Ethics in administration: Status and problem

Ethics in administration: Status and problem

The Historical Context

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 .

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.

Issue of ethics

An important question arises in connection with the moral obligation of an administrative system. Is the administrative system confined to acting morally in its conduct or does it also share the responsibility of protecting and promoting an ethical order in the larger society? While most of the focus on administrative morality is on the aspect of probity within the administrative system, there is a need to consider the issue of the responsibility of the governance system (of which the administrative system is an integral part) to create and sustain an ethical ambience in the socioeconomic system that would nurture and protect the basic moral values. Moral political philosophy assumes that the rulers will not only be moral themselves, but would also be the guardians of morality in a society. Truly, being moral is a prerequisite to being a guardian of wider morality. Both the obligations are intertwined It is a truism that the crux of administrative morality is ethical decision-making. The questions of facts and values cannot be separated from ethical decision-making. Thus, the science of administration gets integrated with the ethics of administration. And in this integrated regime, only that empirical concern is valued, which respects the normative concerns in the delivery of administrative services.

Which are the essential concerns in regard to administrative ethics? There can be a long list of values that are considered desirable in an administrative action. However, in being selective, one has to focus on the most crucial values. Let us now concentrate on the values of justice, fairness and objectivity. Woodrow Wilson, “The Study of Administration” (1887), in his inaugural address averred that justice was more important than sympathy. Thus, he placed justice at the top of value-hierarchy in a governance system. Paradoxically, there has been a lot of discussion on the formallegal aspects of administrative law since then, but very little analysis has been made of the philosophical dimension of administrative justice.


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