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The Public Ethics of Governance: Offices, Policies, and Institutions

Policy
Political theory
VIRTUAL025
Andrei Poama
Departments of Political Science and Public Administration, Universiteit Leiden
Nikolas Kirby
University of Oxford

Abstract

Until recently, contemporary political philosophy has had little to say about the normative quality of governance. Over the last century, the discipline has largely focused on questions that ask *why* government is justified, and often generated answers predicated on foundational or otherwise normatively basic distributive justice principles. The discipline has also investigated the *who* of government and other (infra-, trans- or supra-national) political organizations, debating who, if anyone, should have political authority, and the right to coerce citizens or who can and should legitimately intervene to protect or assist citizens when governments fail to do so. However, political philosophers have largely neglected *how* the moral principles that are supposed to guide governing and governance practices ought to function in the day-to-day life of governments and other public governance bodies. Consequently, we lack a research agenda to examine how specific government institutions should be internally structured, how they should be connected to and interact with other institutions and organizations or how officials should act when they are involved in implementing specific policies. In short, contemporary political philosophy is missing a public ethics of bureaucracy, administration, organizations, public service and executive institutions. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this general disciplinary neglect. For instance, some philosophers have addressed such discrete issues as the morality of professional roles (Applbaum 1999); the ethics of public administration (Thompson 1987), the obligations of the members of intermediate organizational structures (Herzog 2018), the ethics of “street-level bureaucrats” (Zacka 2017), the corruption of public officers responsible for policy implementation (Ceva and Ferretti 2018 and 2021), and how democratically grounded ethical principles can guide the design and implementation of various public policies within democratic polities (Wolff 2019; Lever & Poama 2018). However, a systematic research for an adequate public ethics for guiding governance activities is currently missing. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the relative absence of philosophical interest in the topic of governance, other disciplines and practitioners have moved into the domain. Political scientists, economists, lawyers, development specialists and public administration scholars have developed conceptions of good governance that have been deployed as normative standards in real world public policy (Bovens & Schillemans 2014; Boswell & Corbett 2017; du Gay& Pedersen 2020; Rothstein & Teorrell 2008). While such developments outside political philosophy are desirable, we think that one cannot fully nor adequately understand what governance is or grasp its normative underpinnings without a distinctive philosophical approach. As a result, this workshop tries to capitalize on relevant recent normative research within political philosophy to stimulate a public ethics turn within contemporary political philosophy. To do so, the workshop will focus on how specific moral and political principles – and the corresponding theories that articulate such principles – shape, guide and inform (i) the political and administrative activities of various public officials and civil servants working with or within political institutions, (ii) the design, reform and implementation of distinctive public policy programs, and (iii) the structuring, as well as functioning of specific public institutions.

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