagues) in this way (23%). There is little inclination to assign high important to practical accomplishments with little ethical content, for example, being innovative (38%) and being efficient (33%). Furthermore, these practitioners are unlikely to assign great importance to promoting one’s own interest (21%) or seeking to advance the financial gains for the organization (12%).

We see that students studying public administration and practitioners of public administration at the state and local level have a substantial array of ethical standards that they can identify or to which they assign importance. They draw on three of four approaches to understanding ethics. Still, each of these approaches could be developed in greater depth and expanded in scope. The duty-based approach involves the nature of the public service position and the handling of critical relationships. In other words, what are my duties as a public servant and what kind of behavior is expected of me as I interact with political superiors, the public, and my organization? The other ethical perspectives can be studied on their own and as sources of questions that broaden and deepen duty-based ethics: What kind of person should I be, what is the right thing to do, and how much emphasis should be placed on achieving good results as I do my duty? By organizing and integrating these approaches, I hope that the reader will have a stronger and richer sense of what it means to do one’s duty in public service and will be better equipped to accomplish it.

In short, duty—the core of the public service ethic—is reinforced and expanded by balancing attention to virtue, principle, and good consequences. Thus, we may revise the earlier definition to create this definition of administrative ethics:


Administrative ethics refers to well-based standards of right and wrong that prescribe what public administrators ought to do in terms of duty to public service, principles, virtues, and benefits to society.

Students in public administration programs and persons in public service very likely have a working version of this definition in their heads and carry around tenets that are based on duty, virtue, and principle. The challenge is to bring this definition forward in the consciousness of public administrators and to deepen and broaden the understanding of what it means. You may also think about whether considering consequences can make a contribution to ethical reasoning. In other words, you are challenged to further develop your ethical judgment. Before thinking about doing that, however, it is important to consider in general how ethical reasoning develops and better understand the levels of ethical reasoning.

ETHICAL DEVELOPMENT How people acquire attitudes about ethics and morality is a large topic, but it is important to examine the question briefly here as part of the introduction to the subject of administrative ethics. As noted, adults, obviously including those who work or wish to work in government or nonprofits, are likely to have a reservoir of ethical ideas and moral commitments. In the process of growing up, getting an education, and absorbing values from people around them, they are undergoing moral development that takes them through different stages of reasoning about why they should act in a moral or ethical way and what it means to be a moral person. Family interactions influence development. Membership in a church or an organization such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, or Boys and Girls Club expose children to experiences that are intentionally designed to promote social and moral development.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1981) offers a model of moral judgment to help understand how the capacity for ethical reasoning develops and explains the motives for acting at different stages of development. Kohlberg is concerned with morality broadly, but we can assume that the level of moral reasoning will be transferred to the way that individuals make ethical judgments about their role and behavior in an organization or profession. Stated differently, we expect that individuals will work through choices about behavior at the same level whether they are making a moral choice in their personal life or an ethical choice in their work as a public administrator.

Kohlberg identified six stages that children go through in the maturation process as they are influenced by a variety of socializing forces. The levels are preconventional levels, where the child is starting to respond to rules but has values that are self- centered; conventional levels, where the older child and adult internalizes the values of doing the right thing in order to meet the expectations of others or to comply with prevailing standards; and postconventional or principled levels, where moral values are grounded in universal principles (Stewart and Sprinthall 1994; Kohlberg 1981).6 The levels and Kohlberg’s (1981, 17–19) Stages of Moral Development are the following:

LEVEL STAGE SOCIAL ORIENTATION Preconventional 1 Punishment and obedience


2 Instrumental relativist Conventional 3 “Good boy; nice girl” 4 Society maintaining/law and order Postconventional 5 Social contract 6 Universal ethical principle

Kohlberg believes that the stages always occur in this order, and that people always incorporate the values of one stage before moving to the next. Although others argue that reasoning may draw from more that one stage, it is presumed that each stage reflects a dominant mode of thinking about moral choices at any given time. Most adults have moved to Stage 4, but most do not move beyond that stage. Stage 4 reflects reasoning that emphasizes what is legal and supports social institutions. Sophisticated moral or ethical reasoning, on the other hand, reflects postconventional thinking, but it appears that this level of reasoning is somewhat uncommon. Thus, an important implication of this work is that all persons go through a progression of thinking about morality in which they broaden their views to think about what is good for society, not just for themselves. At Stage 4, they have developed “a conception of the social system as a consistent set of codes and procedures that apply impartially to all members” based on law or religious canon, and “the pursuit of individual interests is considered legitimate only when it is consistent with maintenance of the socio-moral system as a whole” (Colby and Kohlberg 1987, 28–29). There is a connection between these characteristics and the ethical reasoning we have observed in students and practitioners that emphasizes duty to serve others, virtue, and basic principles.

