Consequentialism and ‘public service’ ethics

2007-09-26

in Canada, Daily updates, Ottawa

Bunker control panel

I spent the last two days at a mandatory orientation to the public service. The bits about the structure of government (role of the PCO and Treasury Board, for instance) were quite useful. The bits of values and ethics much less so, largely because of how artificially precise they try to make it. For instance, they define four ‘families’ of personal values. These map one-to-one to four ‘public service’ values. It is not clear that the four sets are well defined, nor that the mapping is as clear or automatic as is posited.

The fourth ‘family’ is especially odd. It basically centres around the rejection of the phrase ‘the end justifies the means.’ What they mean by this, essentially, is not to circumvent procedures that exist for good reasons to achieve some narrow objective. What seems foolish about it is the fact that the ethical yardstick remains the ends. It is inappropriate to fast-track an excellent seeming job candidate past normal checks because of the risk that your intuition is wrong, and the possibility doing so will undermine the system. Both objections are ultimately based on a comparison between two sets of means (sloppy and rigorous) and two sets of outcomes. It is also quite plausible that situations exist where rejecting the normal procedure is the best ethical option: if you have a frigate with broken engines being fired upon, it makes sense to be more slipshod than usual in the quality of your repairs.Of course, there are also lots of situations where following protocol rigidly even when under fire (literally or metaphorically) produces your best chances of success.

As such, it as fairer to say that ‘the set of all ends justifies the means.’ There are lots of good arguments for rules (they are efficient, clear, and transparent) but the reason these properties are desirable is because of the ends they eventually produce.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Litty September 26, 2007 at 6:46 pm

In short: ‘rules have value, but it isn’t inherent.’

Makes sense. There are lots of pointless rules: don’t eat pork or drive on Sundays, don’t draw pictures of Mohammed, don’t get blood transfusions, don’t step on the cracks (lest you break your mother’s back – a very consequence based argument)…

Litty September 26, 2007 at 6:48 pm

Great photo, incidentally.

Ben September 26, 2007 at 7:10 pm

Any plausible set of rules should require you to follow the rules even if it seems slightly detrimental to their purpose (because such conformity is generally good), but include a provision to over-ride them when they are clearly and/or very wrong.

Milan September 26, 2007 at 8:02 pm

Great photo, incidentally.

Depth of field effects work well with instrumentation panels.

Milan September 26, 2007 at 8:04 pm

Any plausible set of rules should require you to follow the rules even if it seems slightly detrimental to their purpose (because such conformity is generally good), but include a provision to over-ride them when they are clearly and/or very wrong.

This is entirely consistent with the idea that rules are important in terms of their long-term effects. The ethical issue doesn’t lie in obeying or not obeying a rule, it lies in the consequences of doing either.

R.K. September 27, 2007 at 10:41 am

There are lots of pointless rules: don’t eat pork or drive on Sundays, don’t draw pictures of Mohammed, don’t get blood transfusions, don’t step on the cracks

Whether valid or not, these rules are arguably still justified on the basis of their consequences. Eating pork (a) upsets God and (b) carries a risk of eternal torment.

Rob October 1, 2007 at 4:41 am

There are plenty of rules which it is important to follow, whether or not following them has good consequences separate from them being followed. Your example of hiring practices is one. It is unfair, and hence wrong, to discriminate against people in hiring practices whether or not, in the end, that leads to the wrong person being hired. Just because civil servants aren’t very good at articulating the best justifications for what they’re doing, it doesn’t mean everyone else should do likewise.

Milan October 1, 2007 at 9:15 am

It is unfair, and hence wrong, to discriminate against people in hiring practices whether or not, in the end, that leads to the wrong person being hired.

This doesn’t clash with the point I made above: namely that it is the set of outcomes that does or does not justify a rule. The set of outcomes includes the perception of other employees that the system is unfair, as well as other potential negative consequences from problematic hiring practices.

. October 7, 2008 at 1:53 pm

‘The ends justify the means’
When people criticize the idea that ‘the ends justify the means’, it seems to me that the real objection usually has to do with the distribution of outcomes between different agents, rather than the standard of assessing the morality of something according to the consequences it produces. Moral codes based on the outcomes of decisions are called ‘teleological’ whereas those based on rules about behaviour are called ‘deontological.’ Some have argued that a view based on consequences is likely to produce injustices, so it is more appropriate to base morality on set rules, such as the defence of individual rights. I don’t think it is necessary to make that jump. Indeed, I think the transition from an outcomes based view to a rights based view is likely to lead to less effective moral deliberation.

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