Administrative Ethics for UPSC/ UPPSC Mains

Administrative Ethics

In Western philosophy, there are three eminent schools of ethics. The first, inspired by Aristotle, holds that virtues (such as justice, charity, and generosity) are dispositions to act in ways that benefit the possessor of these virtues and the society of which he is a part. The second, subscribed to mainly by Immanuel Kant, makes the concept of duty central to morality: human beings are bound, from the knowledge of their duty as rational beings, to obey the categorical imperative to respect other rational beings with whom they interact. The third is the Utilitarian viewpoint that asserts that the guiding principle of conduct should be the greatest happiness (or benefit) of the greatest number (Hobson, 2002). Western thought is full of ethical guidelines to rulers, whether in a monarchy or a democracy. These concerns are found in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Penn, John Stuart Mill, Edmund Burke, and others.

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

‘Ethics’ in Public Administration is not merely a term defined in the context of morality or any other simple concept per se but the meaning, nature, and scope of ethics have expanded in the course of time. It is not a uniform concept but has temporal and spatial variations. It is divided into levels that are dependent on the social, economic, political, cultural, legal-judicial, and historical contexts of the country. These specific factors influence ethics in public administrative systems. And, that is why Indian Civil Services have their unique ethical values and problems.

Ethics is a set of Values or a standard determined by society; which empowers that society to measure the activities of any individual. It distinguishes the ‘Right’ from ‘Wrong’. Hence, it defines the actions of an individual as justified or non-justified based on these values. Ethics, whether in an entire society or in a social sub-system, is nurtured and influenced by a variety of environmental factors. Ethical behavior and decisions maintaining citizens’ trust, guarantee effective use of resources, and allow the government to preserve individual rights while assisting those who will benefit the most. Ethics is one of the prime components that allow democracy to succeed in any country. Ethics in government is critical to realizing the promises of democracy.

Ethics guides human conduct and it helps people to lead a good life by applying moral principles. Ethics refers to well-based standards of right and wrong that commend what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues. Ethics is related to issues of propriety, rightness, and wrongness. Values are often exchanged with ethics (and not infrequently also with standards), particularly in relation to addressing corruption or maladministration. While there is a close and o?an interdependent relationship between both, such interchanging is difficult for the study of either notion. In general terms, Ethics are in effect the rules that translate values into everyday life (OECD 1996, p.12).

The contextual factors that influence ethics in the public administrative systems:

1. The Historical Context-

The ethical character of a country is abundantly influenced throughout its history. For Example- in the USA, the government agencies were working on the basis of the Spoils System. The Spoils system asserted that the selection of personnel in a government agency had to be based on Spoils rather than logic. The State used to bid the activities like policing, law and order, tax collection, etc and only the able people used to receive those activities. The people working in that organization also used to be private. As a result, there was extreme discontent among the youth. One such disgruntled job seeker assassinated President Garfield in 1881. Garfield’s assassination spurred the process of civil service reforms in the USA, and the setting up of the US. Civil Service Commission in 1883 was the first major step in this direction. It also initiated a debate over logical concerns in government institutions worldwide.


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Kautilya: We must get insights from Kautilya’s Arthshashtra if we wish to overview India’s ethical relevancy. It is clarified from the description of Arthashashtra that State emphasized on merit test for the appointment. It was more or less similar to the present aptitude test in which it was observed that the person under consideration for the appointment for a post possessed the requisite qualities. Kautilya believed that treasury must always be protected from officials because no fish from the ocean can deny the fact it has consumed water from the ocean. So, both the work and character of the officials should be evaluated from time to time. Kautilya also believed that the happiness of a king lies in the happiness of his subjects. Present-day Civil Service functions on this very theory. According to Kautilya, King must employ spies who can expose irregularities in the administration from time to time. These spies must be rewarded for their work and their identity must be kept secret. This resembles the present day ‘Whistle Blower’.

Medieval Concept: Medieval India saw the rise of many kinds of irregularities in administration. For example- The concept of ‘Bakshish’ gradually gave space to greed and corruption. On the other hand, Akbar adopted the policy of tolerance in administration, and respect for knowledge and logic became a dominant norm.

Colonial Era: The East India Company too had its share of employees who were criticized even by the British parliamentarians for being corrupt. Robert Clive and Warren Hastings were impeached for the corruption charges. But if we analyze its structural point of view, we learn that the colonial system provided a structural base for the government institutions, and this base extended even after independence. The difference is that this base contained democratic values.

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 the 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 the 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 have 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’.

