Table 1: Some simplified basic concepts

value                             an issue or goal which is considered to be important
ethics                            the principles for evaluating the rightness of deeds
morals                          commitment to certain values and principles
professional ethics         the own values and principles of a profession
civil service ethics         the values and principles of civil servants and the authorities

Ethics is usually perceived through contrasts of good and bad or right and wrong. Ethics means the rules and principles regulating the behaviour of individuals. With the help of rules and principles we can find a good, the right or the best action depending on which of the several different schools of ethics the individual bases his actions1. Ethically justified action requires that the individual has the ability to consider different alternatives and to place himself in the position of the other person (empathy).

Moral philosophy usually makes a distinction between descriptive ethics, normative ethics and metaethics. Descriptive ethics means the description of ethical ideas without presenting an opinion on their rightness. An example of this is the statement that in the opinion of civil servants it is wrong to take a bribe. Normative ethics, or morals, presents guidelines and rules, which requires commitment to a certain ethical system. An example of this is the statement taking a bribe is wrong because it weakens the confidence of citizens in the impartiality of administration. Metaethics on the other hand examines the meaning of the concepts of ethics (e.g. what the term right means).

Ethical values are issues or objectives which are sought after and considered important in actions or behaviour. In the professional ethics of different sectors, values are the internal objectives of the profession. An example of this is the profession of a physician with the objective of promoting health. While justice is considered the objective of a lawyer’s profession.

Civil service ethics, professional ethics and personal ethics

Does civil service ethics differ from professional ethics or, on the other hand, from personal ethics? A civil service relationship is not a profession but a public-law service relationship. Because a civil servant has a special relationship with citizens, the service relationship involves values and principles related to it. These include impartiality, transparency and independence. Basically, public service means acting on the mandate of the citizens, with the funds of the citizens and for the good of the citizens. When we talk about civil service ethics and morals we mean the general values and principles which apply to civil servants.

It is equally essential to differentiate between the proper performance of one’s tasks and one’s personal opinions. Civil service ethics may require the promotion of issues not considered the best possible by the civil servant himself. Despite this, the starting point is that the civil servant has to promote also these issues. A presenting official is bound by the special liability of a rapporteur, under which a Ministerial Rapporteur is responsible for a decision made upon his presentation. However, the Ministerial Rapporteur has the right to file an objection if the decision differs from his presentation and if he considers that the decision of the decision-maker is against the law or otherwise inappropriate. A Ministerial Rapporteur who has filed an objection is not responsible for the decision made.

Many of the executive tasks of State administration do not essentially differ from the corresponding tasks of the private sector, which is why we may feel that their proper discharge falls rather within the scope of general working life ethics than civil service ethics. However, in tasks of State administration one has to consider not only professional ethics but also the requirements of civil service ethics. If an expert is appointed director of an institution, for example, he is expected to have a better understanding of the principles of the values of civil service ethics and the importance of professional ethics may decrease. However, no unambiguous boundaries can be drawn between professional and civil service ethics.

The term civil service ethics refers to actions in a civil-service relationship. The concept cannot be directly applied to State personnel in private-law employment employee relationships, because the State Civil Servants’ Act does not apply to them. The differences are based on differences in the legal status of civil servants and employees. The status of civil servants is determined on the basis of the Constitution and the State Civil Servants’ Act and the status of employees on the basis of the Employment Contracts Act. The main issue is the special official accountability relating to the status of civil servants and the ways in which it is implemented. The status of civil servants and employees is the same i.a. in section 40 of the Penal Code, which deals with offences in office and offences committed by an employee of a public corporation. The acceptance of a bribe in an employee relationship is also a punishable offence.

From the point of view of an agency or institution, what is important is its reliability outwards, its relation to citizens. In this respect, the values and ethical principles of the agency have to apply to all the personnel. From the point of view of a citizen, the criterion for evaluating the operations of an agency is not the legal status of the personnel. Nor do the personnel policy outlines of the personnel strategy of the agency differentiate between civil servants and employees.


