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Public Service Utilitarianism as a Role Responsibility

  • Robert E. Goodin (a1)


Elsewhere I have defended utilitarianism as a philosophy peculiarly well suited to the conduct of public affairs, on grounds of the peculiar tasks and instruments confronting public officials. Here I add another plank to that defence of ‘utilitarianism as a public philosophy’, focusing on the peculiar role responsibilities of people serving in public capacities. Such ‘public service utilitarianism’ is incumbent not only upon public officials but also upon individuals in their capacities as citizens and voters. I close with reflections on how best to evoke appreciation of these utilitarian role responsibilities from officials and electors alike.

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1 Beyond their grasp, or beneath their notice, or beyond their remit: there are many ways the story might run, at this point.

2 Goodin, Robert E., Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy, Cambridge, 1995. See also Hardin, Russell, Morality Within the Limits of Reason, Chicago, 1988.

3 Hart, H. L. A., ‘Are There Any Natural Rights?’, Philosophical Review, lxiv (1955); cf. Goodin, Robert E., Protecting the Vulnerable, Chicago, 1985.

4 Donohue v. Stevenson [1932] A.C. 562; Goodin, Protecting the Vulnerable; Okin, Susan Moller, Justice, Gender and the Family, New York, 1989; Kittay, Eva Fedder, ‘Human Dependency and Rawlsian Equality’, Rethinking the Self, ed. Meyers, Diana T., Boulder, Colo., 1996.

5 Fried, Charles, Right & Wrong, Cambridge, Mass., 1978, ch. 7.

6 Goodin, , Protecting the Vulnerable, pp. 6270.

7 Hare, R. M., Moral Thinking, Oxford, 1981.

8 Smart, J. J. C., ‘An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics’, in Smart, J. J. C. and Williams, Bernard, Utilitarianism For and Against, Cambridge, 1973.

9 Luban, David, Lawyers and Justice, Princeton, N.J., 1988, and ‘The Adversary System Excuse’, The Good Lawyer: Lawyer's Roles and Lawyer's Ethics, ed. Luban, , Totowa, N.J., 1983.

10 Veatch, Robert M., A Theory of Medical Ethics, New York, 1981.

11 Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts, 5th edn., ed. Keeton, W. Page, St. Paul, Minn., 1984, ch. 1, sect. 2, p. 13.

12 On which see, e.g.: Bayles, Michael D., Professional Ethics, Belmont, Calif., 1981; Richard Wasserstrom, ‘Roles and Morality’, and Bernard Williams, ‘Professional Morality and its Dispositions’, both in The Good Lawyer, ed. Luban.

13 American Medical Association, ‘Principles of Medical Ethics’ (1957), repr. in Medical Ethics, ed. C. J. McFadden, Philadelphia, 1967; American Bar Association, ‘Code of Professional Responsibility’ (1969), repr. in Cases and Materials on Professional Responsibility, ed. M. E. Pirsig, St. Paul, Minn., 1970.

14 House of Commons, Treasury & Civil Service Committee, The Role of the Civil Service, HC (19931994)27–1, 1994, para. 8.

15 Such as the ten-point, two-page US statutory ‘Code of Ethics for Government Service’, 94 Stat 95 [P.L. 96–303] [1980] and the American Society for Public Administration's twelve-point Code of Ethics, Washington, D.C., 1984.

16 As the British Cabinet Office was at pains to emphasize in its submission to the Scott Inquiry, quoted in HC Treasury & Civil Service Committee, para. 90.

17 See, for example, Report of the President's Commission on Federal Ethics Law Reform, To Serve with Honor, Washington, D.C., 1989, and Plowden, William et al. , Politics, Ethics and the Public Service, London, 1985.

18 Broadly the same is true of the ‘Citizens Charter’ and various more service-specific users' Charters developed in Britain in the early 1990s; see HC Treasury & Civil Service Committee, paras. 144–7.

19 Of broadly the sort canvassed in Sunstein, Cass, ‘Incompletely Theorized Agreements’, Harvard Law Review, cviii (1995).

