Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Ethical Choice Making

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Ethical Choice Making

Article excerpt

In introducing this series of essays, the editors explain "the implicit argument is that Public Servants do best if they recognize and respond to values-related issues to retain a vibrant and stable American society" (Mingus and Horiuchi 2012b, 116). Values-related issues in public administration are often clustered under categories of efficiency, economy, and equity (Frederickson 1997), but also effectiveness and ethics as well (Stout 2013). As the editors suggest, we might wish to demonstrate "how resilient governance incorporates more than efficiency and cost-effectiveness as core values" (Mingus and Horiuchi 2012b, 116). Often these values exist in tension or competition which requires trade-offs (Okun 1975). Thus, while they all may be considered good or right in our society, we must often make difficult choices among them.

Indeed, the understanding of ethics as a matter of right versus right, whereas morality is a matter of right versus wrong (Kidder 1995; Badaracco 1997), is most useful for contemplating the most difficult decisions administrators must face when addressing challenges to governance resiliency. However, it must be noted that in today's increasingly polarized and diverse society, the ferocity and "ideological fervor" (Mingus and Horiuchi 2012b, 116) with which we now defend our version of right against others' versions of right have obfuscated the practice of ethics in a wash of moralism--our "ethics" discussion is now more often one of morality. As issues such as incivility escalate into violence (Mingus and Horiuchi 2012a), we more frequently focus on blatantly illegal and harmful acts as opposed to ethical dilemmas.

This essay will bring the conversation back to the basics of ethics as the challenging task of deciding right versus right dilemmas. Let's simply assume that illegal and harmful acts are wrong and that no person or professional, particularly not a public administrator, should engage in them. In so doing, we must also temporarily set aside acts of conscientious objection and civil disobedience in a special category of illegal acts under laws in question. Now we can turn to the more traditional discussion of ethical choice making when competing values and determinations of what is considered ethical are at stake. For the vast majority of administrators, this is what is faced on a day-today basis.

The confrontation of competing values and right-versus-right ethical dilemmas has increased "within potentially complex patterns of governance" (Mingus and Horiuchi 2012b, 116). These systems of governance include actors from all sectors of society, each of which tends to prioritize certain values over others, in addition to actors with diverse philosophical and ideological perspectives who also prioritize values differently. As Waldo (1980) noted, balancing ethical commitments as a public administrator is a highly complex endeavor. Indeed, competing values abound at all levels of analysis and in every sphere of social action--personal, political, civic, and economic (Kouzes and Posner 2002).

If there were one universally shared approach to this problem, then we would at least have a legitimate, accepted platform from which to make these difficult value choices. Unfortunately, there are competing methods for ethical choice making among conflicting values. These methods understand relationships between the good and the right differently and locate assessment of action in different sources, either internal or external. We will employ an ontological ideal-type model (Stout and Love 2012), as revised from previous iterations (Stout 2012, 2013; Love 2012) to show why this is the case for ethics in public administration. We argue that these contrasting perspectives regarding the relationship between the good and the right are nested within more comprehensive approaches to governance and recognizing this can help us better understand conflicts over determinations of ethical action. …

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