Kohlberg’s model is also useful for identifying why people behave the way they do at each of the differing levels of morality. Each stage is associated with a different motive for following rules or taking moral action. Kohlberg (1981, 19, 411–412) offers these “word pictures” of the reasons for behavior in each stage:

1. Punishment and obedience: Stimulus/response Obey rules to avoid punishment

2. Instrumental relativist: Self-serving good behavior Conform to obtain rewards, have favors returned, and generate others’ goodwill

3. “Good boy; nice girl”: Meeting the expectations of others with whom one interacts Conform to avoid disapproval and dislike by others

4. Society maintaining/law and order: Meeting standards imposed by society through law and convention Conform to avoid censure by legitimate authorities and resulting guilt

5. Social contract: Seeking to promote rights of all as agreed to by society Conform to maintain respect of the impartial observer judging in terms of community welfare

6. Universal ethical principle: Seeking to act in ethically principled way Conform to avoid self-condemnation for failing to live up to the values to which one is committed


These motives are ones to which we can easily relate in our everyday or organizational lives. At Stage 1, a person does whatever he or she can get away with and avoid getting caught and punished. Some cynics portray this orientation as common among self-serving public administrators. It would represent a base level of moral reasoning and is likely to be rare, although instances of such behavior certainly occur in government and nonprofit organizations. Stage 2 reflects a narrow cost–benefit calculation: “I will follow the rules because I benefit more from doing so than from breaking the rules.” There is no respect for the value of the rules themselves. Ethical standards are low and likely to stress what one should not do. Stages 3 and 4 differ in the breadth and source of expectations. When we act at Stage 3, we do the right thing because it is expected by those with whom we interact. We do not want to disappoint them or let them down, and we do not want to incur their displeasure. It is a highly personalized approach to deciding what is right and wrong, and the standards are influenced by our perceptions of the expectations of others and a feeling of loyalty to them.

Persons acting at the Stage 4 level accept the legitimacy of laws and other rules of behavior, including codes of ethics. They feel obligated to act in terms of these laws, policies, and rules based on the narrow or reactive sense of duty described earlier. In the view of Rest and his colleagues (1999, 38), conventional morality “is duty oriented and authoritarian (in the sense of affording unchallenged powers to authorities and in deferring to authorities).” Persons at this stage may not understand the reasons for the rules or feel a sense of commitment to the principles or purposes on which they are based, but they feel an obligation to follow the rules. They feel a sense of guilt when they do not.

The postconventional stages are somewhat difficult to distinguish and now are usually combined by scholars. For example, Stewart and Sprinthall (1994) refer to the P stage or principled stage.7 The P stage reflects a deeper understanding and broader commitment than Stage 4. At this level, there would be much more likelihood of critically examining the reasons for acting and seeking to alter unfair laws, policies, and rules than at the lower levels. For example, Kohlberg had great respect for Martin Luther King, Jr., who for principled reasons resisted and acted to change unjust laws. Rest and his colleagues provide this description of postconventional ethical reasoning:

The positive and constructive aspect of postconventional thinking is to provide some idealized way that humans can interrelate, some ideals for organizing society. Examples of ideals for society that have been proposed include creating the greatest good for all, guaranteeing minimal rights and protection for everyone, engendering caring and intimacy among people, mandating fair treatment, providing for the needy, furthering the common good, actualizing personhood, and so on. (Rest et al. 1999, 42)

In their view, the ideals of postconventional thinking are “sharable”—not supported by dogma and the preferences of a selected group—and thus open to rational critique and subject to the test of logical consistency (Rest et al. 1999, 42). It is noteworthy that the examples offered by Rest and his colleagues include the consequentialist approach (“creating the greatest good for all”), the principle-based approach (“guaranteeing minimal rights and protection for everyone”), and the duty-based approach (“furthering the common good”).


