How philosophical ethics can build public trust in government

By Shannon Jenkins

Thursday June 24, 2021

Kindness and supporting others are underrated in the workplace. (Image: Adobe/FrankBoston)

Building skills in philosophical ethics could assist public servants in their response to complex issues and boost public trust, according to ethicist Dr Matt Beard.

While ethics is often thought of as a set of rules, or the answer to a question, philosophical ethics is the practice of asking the question. It allows people to weigh up their options when making a decision to ensure they make choices that reflect their values.

Beard, who is the new program director of Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership’s Vincent Fairfax Fellowship, says this practice can be a valuable resource to public service leaders because it encourages decision-making attributes that demonstrate competence to the public. In a time when there is a low level of public trust and confidence in political leaders and the public service, this is crucial.

“We need to pump [the public service] full of people who have the kinds of characteristics and the kind of traits that we tend to trust, and that we tend to recognise as being competent in being able to lead and make complex and difficult decisions,” Beard tells The Mandarin.

“And those skills, those competencies, tend to correspond to the kinds of things that we need in order to do philosophical ethics well. The two things are closely related.”

Beard argues that philosophical ethics could also be a better alternative to nudging when it comes to solving behavioural problems.

“There is a growing trend within organisations, both public service organisations and corporate organisations, of trying to deal with the problem of people who might not always do the things that they should — people who might behave unethically in certain times — through behavioural economics, through nudges, by designing systems that effectively deactivate people’s ability to make conscious and reflective choices,” he says.

“What we’re dealing with there is we’re trying to turn a person into more of a cog in a wheel who performs their function, and we put them in a system in which they simply perform that function by designing the system really well, so that the other options don’t occur.”

The public service’s use of behavioural economics to tackle problems could contribute to the negative ‘mindless, faceless bureaucracy’ stereotype, Beard warns.

“When we try to deal with the problem of unethical behaviour by doubling down on the mindlessness of it, we start to create precisely the thing that people distrust in the first place,” he says.

“Instead of trying to deal with the problem of unethical behaviour by deactivating people’s ability to choose, if instead we focus on expanding and developing their capacity to choose well — which is the work that philosophical ethics does — then we start to build a public service that people are more likely to trust.”

READ MORE: PM&C leader makes case for ‘nudging’ people with public policy

When undertaking a consultation process for a new policy or program, government will often utilise the expertise of academics or technical experts. While this is all well and good, Beard says considering the views of those who work in areas such as philosophy, the arts and humanities can also be beneficial for bureaucrats. In regard to complex topics, such as artificial intelligence, these people could raise questions that might otherwise go unanswered.

“I think one of the functions of philosophy, when it is done well and applied to questions of public affairs and public service, is it allows us to see what might be missed between the gaps of disciplinary expertise,” he says.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example of an area where skills in philosophical ethics could be beneficial to the public service, Beard says, as the pandemic is a multifaceted problem. It is not just a public health issue, but an economic and social problem as well.

“That has meant that political leaders and the public servants providing them with advice have needed to inhabit a bunch of different value systems and a bunch of different logic systems in order to work out what is ultimately a political decision about how we respond to this,” he explains.

If a leader were to focus solely on solving the public health aspect of the pandemic, for example, then they might initiate a lockdown until the virus has been eradicated.

“But of course there are enormous economic and mental health costs to that, so there has been a trade off that has needed to be made between competing value systems. And that is precisely the kind of thing that developing skills in philosophical ethics equips us for,” Beard says.

READ MORE: Is it ethical to use behavioural insights?

Public servants can bring philosophical ethics into their work by continuing to place people and the community at the heart of their decision-making, and by being wary of any trends — particularly related to language — that discourage this person-centred approach.

“The public service has done a wonderful job in a lot of areas in embracing certain design methodologies, like human-centred design, to try to think about the people who are going to be affected by certain problems and trying to solve it with those people in mind by including them in the process,” Beard says.

“But they’ve also adopted the same kind of language as the for-profit corporations that develop these methodologies. So they’re talking about the people who are affected by certain processes as users, or as customers.”

Beard notes that the relationship between the public service and citizens is ‘profoundly different’ to the relationship between a business and its customers or a technological platform and its users.

“Those language shifts seem small but they can have really significant ramifications in terms of the way we think of those relationships,” he says.

READ MORE: How ‘ethical allies’ elevate public service capability


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