20 SirCouzens, Kenneth, ‘The Principle of Public Service’, Politics, Ethics and Public Service, London, 1985. The ‘duties of servants’ are elaborated in the ‘law of masters and servants’, as was the old term for labour law; see, e.g., SirMacdonell, John, The Law of Master and Servant, 2nd edn., ed. Innes, Edward A. Mitchell, London, 1983/1908, ch. 18. Cf. Swift, Jonathan, Directions to Servants, London, 1745.

21 See, e.g., the definition of a ‘civil servant’ offered by Punnett, R. M., British Government and Politics, 2nd edn., New York, 1971, p. 306, based on the Report of the Royal Commission on the Civil Service, 1929–31 (the Tomlin Commission), Cmd 3909, London, 1931. See similarly SirJennings, Ivor, The Law and the Constitution, 5th edn., London, 1933/1959, pp. 200–2.

22 This position and its corollaries are neatly elaborated in, e.g., Jennings, pp. 200–8 and Marshall, Geoffrey and Moodie, Graeme C., Some Problems of the Constitution, 5th edn., London, 1959/1971, ch. 6.

23 SirArmstrong, Robert, ‘The Duties and Responsibilities of Civil Servants in Relation to Ministers’, HC (19851986) 92–11, 7–9; revised, HC Deb., 2 Dec. 1987, cols. 572–5w, at col. 572–3w.

24 Bernard Williams, ‘Whistle Blowing in the Public Service’, Politics, Ethics and Public Service.

25 Complications which become apparent in, for example, debates over accountability for contracted-out public services. In this connection, see e.g. the discussion of the responsibilities of public servants in connection with the British ‘Next Steps’ initiative in HC Treasury & Civil Service Committee, paras. 152–71.

26 Rourke, Francis E., Bureaucracy, Politics & Public Policy, Boston, 1969; Redford, Emmette S., Democracy in the Administrative State, New York, 1969.

27 ‘Public office is a public trust’, in the words of the US ‘Code of Ethics for Government Service’, 94 Stat 85 [P.L. 96–303] [1980]. This construction of official duties evokes – if only metaphorically – the substantial body of accepted duties falling to trustees under the law of trusts. See, e.g., Scott, Austin W. et al. , Restatement of the Law of Trusts, 2nd edn., Washington, D.C., 1959. There are of course echoes here of Burke's theory of representation; much of the discussion surrounding the application of that model to the proper role of legislators might be generalized to the proper role of public servants more generally.

28 In the terms of Weber's, Max ‘Politics as a Vocation’, For Max Weber, ed. Gerth, Hans and Mills, C. Wright, New York, 1946.

29 On which see, particularly, Abramson, Jeffrey, We the Jury, New York, 1994.

30 Just as public officials' duties are often expressed, negatively, as an obligation to eschew narrow personal or sectional interests. Among the ten items constituting the US ‘Code of Ethics for Government Service’, for example, four are concerned explicitly with the obligation not to turn public office to private profit (6–9), and another two are of broadly the same ilk (not to discriminate or show favouritism in one's official capacity(ies) and not to slack on the job (3)).

31 So too may it occasionally be the utilitarian thing to do for people to favour their personal or sectional interests over public ones. How one morally ought choose among those roles, on any given occasion, is just a matter of (inevitably rough-and-ready) utilitarian calculation; and there is no in-built presumption that that will necessarily always favour public interests. Even utilitarians can see the point, from a purely utilitarian point of view, in letting public servants go home, get some sleep and play with their children rather than spending every waking hour in Her Majesty's service.

32 One corollary is that we ought not demand literally heroic sacrifices even of public officials. Another is that, if there are certain things we think we should be able to count on public officials never doing, no matter what, then we had better not leave it to the workings of some internalized role morality: given that some public official sometime or another is going to need money awfully badly, for some utterly compelling private urgency, we had better impose external checks rather than counting on internalized constraints upon selling state secrets and such like.

33 Discussed in, e.g., Kolm, Serge-Christophe, ‘Altruism and Efficiency’, Ethics, iciv (1983). See similarly the discussion of Hume's model of moral deliberation in Postema, Gerald J., ‘Morality in the First Person Plural’, Law & Philosophy, xiv (1995).