Why do you act the way you do when you decide what is right and wrong in your professional work? Presumably your reasons go beyond Stage 1 (simply avoiding punishment for doing something that violates policy or rules), but there are widely supported explanations of motivation that approximate Stage 2. One may be good for self-serving reasons. Public-choice theory in general, and principal-agent models in particular, assume that pursuit of self-interest is the key factor that drives behavior (Peters 1999). One may do what is right and expected in order to obtain rewards or cooperate with others to reduce transaction costs (being trustworthy so that favors will be returned), but the underlying concern is self-interest. Unfortunately, this motivation is a limited and narrow foundation for ethical action.

Reasons for acting ethically that extend farther beyond one’s self are found at the conventional stage. The good-boy/nice-girl orientation involves meeting the expectations of others, especially coworkers. Presumably, the expectations of the “organization” also have weight in defining behavior, although the expectations may be shaped more by the response of immediate superiors and coworkers than by the broad purposes and values of the organization. At this stage, you conform to avoid disapproval and dislike by others or the sense that you are out-of-step with prevailing values in the work group. In contrast, at Stage 4, one’s behavior is guided by standards that are embedded in law and convention. In other words, the standards have been codified, and you are motivated to follow the standards to maintain order in society. An important aspect of these types of ethical reasoning is that there is limited internal control—or internalized reasons, if you prefer—for ethical action. One is guided by the reaction of others or external standards that are accepted with little reflection.

At the postconventional stages, one has socially beneficial reasons for acting ethically. There may be concern for expanding shared benefits or promoting the public interest. There may be a commitment to act in an ethically principled way, which entails having a grasp of guiding principles and the ability to apply them appropriately to a given situation. One does not operate “above the law” in the sense that one is free to decide whether to follow the law. Still one is “beyond the law” in the sense that one understands the reason for the law, is able to relate it to broader reasons for ethical action, and is capable of questioning whether change in the law—or in policy or program goals—should be considered.

It is not clear from research on moral development what proportion of adults attains this level of moral reasoning. Kohlberg found that most middle-class Americans were at Stage 4 and that Stages 5 and 6 reasoning was relatively uncommon. Most college students operate at Stages 3 and 4 (Gardiner 1998). Stewart, Sprinthall, and Kem (2002) in their inventory of ethical reasoning in resolving hypothetical dilemmas in government found that public administrators in the United States and Poland are most likely to use Stage 4 reasoning, somewhat less likely to use principled stage reasoning, and least likely to use Stages 1–3. Using the DIT, Rest and his colleagues found that the reliance on the P stage thinking advances with higher education and can be the dominant mode of reasoning for a specialized group such as graduate students in political theory and moral philosophy (Rest et al. 1999, 67–68). Furthermore, educational intervention to broaden ethical thinking can increase the use of P stage reasoning (Rest et al. 1999, 74–75). Most useful in raising the level of moral reasoning are techniques that include the active involvement of students in learning (Gardiner


1998, 73). Considering cases that present moral dilemmas and relating the levels of moral development to resolving these dilemmas help students recognize how one reasons at a higher level. We will use these strategies throughout the text. As you explore a topic or examine a case study, it is useful to consider why you think about alternatives in the way you do when confronted with an ethical choice and whether there are alternative ways to think about the situation. Educational approaches with active learning of this kind in courses that concentrate on ethics taught by capable instructors can elevate students’ Kohlberg stage scores (Jurkiewicz 2002).

BASIC COMPONENTS OF ADMINISTRATIVE ETHICS We have examined the meaning of administrative ethics and briefly introduced philosophical approaches to ethics, the content of ethical thinking typically expressed by persons interested in public service but without formal education in ethics, and the major stages in the development of ethical reasoning. Together they represent the basic elements—a basic model—of administrative ethics. We introduce the components at this point in the discussion for two reasons. First, it closely reflects the attitudes that are commonly held by those who enter public service or have been working for government and nonprofit organizations. Second, the elements will be developed further at a later point in the discussion. Some time ago, I suggested that a person can think of ethics as a triangle with the points defined by the three philosophical approaches: virtue, principle, and consequences (Svara 1997). It has been a useful approach is the classroom and in training activities with practitioners, and it is the

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