What is ethics?

Derived from the Greek word “ethos”, which means “way of living”, ethics is a branch of philosophy that is concerned with human conduct, more specifically the behaviour of individuals in society. Ethics examines the rational justification for our moral judgments; it studies what is morally right or wrong, just or unjust.

Table of Contents

The Office of Public Service Values and Ethics (OPSVE) was established in 1999, following the recommendations of the Auditor General's 1995 Report, and of course the report A Strong Foundation, Report of the task force on public service values and ethics, published in 1996 under the direction of John Tait. The Tait Report, which is considered to have set the stage for the reflection on ethics in the federal public service, sets out a number of elements for initiating the discussion on public values and ethics.

For many reasons, the issue of values and ethics is now central to the Government's concerns. “These are times of significant change for Canadian society and for most of us as individuals. We are coping with the demands for organizational and technological change and we are adapting to a new environment based on partnerships with other governments, communities and citizens.”

Because the concept of citizenship is based on the idea of a group, with common aspirations, “because service for citizens must be the priority of a government that wishes to reinforce collective bonds, and finally, because a well-informed citizen is more demanding with respect to government transparency, it is important to revisit our basic values”. We must also clearly understand how ethical conduct can enable us to continue achieving our personal and organizational objectives in a consistent and constructive manner.

After building on the conclusions of the report by the late John Tait, the OPSVE would now like to set out its understanding of ethics. The goal of the pages that follow is to present the general philosophy of the OPSVE.

What are ethics?

Derived from the Greek word “ethos”, which means “way of living”, ethics is a branch of philosophy that is concerned with human conduct, more specifically the behaviour of individuals in society. Ethics examines the rational justification for our moral judgments; it studies what is morally right or wrong, just or unjust.

In a broader sense, ethics reflects on human beings and their interaction with nature and with other humans, on freedom, on responsibility and on justice. It can be said that in general, ethics is concerned with human independence when it focuses on the relationship that exists between humans and the world. This independence is the primary condition in ethical decision-making and in any objective analysis of the facts. Individuals demonstrate independence when, in a decision-making process, they choose to free themselves as much as possible from their conditioning. Insofar as this operation assumes a degree of lucidity that allows us to judge objectively and to decide what direction to take, it will be understood that making ethical decisions is difficult.

This concept of ethics obviously has consequences for an organization like the Government of Canada. The OPSVE believes that any discussion of ethics must be part of an effort to humanize (protect human rights in) the public service, and that this effort inevitably means giving individuals greater independence.

That is one of the essential principles in the operation of moving from a vertical public administration, where rules are imposed, to a horizontal decision-making structure that leaves more room for judgment and accountability on the part of public servants.

It is also in this spirit that the report A Strong Dialogue made dialogue the keystone in the development of values and ethics in the public service. Through dialogue, ethics as a principle can now take the form of applied ethics.

What are applied ethics?

Applied ethics are the practice of ethics, in particular the philosophy of language that aims to guide the moral judgment governing the decisions we make in all areas of our lives. Applied ethics presupposes language because it depends on dialogue to attain this objective.

  • Applied ethics are an educational practice:
    • It aims to accelerate the awareness process and to accompany the exercise of judgment, because “moral judgment cannot be learned; it must be cultivated”.
  • Applied ethics are a political practice:
    • It seeks to establish optimum conditions for exercising moral judgment. Applied ethics are a political practice because it is “concerned with the common good”.
  • Applied ethics are a philosophical practice:
    • It aims to develop systematic, creative criticism based on meditation on human excellence.

Naturally this threefold perspective on applied ethics implies the introduction of a detailed program to promote values and ethics in the public service. However, far from seeking a kind of emulation by mimicry, implementation of such a program assumes an honest dialogue. The report is clear on this question: honest dialogue is the basis of the democratization of structures and the ethical management of public funds. Basically, it is a matter of “encountering the good” by deploying a democratic conscience shared through dialogue.

In the end, it is the development of conscience, of course, but also of the ability to judge that constitutes the primary task of the OPSVE. However, in considering this mission, we cannot assume that everyone, every public service employee, shares the same degree of understanding and ethical judgement. Thus our action must include a training component designed to strengthen public service employee' capacity for ethical judgment.

The OPSVE believes that the only way to reach this objective is to use training to foster a dual awareness of each individual's personal values and of the values conveyed by the government and, more broadly, by democratic tradition.

What are values and ethics?

