Today’s ethics revival in public service grows out of these intellectual roots and practical experiences. It also echoes concerns in the broader society. We acknowledge that legitimate government (meaning public management, too) is in fact an ethical enterprise.
What do managers do with this professional legacy in terms of the ethical side of management? Do we just turn our backs, echoing the sentiment of a character in James Joyce’s Ulysses, who remarks, “History . . . is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”? Total rejection sets us up for self-contempt and the urge to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sanctification is the polar extreme, but here we face the danger of mindlessly repeating old mistakes. That leaves a point in between, calibrated by picking and choosing in a pragmatic, reflective way.
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Public service’s track record counsels a go but go-slow attitude toward ethics in the workplace. Wariness, instead of paralyzing us, can short-circuit both excessive regulations and unbridled expectations. A cautious attitude now can prevent the later repudiation that is inevitable if we set ethics up as the single cure for all managerial ills.