Current Public Administration Magazine - "Ethics & Morality in Administration"

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Ethics & Morality in Administration

Ethics in Administration

Ethics means moral codes of conduct. Any society when it develops has to observe certain codes of conduct. Otherwise a society cannot progress. If everybody was killing everybody else there will no peaceful society to speak about. If everybody was stealing there will be no normal growth of the economy. We find that societies develop certain codes of conduct like the Ten Commandments – Thou shall not steal, Thou shall not kill etc. As the society further develops religion provides the sanction apart from that of tradition. When regular governments are set up to govern the state, they make laws that give in addition to the tradition and religious sanction the sanction of the law for proper peaceful society conduct of every citizen.

India is governed by the Constitution. The legislature makes the law, the judiciary interprets the law and the executive consisting of both the permanent bureaucracy and political executive implement the law. Where does ethics come in all these? One can have the law, which does not take into account ethics. For example, the Government’s decision in the Voluntary Disclosure of Income Scheme was definitely unethical.

Those who are honest had paid tax at 40% and those who cheated the Government and did not pay taxes were rewarded by the Government for 30%. We come across many cases like this where the laws are in a way unethical.

This brings us to the basic question, “what is ethical? How to consider an ethical decision? In this I would draw attention to the observation and comments of Norman Vincent Peale and Kenneth Blanchard on “The Power of Ethical Management”. The authors have articulated what has been called the three way ethical check. The ethical check questions are as follows:

  • Is it legal? Will it be violating either civil or company policy?
  • Is it balanced? Is it fair to all concerned in the short term as well as in long term? Does it promote win-win relationship?
  • How will it make me feel about myself? Will it make me proud? Would I feel good if my decision was published in the newspaper? Would I feel good if my family knew about it?

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These ethical check questions provide a good reference point to decide on ethical issues, which arise in the contemporary Indian Management. The authors have also provided the following five principles of ethical power for organizations.

  • Purpose: The mission of our organization is communicated from the top. Our organization is guided by the values, hopes and a vision that helps us to determine what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
  • Pride: We feel proud of ourselves and of our organization. We know that when we feel this way, we can resist temptations to behave unethically.
  • Patience: We believe that holding to our ethical values will lead us to success in the long term. This involves maintaining a balance between obtaining results and caring how we achieve these results.
  • Persistence: We have commitment to live by ethical principles. We are committed to our commitment. We make sure our actions are consistent with our purpose.
  • Perspective: Our managers and employees take time to pause and reflect, take stock of where we are, evaluate where we are going and determine how we are going to get there.

Ethics also are conditioned by the culture of the society. In India, we have an old culture where the ethics of administration was summed up in the concept of Dharma.

If we explore the roots of ethics in public administration, we find that we have a rich tradition. From our literature we find that there is a harmony between the individual and social goals in our tradition. It is this harmony that provides a meaningful basis for ethics in public administration. Every individual has to strive to achieve Moksha. Aatmano Mokshartham. But at the same his other responsibility is the well being of the many – Jagat hitayacha. In fact the goal in life for the individual as well as society has been ultimately distilled in the concept of dharma through thousands of years of our rich cultural tradition.

The Bhagawad Gita is in fact the quintessence of Indian thinking on the spiritual front. It also is an eminently practical guide for our secular life. Lord Krishna also emphasizes the centrality of the dharma in his famous observation in the third chapter of the Gita. Swadharme nidhanam shreya para dharmo bhayapaha. Each person has his own dharma and he has to live up to his dharma. It is better to die rather than give up one’s dharma. If everybody practices the concept of dharma, then that in it brings a sense of self-discipline. In a society where there is self discipline, automatically there will be peace and prosperity.

Unfortunately this is an ideal situation and does not exist. There are people who are bad and we have to punish the bad people if we want to maintain the peace and prosperity of the society.

Manu is very clear on this subject. Everybody has a tendency to enjoy the material goods in life. It is only the fear of punishment that ensures order. There is hardly an individual in this world who on his own is pure in his conduct. The King (Sovereign)’s power to punish and teach the people in the righteous path, and the fear of punishment by the king yields worldly happiness and enjoyment. Sarvo dandajitho lokohdurlabho hi suchirjanaha Dandasya hi bhayat bheeetobhoghayaiva pravartate Manu. Tiruvalluvar has also described the same concept of punishment beautifully. The process of the King removing the bad elements from the society is like the farmer removing the weeds from the field to protect the crops. Kolayil kodiyarai venduruthal pain kuzh kalai kathathanodu ther. The concepts of dharma as the foundation for public administration are obvious.

We are bound to ask that when it comes to ethics in administration in the Indian context, who will remember these cultural aspects or the ethical discussions by Norman Vincent Peale and Kenneth Blanchard? That brings me to another basic question: why should there be ethics in administration and what should be done to promote ethics? We need ethics in administration because unless we have moral principles we cannot have good governance. That brings us to the next question: what is good governance. Good governance involves, as I see it, three things. The first is the equality before law and the rule of law. We have seen how the laws evolved in order to ensure that society progresses. One basic requirement of good governance is equality before law and equal treatment before law, which is enshrined in Article 14 of our Constitution. The second requirement of good governance is respect for the individual. Respect for the individual must be translated in terms of opportunity given to every individual to rise to his full potential. The third aspect of good governance is that there should not be wastage of resources. We may look at the second and third aspects quickly before we go into the more serious first aspect of Rule of Law. In our country, we waste a lot of resources. 10% of food grains are lost because of poor storage, 22% is lost in transmission of power systems. If we look at the plan documents of irrigation projects we will find that the potential area for irrigation created is nearly double of what is actual area that is irrigated. All this shows loss of productivity. The very fact that the Indians do well abroad compared to within the country means that we do not give enough opportunity in our country for people to come up based on their talent. There is a well-known apocryphal story about Dr. Kurien. He was asked when he went to Kerala why he did not do any development work in Kerala and went all the way to Gujarat and wrought the Amul revolution. Dr. Kurien is supposed to have replied that the problem in Kerala was that there were too many Malayalees. The same thing may be true of Indians. So much about the aspects of not allowing Indians to develop and also ensuring that there is no wastage, which are of good governance. This can be tackled by applying the principles of important aspects of, perhaps, industrial engineering or business process engineering or computerization and so on. Every process has got what I would call the software aspect and the hardware aspect. The hardware aspect is the pure procedure or the algorithm for taking action. The software aspect includes the principles and the ethical values, which underlie the system. For instance, I had mentioned that allowing people to rise to their full potential means respect for the human dignity and giving equal opportunity to all. That brings us to the lingering third aspect of equality before law. In our country, there is very poor governance because we do not implement the laws effectively. In fact, in criminal courts, the percentage of conviction is hardly 6%. In any society if we consider the number of people with integrity, we are bound to find a bell curve. 10 per cent will be honest whatever we do and 10% will dishonest and 80% depend on the system. The system means punishing those who violate the law or who are corrupt or who are indulging in anti-social activities. This is where we are failing.


  1. Why government shall promote the Public Service Values and a standard of ethics in the Public Service operations ?

  2. Ethics and values are important component of Good Governance. Explain.

(With inputs from Government of India reports)

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