October 22, 2013, by ICCSR

Discretion & Institutional Ethics: The Case of the Civil Service



“The Opposition aren’t really the opposition. They are only the Government in exile. The Civil Service are the opposition in residence.” Yes Minister


CSR research often focuses on the role of corporate managers, as opposed to, say, employees or consumers. What motivates this fixation on managers? The discretion of the corporate managerial role is one culprit. Managers often possess sufficient authority to practice discretion – responsibly or arbitrarily – over the economic, social, and environmental impact of the firm. Similar to the corporate manager, the high-level civil servant practices administrative discretion while overseeing policy-making and serving the political chain of command.[i] What does responsible discretion involve in such institutional settings?

Ethicists often focus on individual micro-level morality – for example on the qualities of the virtuous manager or the expert civil servant. Institutional macro-level morality is also a popular topic. Consider, for example, the socio-institutional role of corporations or the democratic function of the civil service. But not enough attention has been paid so far to ethics at the meso-level, that is, ethics in circumstances where the private and institutional realms intermingle. For example, what ought a corporate manager to do when her obligations to employees, shareholders, or customers conflict with environmental responsibility? Or what should a civil servant do when her obligations to the crown and the political chain of command contradict her understanding of the public interest? Many of the most pressing and challenging contemporary ethics issues arise within this realm.

Discretion at the civil service is a particularly under-theorized area of meso-level ethics inquiry.[ii] The standard notion of institutional hierarchy characterizes the civil service as yet another institution, similar to the political office or the corporation. But this generic understanding fails to capture the unique institutional structure of the civil service, and the distinctive relationship between the democratic electorate and public bureaucratic administrations. In my paper (ICCSR paper series No. 62-2013), I take up the preliminary task of outlining some philosophically relevant models/boundaries for the field of civil service ethics.

Various models of democratic responsibility (hierarchical, professional, pluralist, and deliberative) may be drawn upon to inform a meso-level civil service ethics.[iii] In their standard form, however, each of these models falls short of adequately balancing the concerns of accountability, professionalism, and deliberative responsibility. I suggest two alternative sets of debates that may be fruitfully drawn upon.

First, I look to legal philosophy and the positivist versus naturalist debates about the purpose of law. Specifically, the hierarchical chain of command in the civil service may be viewed as a strictly formal exercise of authority (positivist), or instead as an interactive, informal, and purposive practice of authority by civil servants (naturalist). Modeling Lon Fuller’s formulation of the “inner morality” of the law,[iv] and his distinction between the morality of “duty” and the morality of “aspiration,” a set of internal moral principles may be formulated for harnessing the arbitrary use of administrative discretion. Crucially, the unique institutional settings at the civil service inform the contours of these internal guiding principles.

Second, I propose drawing on Max Weber’s view of the vocation of non-political bureaucratic official, an informative discussion that has so far remained largely overlooked in Weber’s political writings[v] and methodology of social science.[vi] Accordingly, a variety of notions – the objective and the subjective, means and ends – intertwine with and inform one another in the realm of civil service administration. Weber’s administrative ethics brings to bear three frameworks – of “responsibility” (regarding means), “conviction” (regarding ends), and “distance” (neutrality regarding both means and ends) – all of which have meso-level relevance since they outline individual obligations with a view to the institutional boundaries of the civil service.

With this theoretical ammunition, we may begin conceptualizing the meso-level ethics of civil service discretion in earnest. This analysis in turn provides a model for other underdeveloped areas of meso-level professional ethics – e.g. in hospitals, governments, corporations, and the media. Despite the abstract nature of this research, then, its distinctions between micro- meso- and macro- levels of ethics, and its implications for role obligations in bureaucratic organizations have varied and widespread practical relevance.

[i] My focus is on non-political officials and administrators at the civil service who possess sufficient authority to practice discretion – potentially in an arbitrary manner. The civil servant’s role varies considerably across different countries. My analysis here applies to Canada and the United Kingdom.

[ii] While legal scholars, sociologists, and political scientists have made some important contributions, moral theorists have yet to join the conversation, save for a few exceptions, including Dennis Thompson, Restoring Responsibility: Ethics in Government, Business, and Healthcare (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Allen Buchanan “Towards a Theory of the Ethics of Bureaucratic Organizations” Business Ethics Quarterly, Vol. 6, 4 (1996) (although Buchanan focuses on a general theory of bureaucratic ethics); Arthur Applbaum “The Remains of the Role” Governance: An International Journal of Policy and Administration 6, 4 (1993); Michael Quinlan, “Ethics in the Public Service,” Governance: An International Journal of Policy and Administration, 6, 4 (1993)

[iii] Thompson (2005), 51-2

[iv] Lon Fuller, Morality of Law (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964)

[v] Peter Lassman, ed. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, Weber: Political Writings. and Ronald Speirs (trans.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)

[vi] See for example, Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, H. H. Gerth & C. Wright Mills (trans., ed., intro) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970); Max Weber, “Objectivity and Understanding in Economics” in Daniel M. Hausman, ed. The Philosophy of Economics: An Anthology, 3rd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)

By Sareh Pouryousefi, Research Fellow, International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility, Nottingham University Business School. 

Image by wwabbit.  From Yes Minister titles and reproduced under creative commons license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wwabbit/2337984001


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