2. The Socio-cultural Context:

  1. Traditionally Indian society has given greater importance to values as compared to property. The base of Indian society is ‘ Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam’ (वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम) which means “the world is one family”. Society must progress on the basis of ‘Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah’ (सर्वे भवन्तु सुखिनः). Generally, the ultimate aim of every individual in Indian society was to achieve ‘Moksha’ (मोक्ष) or salvation from worldly bonds. But gradually this end is displacing as selfishness is making its own space in the society. Every religion in Indian society lays stress over religion and duty as compared to wealth and property.
  2. But the consumerism tendency is on rising gradually and the importance given to physical wealth is on rising. While Judaism has valued the performance of physical labour by its followers, the Hindu and Islamic societies, on the other hand, have generally considered physical labour to be of lower rank than the mental work. We seem to be living in an economic or commercial society, where uni-dimensional growth of individuals seems 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. Thiru Valluvar’s Kural, written two thousand years ago in Tamil Nadu, emphasizes that earning wealth brings fame, respect, and an opportunity to help and serve others, but it should be earned through right means only. Ideals of life are becoming enigmatic in the present society. For example- following the values of Gandhi, Vivekanand, etc. The economic aspect of life is becoming the foremost.

3. Legal-judicial Context:

  1. The legal system of a country determines considerably the efficacy of the ethical concerns in governance system. Judicial ethics is part of the larger legal category of legal ethics. Judicial ethics consists of the standards and norms that bear on judges and covers such matters as how to maintain independence, impartiality, and avoid impropriety.
  2. Principles of legal ethics, whether written or unwritten, not only regulate the conduct of legal practice but also reflect the basic assumptions, premises, and methods of the legal system within which the lawyer operates. They reflect as well the profession’s conception of its own role in the administration of justice. A neatly formulated law, with a clear stress on the norms of fair conduct and honesty, is likely to distinguish the chaff from grain in the ethical universe. Conversely, nebulous laws, with the confusing definitions 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.
  3. While an efficient and effective judiciary with a 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.
  4. Similarly, the anti-corruption machinery of the government, with its tangled web of complex procedures, unintended grants relief to the accused who are indirectly assisted by dilatory and knotty procedures. In India, there has been a heated debate on the effectiveness of the anti-corruption agencies like Lokpal, Lokayuktas, CVC, CBI, etc.
  5. An independent judiciary enjoying public confidence is a basic necessity of the rule of law. The Supreme Court of India in its Full Court Meeting held on May 7, 1997, unanimously adopted a charter called the ‘Restatement of Values of Judicial Life’, generally known as the Code of Conduct for judges.
  6. The fourth report of Second Administrative Reforms Commission (2nd ARC) titled ‘Ethics in Governance’ provides for Ethical framework for the Judiciary, modification, and enactment of important acts/laws, reforms into institutional and Ethical framework, reforms in Civil Services introduction of new laws, Lokpal, Lokayukta, Ombudsman. A citizen initiative to control corruption, the role of media, IT, Proactive vigilance, etc.
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4. The Political Context:

  1. It is ironic that the moral environment in a country like India is designed more by its politicians than by any other social group. The primacy of the political over the rest of the systems is too obvious to be ignored. Political leadership, whether in power or outside the power-domain, is perhaps the single most potent influence on the mores and values of citizens.
  2. Criminalization of Politics: Participation of criminals in the electoral process, for political parties individuals with criminal background secure votes through the use of money and muscle power. Large, illegal, and illegitimate use of expenditure in elections is another root cause of corruption. Cleansing elections is the most important route to improve ethical standards in politics, to curb corruption, and rectify maladministration. 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 the fair has limits, foul has none.
  3. Ethical Values in Politics play an important role in setting the public discourse while it is unrealistic and simplistic to expect perfection in politics in an ethically imperfect environment; the standards set in politics influence other aspects of governance. The behavior of politicians has a demonstration effect on civil servants. Besides, the capacity of the less honest political masters to control civil servants is immense. It is 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 behavioral 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 in society would be grossly unrealistic.
  4. 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.

5. The Economic Context:

  1. There is a positive correlation between the economic development of a country and the level of ethics in the governance.
  2. A lower level of economic development, when accompanied with inequalities in the economic order, is likely to create a chasm among social classes and groups. The less privileged or more deprived sections of society may get tempted to forsake principles of honest conduct while fulfilling their basic needs of existence and security. Not that the rich will necessarily be more honest (though they can afford to be so), yet what is apprehended is that the poor, while making a living, may find it a compelling necessity to compromise with the principles of integrity.
  3. After LPG reforms in India, there is a growing concern about following the norms of integrity in industry, trade, management and the governance system on account of the international pressures for higher level of integrity in the WTO regime. Fred Riggs has called this as `exogenous’ inducements to administrative change.
PRACTICE QUESTION: What do you understand by the ethical affiliation of Civil Services? The imagination of today’s ethical service is the result of society’s philosophical, social, historical, and economic contexts. Explain.