Virtue Ethics: A Policy Recommendation

By Lynch, Thomas D.; Lynch, Cynthia E. | Public Administration Quarterly, Fall/Winter 2001 | Go to article overview
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Virtue Ethics: A Policy Recommendation

Lynch, Thomas D., Lynch, Cynthia E., Public Administration Quarterly


This article presents a moral intervention theory designed to morally upgrade ethical thought and moral behavior in public administration. The theory is based on bringing virtue ethics into the public management arena using a ONENESS ethical paradigm firmly rooted in the literature of public administration. The theory suggests four key independent variables that would lead to the desired moral upgrading of our organizations. The article explains the theory in such a way that other researchers can go the next step of empirically testing the theory to determine its validity and usefulness.


Stephen K. Bailey, a former Dean at the Syracuse University's Maxwell School in a 1964 issue of Public Administration Review, argued that public administration should think of virtue ethics as the means to improve moral behavior in public organizations. He captured the earlier theme of Carl Joachim Friedrich (1940) that the moral responsibility of the public employee needs to come from within the person and that the public employee needs to center upon feeling we are each other's servants. Bailey argued that the polar opposite attitude was special interest politics. In fact, he argued that bigness of government was positive because it tended to "force both political executives and legislators to insert a majoritarian calculus into the consideration of private claims" (Bailey, 1964:234).

Bailey saw bigness as the friend of freedom and saw freedom linked to the mind-set that we are each other's servants. He agreed with Paul Appleby, who was also a Maxwell Dean but from an earlier era, when he argued that that we properly associated our poorest moral government performance when a few citizens have a disproportionate influence on society. He felt that the public interest yielding to special interests ultimately derogates democracy. Bailey (1964:236) said, "Government is moral insofar as it induces public servants to relate the specific to the general, the private to the public, the precise interest to the inchoate moral judgments."

The theme of this article is that public policy needs continually and consciously to influence positively and develop actively the virtue ethics of public employment and the society. The authors offer an intervention theory that they argue can achieve that end. They concur with Bailey, Appleby, and Friedrich that the inner person is the key to creating a positive moral society, especially for public employees. Unfortunately, the quest for special interest over public interest created an American and possibly Western obsession for growth, wealth creation, and an individual, group, and organization achievement measured in profit or market share domination.

This stress means we think in terms of our special interests and we redefine ethics in terms of negative social action rather than an inner quality of a person. For reformers of the past few decades who wished to enhance moral behavior in public organizations, the theoretical causal means to achieve better moral behavior lies exclusively in institutionalizing ethics through the process of law (Smith and Carroll, 1984). The implementation of this theory results in society viewing that which is permissible as being ethical. Clearly, the legal conformist theory of achieving greater ethics in public organizations is not totally consistent with the earlier views of Friedrich and Bailey.

Terry Cooper (1987) correctly point out that the concept of virtue ethics was out of vogue for some time in intellectual circles but that, in recent years, gained a more renewed prominence as a viable means to achieve improved ethical behavior. However, it still is not the dominant and, in fact, it is the minority vision of how to improve ethics in public administration. Cooper properly gives credit to Alisdair MacIntyre (1966, 1981, 1984) for bringing virtue ethics back to credibility in the intellectual community.

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