34 Discussed in, e.g., Plamenatz, John, The English Utilitarians, 2nd edn., Oxford, 1959, ch. 4.3.

35 Margolis, Howard, Selfishness Altruism and Rationality, Cambridge, 1982. See similarly Sagoff, Mark, The Economy of the Earth, Cambridge, 1988, and Should Prefeences Count?Land Economics, lxx (1994).

36 Goodin, Robert B. and Roberts, K. W. S., ‘The Ethical Voter’, American Political Science Review, lxix (1975); Benn, Stanley L., ‘The Problematic Rationality of Political Participation’, Philosophy, Politics and Society, 5th series, ed. Laslett, Peter and Fishkin, James S., Oxford, 1979; Brennan, Geoffrey and Lomasky, Loren, Democracy and Decision, Cambridge, 1993.

37 Maass, Arthur, Congress and the Common Good, New York, 1983; Reich, Robert B., ed., The Power of Public Ideas, Cambridge, Mass., 1988; Mansbridge, Jane J., ed., Beyond Self-interest, Chicago, 1990.

38 Kiewiet, D. Roderick, Micropolitics and Macroeconomics, Chicago, 1983, and Rohrschneider, Richard, ‘Citizens' Attitudes Toward Environmental Issues: Selfish or Selfless?’, Comparative Political Studies, xxi (1988). See also Sears, David O., Lau, R. R., Tyler, Tom R. and Allen, H. M. Jr, ‘Self-Interest vs. Symbolic Politics in Policy Attitudes and Presidential Voting’, American Political Science Review, lxxiv (1980)and Kuran, Timur, Private Truths Public Lies, Cambridge, Mass., 1995(though Kuran himself would – for no particularly good reason – privilege the private over the public statement of one's interests and preferences).

39 March, James G. and Olsen, Johan P., Democratic Governance, New York, 1995, ch. 2; Sunstein, Cass R., ‘Social Norms and Social Roles’, Columbia Law Review, xcvi (1996); Benn, Stanley, ‘Rationality and Political Behaviour’, Rationality and the Social Sciences, ed. Mortimore, G. W. and Benn, S. I., London, 1976.

40 This example is an adaptation of Sagoff's in The Economy of the Earth.

41 Kahneman, Daniel and Tversky, Amos, ‘Choices, Values and Frames’, American Psychologist, xxxix (1984); Zaller, John and Feldman, Stanley, ‘A Simple Theory of the Survey Response: Answering Questions versus Revealing Preferences’, American Journal of Political Science, xxxvi (1992).

42 Kiewiet, Macroeconomics and Micropolitics.

43 The all-too-familiar way of putting economic points in American presidential debates – ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ – is just the sort of thing we ought be trying to avoid.

44 Roberts, Kevin, ‘Valued Opinions or Opinionated Values: The Double Aggregation Problem’, Choice, Welfare and Development, ed. Basu, K, Pattaniak, P. and Suzumara, K., Oxford, 1995.

45 Sears et al. See also Kinder, Don and Sanders, Lynn, Divided by Color: Racial Politics & Democratic Ideals, Chicago, 1996.

46 Judging from their famous report, the founding document of the modern British civil service: SirNorthcote, Stafford and SirTrevelyan, Charles, ‘Report on the Organisation of the Permanent Civil Service’, House of Commons Papers 27(1851); repr. in Lord Fulton, Report of the Committee 1966–68, Cmd 3638, London, 1968.

47 Besides all those already acknowledged in the preface of my previous book on these topics, I should acknowledge the further helpful comments of participants at the March 1997 conference of the International Society for Utilitarian Studies in New Orleans (particularly Jonathan Riley and Pat Croskery) and at an October 1995 seminar at the Australian National University (particularly Simon Blackburn, David Gauthier, Barry Hindess, Frank Jackson, Carole Pateman and Andrew Vincent). Astute, well-timed interventions by Jerry Gaus and Cass Sunstein were also invaluable, as were the comments of Roger Crisp and an anonymous referee.


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