Civil service ethics is often though of in relation to corruption, which can be defined as a request for, acceptance or offer of a bribe. However, as far as civil service ethics is concerned, corruption in this sense is quite an easy object. Accepting gifts or other benefits is considered quite inappropriate and bribery-related crimes are punishable offences under the Penal Code. The line to be drawn mainly relates to defining the kind of financial or other benefit that is to be deemed a bribe in an individual case. Cases of corruption are rare in Finland (cf. 3.4).

However, corruption can be understood as a broader issue than just bribery. It can refer to any actions relating to abuse, e.g. to the misuse of one’s official position to one’s own benefit or to other acts endangering impartiality3. Corruption has also been defined as both bribery, self-corruption and any other effort to influence political-administrative decision-making on morally and socially inappropriate grounds4. This includes deviations from the obligations of public office and/or the pursuit of some special interest. This can be e.g. the pursuit of the interests of an organisation, a political party or an individual by inappropriate means at the cost of public interest. According to this definition, corruption involves the misuse of public power in favour of special interests in order to achieve personal benefits or benefits for an organisation.

Ethical rules

Ethical codes are tools used by professions for the ultimate purpose of maintaining confidence between customers and the profession. The codes contain instructions for good operations. They do not always include detailed guidelines, but they may consist of core values and principles to be interpreted independently in varying work situations. Their power lies in providing easy-to-remember “rules of the thumb” in simple form. The problem is that rules may simplify matters too much. On the other hand, if we try to make rules comprehensive, they can easily become too complicated. The rules will not have the guiding effect hoped for unless they are publicly strengthened, supported by training and information and controlled by means of a board or other body.

Among the oldest Finnish guidelines of professional ethics are the 450-year-old Olaus Petri judicial instructions. These instructions can even today be found on the first pages of the Laws of Finland and they are still significant. For example, the importance of the following instructions can also be considered more extensively from the point-of-view of the work of civil servants:

”What is neither just not equitable, cannot be the law; it is for the equity in the law that it is accepted.”

” The good of the common man is the supreme law; and therefore, what is found useful for the common man shall be deemed the law even if the words of the written law would seem to order otherwise.”

” He who acts against the purpose of the law acts against the law even if he seems to comply with the words of the law.”

” All the laws have been enacted for the sake of justice and equity and not for fines. For a fine is to punish those who break the law; but the law prefers not to be broken and would willingly go without fines.”

Lawyers have had their own ethical guidelines since 1995 (The Union of Finnish Lawyers, 15.5.1995), which include 12 rules. For example the following contain similarities to the conduct expected also of State civil servants:

”In his actions, a lawyer shall be independent of external influences which may hamper him in the appropriate carrying out of his duty or in achieving a fair end result.”

”In his work, a lawyer shall conduct himself in an appropriate manner and act objectively. He shall not be influenced by loyalty to colleagues.”
”A lawyer shall act fairly and pursue a fair end result.”

”In his actions and his conduct, a lawyer shall be worthy of the trust required by his duty. He may not allow his own financial interests or other personal motives to hamper him in conscientiously carrying out his duty.”

”A lawyer shall speak the truth.”

The objective of the ethical guidelines of lawyers is to define good legal practice obligating all those working in the legal profession. In their own work, lawyers working in different sectors should, however, also comply with separately enacted or issued instructions. Thus professional ethics does not exclude civil service ethics but merely complements it.

Some countries have drawn up ethical norms for the civil servant body, although they are not a uniform profession in the actual meaning of the term. The norms indicate the central distinctive characteristics of civil service work. For example, the Standards in Public Life in Great Britain5 contain seven basic principles deemed to apply to all public life (cf. Table 2).

Table 2 : The Seven Principles of Public Life (UK)

Selflessness. Holders of public office should take decisions solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.

Integrity. Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might influence them in the performance of their official duties.

Objectivity. In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.

Accountability. Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.

Openness. Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.

Honesty. Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.

Leadership. Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.
Some of the norms and principles of good governance in municipal administration have been compiled in a separate publication6. The objective is to look for ways to develop good municipal governance.

Courtesy: UPSC

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