Harmon Responds

Public Administration Review, November-December 1996 | Go to article overview
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Harmon Responds

More than anything else, the essays by Professors Burke and Cooper illuminate one of the chief barriers to reframing conventional, but nolonger-useful debates between rival philosophical factions. Faced with criticisms of their favored position, representatives of each faction automatically assume that those criticisms must issue from the standard alternative position with which they have traditionally been at odds -- and therefore marshal their arguments against it, rather than against what has actually been written in criticism of 60th sides. When this happens there is little genuine engagement, obliging the proponent of the reframed understanding of the problem to expend greater effort clarifying what he did say than defending his argument against

Regrettably, that is the circumstance in which I find myself regarding the present criticisms of Responsibility as Paradox. To Burke my argument represents a dubious mixture--a rocky marriage, in his words--of an especially conservative branch of communitarianism coupled with a therefore contradictory encouragement of ethically autonomous action and moral criticism by public administrators. To Cooper I seem to be recommending a dangerous brand of administrative discretion unfettered by moral, legal, or institutional constraints--a kind of throwback to the anything-goes radical humanism of the 1960s. Were either of these interpretations even minimally consistent with what I wrote, I would surely endorse many of Burke's and Cooper's criticisms of the book. Neither is accurate, however, owing chiefly to the failure of both critics to engage the book's central proposition: that the word "responsibility" has come to connote during this century two opposing--though, under felicitous conditions, reciprocal -- meanings, thus precluding as even theoretically possible the equation of responsibility with definitive moral or authoritative resolution of problems of administrative action. Responsibility as Paradox thus presumes not only an imperfect world, but a world shown to be radically imperfect precisely because of that theoretical impossibility.

I shall organize the major portion of my reply around three questions raised in the Burke and Cooper essays. My short no -- while Burke's and Cooper's answers are exactly the reverse:

1. Can obligation construed as passive consent -- whether tO moral principle, constitutional authority, or a combination of the two -- provide a sufficient and plausible basis for a practical theory of administrative responsibility?

2. Can the idea of paradox both explain the pathologies generated by the rationalist conception of responsibility and, from a revised understanding of paradox itself, suggest ways of ameliorating those pathologies?

3. Is it possible to identify foundational moral or empirical truths, including beliefs about "human nature," from which to derive or defend a theory of responsibility?

The final sections briefly describe two new paradoxes-in addition to the four I discuss in the book--unintentionally revealed by Burke's and Cooper's essays. I call the first of these the "paradox of exit," which explains the perverse consequences that would predictably follow were resignation from office the sole alternative for public administrators to passive compliance with organizational practices and policies. The second, the "paradox of reason," explains why the rationalists' belief in reason as the preferred standpoint from which to define responsible action excludes the very possibility of responsibility as a moral concept.

The Problem of Obligation. Burke's critique is written chiefly in response to my critique (in chapters 3 and 5) of his own work, Bureaucratic Responsibility (1986). Here he develops a "consent" theory of political obligation, which asserts that public administrators, having freely shouldered the responsibilities of public office in a democratic polity, have a moral as well as a legal obligation to comply with legitimate political authority.

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Harmon Responds


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