“Values and ethics represent what most of us put into practice through our actions every day. They describe the way we strive to work with our fellow employees, our partners and our clients. They explain the spirit that enables us to do our jobs. Our values, what seems desirable to us, what is important to us, what we esteem and seek to achieve, are thus reflected in what we do every day.”

  • As individuals, our values have been formed by our culture in the broad sense; for example, the values we have from our family, our education or our cultural experiences.
  • As public servants, our values are moulded by the traditions of our democratic government system.

That is why it is important to understand that values and ethics provide a framework for decision-making and leadership. This understanding is even more important insofar as we believe, following the Tait Report, that a code of ethics and the accompanying rules are not the only components likely to promote values and ethics in the public service. The report A Strong Foundation stated this point as follows:

“An ethics regime, as we define it, is not a single initiative but rather a comprehensive series of initiatives, mutually supporting and complementing one another.”

This statement reflects the OPSVE's position, but it especially indicates the lines of thought to be followed in reflecting on values and ethics in the Canadian public service: no rule alone can encourage citizens or public service employees to develop the conciliatory spirit that will enable them to act responsibly, honestly and fairly. A code alone is not enough to promote values and ethical standards in the Canadian public service. There must be continuing dialogue, so that it will be possible to incorporate values and ethics into all decisions and all acts made in our workplace, the federal public service.

Our main challenge is thus to combine the two approaches: the one based on values, and the other based on rules.

The notion of “democratic values” and what it means in the daily life of public servants

General presentation

The word “democracy” refers to a decision-making process that is eminently political. The election of a Member of Parliament (representative) is, for example, the result of a collective democratic decision. A democratic decision must be either a popular result or made in the interest of the people. In the public service, it is traditionally understood that anonymity and neutrality are essential elements for a decision to be made in the interest of the people. In fact, anonymity tends to preserve the neutrality of public service employees, who can provide honest advice with complete confidence. These rules fall under the principle of “good government”.

Nevertheless, it must be specified that a decision or measure that results from the democratic process can be qualified as right or wrong.

The report A Strong Foundation, Report of the task force on public service values and ethics

If we stick with the democratic process (which corresponds to Canada's political culture), the key element of the report A Strong Foundation is the idea of responsible government with respect to the public, which, ideally, takes right measures in compliance with the democratic process. Compliance with the democratic process implies the transparency of the parliamentary system and the management system (decision-making process). Without eliminating the principle of anonymity, the idea of a responsible government introduces the notion of responsibility. It follows that good government can no longer rely on the principle of anonymity alone insofar as transparency in turn also becomes one of the principles of the democratic decision-making process which, in the interest of the public, must be introduced rapidly (the public service is there to serve the public).

Changes in the public service thus tend toward the accountability of public service employees and the transparency of the decision-making process, and all of this for the common good. In the public service, the relationship between the “old deal” (anonymity and job security) and the new dynamic (importance of the public and accountability) nevertheless generates uncertainty and a lack of understanding.

To lift part of the uncertainty, it is important to mention that the idea of democratic values is a decision-making principle that emphasizes transparency and the need to serve the public well.

In daily life

In daily life, this means that an honest dialogue takes place between the different levels of management (the different authorities) and that each person takes responsibility for the issues that fall under his or her jurisdiction. “To be held responsible for something is not necessarily to be blamed for it.” To be responsible, “often it is best simply to accept... that something falls within one's sphere of responsibility, and to take the appropriate action”. If everyone can apply it, this simple principle becomes the driving force of a responsible government that transparently combines public service accountability (and not blame) and ministerial responsibility. Once again, accountability does not mean being blamed for something.

The act of explaining and clarifying our decisions is a method of communication that all people use in their daily life (with family, friends, etc.) and which also applies at work. Accountability means rendering an account to someone (Parliament, a superior) on how one's responsibilities are being met. However, in the public service, providing an explanation should not threaten such important values as neutrality, impartiality and professionalism. The proper balance must be found between anonymity (which protects neutrality) and accountability.

It goes without saying that ministerial responsibility is the keystone of the democratic process. However, if anonymity cannot be considered to be an absolute principle, then ministerial responsibility must also be limited to the Minister's authority and the explanations that he or she can give openly and honestly to Parliament and the public. It is about the transparency of the decision-making process, as well as the success of the decentralization of power (increased responsibility of public service employees) that accompanies any democratic process.

Values that have an impact on the democratic process:

  • anonymity of the public service;
  • ministerial responsibility;
  • impartiality;
  • openness;
  • accountability of public service employees.

Page details

Date modified: