Towards Value-Based Professional Ethics in Public Administration


The postmodern administration redefines its role as ‘instance of mediation’ between the citizen and politics. Public administration has a double purpose; maintaining a political position of axiological neutrality, while showing the citizen transparency and encouragement to participate in all stages of the public decision, from adopting and implementing to its evaluation. In this paper, we will argue the importance of a public administration centred on ethical values. Public good, alongside justice, can be considered a constitutive ethical value of any type of public administration, and the values of equity transparency and responsibility, as ethical operational values of a contemporary public administration system. The constitutive values make necessary the emergence and functioning of a system of social institutions – in this case, those related to public administration. The ethical operational values are those values that manage the functioning of an institutional system and establish its limitations. We bring a series of arguments for replacing the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic values with a distinction between constitutive and operational values, in the context of social-constructionist ethics development in public administration.

Keywords: Public administrationconstitutive ethical valuesoperational ethical values


The modern state translates its own rationality as bureaucracy. Far from being a source of delay

inpostponing the administrative decision, the functional bureaucracy is based on the idea of expertise,

order and continuity in managing the public affairs. The political factor has an impact on the direction

of public policies, but the administrative official is asked to implement these policies, have a

continuous communication with the citizen, and ensure the functioning of public services in a fair and

continuous manner. The public servant is perceived, and sometimes perceives himself, as the person

whose liability is institutional, rather than personal.

For Max Weber (1978), legal-rational and impersonal bureaucracy is the modern way of

organization, which translates, at the level of public administration, the principles of the functioning of

the state of right and its democratic essence. The work of public servants ensures the administrative

capacity of the state so that, the functioning of the bureaucratic system and the efficiency of the state of

right in fulfilling their own functions, has a strict and direct correlation. Bureaucracy, when functional,

ensures the efficiency of public services, their rationality and predictability. The personal power is

replaced by the institutional one, who wishes to be abstract and indifferent to the person who

temporarily occupies a specific public position. The normative system regulates the liberty of decision

and the limits of decision-making competence, with regard to each administrative position, regardless

of its form. For Weber (1978), the characteristics of functional bureaucracy are limited to the labour

division, the impersonal rules and the hierarchy (Sandu, 2015a).

Efficiency, transparency and responsibility are ethical values, generally accepted as being

compulsory for the functioning public administration to have a rational and predictable character and to

transform the structures of administration into efficient instruments in the functioning of the state of

right. In the democratic state and the state of right, the role of public administration is to transpose the

political vision of the party or majoritarian parties into instruments of governance, and therefore into

social order. Post-modern administration redefines its role as an ‘instance of mediation’ between the

citizen and politics. Public administration has a double purpose; maintaining a political position of

axiological neutrality, while showing the citizen transparency and encouragement to participate in all

stages of the public decision from adopting and implementing it to its evaluation.

In this paper we will argue the importance of a public administration centred on ethical values.

Public good, alongside justice, can be considered constitutive ethical values of any type of public

administration, and the values of equity, transparency and responsibility as ethical operational values of

a contemporary public administration system. The constitutive values make necessary the emergence

and functioning of a system of social institutions – in this case those connected to public

administration. The operational ethical values are those values that manage the functioning of an

institutional system and establish its limitations. We bring a series of arguments for replacing the

axiological distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic values with a distinction between constitutive

and operational values in the context of social-constructionist ethics development in o public


Towards values-centred ethics in public administration -constitutive and operational values

Morality is reported when establishing a desirable behaviour in a number of areas such as: good,

evil, duty, justice, injustice, and when defining a series of principles, standards, rules and norms, whose

compliance is based on the consciousness of the individual and public opinion.

The current paper is built from the perspective of a system of relativist ethics, the moral truth being

considered a social construct, resulting from negotiation of the interpretations of desirable behaviours

accepted in a particular society at a certain historical moment. In the systems of Universalist ethics, the

moral codes claim to guide the conduct of the individual, based on unique and immutable principles,

either of divine origin, or based on an a prior reasoning. In Bernard’s vision (2011), morality in a

normative sense is referred to a universal guide to behaviour, which will be plausible and adapted to

the particular conditions in which it is to be applied. In our vision, the moral truth neither has a

universal nature nor is it imposed in a transcendental manner, but has a rational basis and is accepted


The favourite area of contemporary deontology is the professional. In the professional area, the

constructions of minimal standards rationally derive from the status and role of the professional in a

particular field. The deontological norms should originate from an ethical value, which are transposed

into a moral law. The Kantian model provides such a value, namely human dignity which is translated

into the moral principle as the second formulation of the categorical imperative, which claims to treat a

human being as purpose and never as means. Achieving this imperative requires the capacity of the

individual to rationally establish behaviour so that their own moral norm stands as a moral law for


Kant (1993; 2015) also shows how to implement ethical values, namely expressing the autonomy –

the decisional one on a rational basis – of the individual, as a form of developing his own good will and

moral reasoning. The construction of current professional deontologies should target precisely the

identification of constitutive values that underlie the emergence of that profession or organization, as

well as that of the operational values which underlie the functioning of such organizations (Sandu,

Caras (Frunza), 2014). The constitutive and operational values should be operationalized into ethical

principles of professional practice that must be met, for the practice to be efficient and, at the same

time, moral.

Ethical values and ethical principles - a few conceptual qualifications

Any establishment of rules is based on the defence of values and its transformation from an act of

culture intoa social act. Value is a quasi-transcendental structure which apodictically imposes on the

consciousness, meaning before reasoning.. Another Understanding of the origin of the value can be the

constructionist view, according to which ethical truth is a social and communicational construct,

generated as a negotiation of the interpretations between actors (moral agents). In ethical

constructionism we no longer talk about moral natural law, of natural law in general, but of moral

pact.This is somehow similar to the theory of social contract (Sandu, 2015a). Kluckhohn and

Strodtbeck (1961) consider that the values are complex principles (but certainly patterned) which result

from the interaction of three analytically distinct elements of the evaluative process: cognitive,

affective and directive, which give order and direction to the constant flow of human acts and thoughts

as they relate to the solution of common human problems. Many of the definitions of values, such as

the one offered by Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck (1961), consider them as principles of a high degree of

complexity. Other approaches (Baron, Spranca, 1997) consider that the values are deontological rules

and prescriptions referring to action or inaction. This overlap between values, principles and

prescriptions generally occurs, especially when the legislator unites into one principle, two or more

values. This is also the case with the Code of Conduct of the public servant in Romania, which brings

together honesty and fairness in a principle, according to which exercising the public function and the

work-related attributions should be done in good faith. As it is formulated, the principle aims to

transpose two values: honesty and fairness, in a social practice – good faith. Unfortunately, good faith

is also a value and not a way of implementing values.

The overlap between the values and principles has a metaphysical origin. The principle has an

originator and a primary character. The religious philosophical literature often talks about the principle

of greater good with reference to the Divinity. We argue that there is a pragmatic distinction between

value and principle, at least at an ethical level. Value has an immaterial and inoperable nature and is, in

general, the answer to the question: Why do we do a certain action? In Kantian terms, value represents

the purpose of action, but also its foundation. The principle operationalizes value in the area of social

action, being somehow included in the area of means. If we consider the value of human dignity and

the principle of defending human dignity, we observe that the value subsides even if the principle

becomes inoperative due to various social factors. The dignity of the human being subsides the failure

of defending it, due to the incapacity of political-administrative system. The principle of defending

human dignity raises instrumental questions, ‘How can the human being’s dignity can be defended’?,

and structural-operational ones, ‘What are the components of the human being bearing human dignity,

that must be defended?’. The answer to these questions can generate debates referring to the violation

(or not) of human dignity in the case of experiments on human embryos, on totipotent stem cells andon

the morality of postnatal abortion, etc. All these discussions are based on the presumption of Kantian

inspiration- about how dignity resides in the rational capacity of the human being or in their awareness

of self-interest. Thus defined, dignity in relation to self-consciousness has a limit of functioning of the

human dignity defence principle. This can be considered by those who believe that dignity resides in

the human species as being able to be extended towards the potential beings. An artificially created

embryo which is not implanted is such a potential being, with zero chances of becoming a human

being. In none of these examples of the principle of defending human dignity, do we dispute the value

of human dignity, but only the limitations of the practical applicability of the principle meant to defend


The value becomes essence. An ethical value is something which deserves to be transposed to the

level of the social action. The origin of value can reside in itself or the other, which leads to the

distinction between inherent values and the instrumental ones. The social-constructionist perspective

proposed here s has an anti-essential nature, showing that the values are social constructs which result

in the act of communication as a negotiation of the interpretations that the subjects give to a ‘clipping

from reality’. Dignity can be seen as such a clipping from reality, which defines and reifies a series of

behaviours, based on certain previously built generative laws and also through interpretative

agreement. The interpretative agreement is a long-term process which is completed on different plans

called ‘instances of the social construction’. We therefore refer to an ‘instance’ which leads to an

interpretative agreement regarding the value (one referring to practice, and the other referring to ontos)

which establishes the meaning of that clipping from reality. For dignity, the ontological instance

generates definitions, including the context in which its defence is necessary. The axiological instance

places dignity in the constellation of human values, and the pragmatic instance establishes the ways of

transposing the value in social practice. These instances are generic, unintentional, being mechanisms

of the social construction of reality. These mechanisms large, comprising the content of the social

interaction which ensures the interpretative drift of the concepts in different social contexts. The

axiological failure of a value – namely its deposition in the constellation of values – causes the

principle generated for its implementation to become inoperable. For example, the decline of the value

of loyalty – constitutive in the ethics of medieval policy – makes the principle of duty towards the

sovereign inoperable in the political ethics and public administration. Loyalty suffers from a

deconstruction on the ontological axis (Sandu, Caras, 2013; Sandu, 2015b), from duty towards the

sovereign, to the attachment to values and the institutions which transpose those values in social

practice. We therefore refer to the loyalty of the consumer towards a brand and also the obligation of

loyalty of the public servant towards the institution to which he belongs.

Constitutive ethical values versus operational ethical values

The scientific literature makes a distinction (Moore, 1922) between the intrinsic values and the

instrumental ones. The intrinsic values are those which reside in themselves, and are therefore values.

The instrumental values are those gaining value only in their relationship with the intrinsic ones.

Morally, we can say that good can be considered a value in itself, while charity may stand as an

instrumental value in the relation to the supreme value of good. The intrinsic-instrumental distinction in

defining the values is tributary to the essentialist paradigm of ethics, according to which a moral value

exists in itself and for itself and a moral behaviour can be oriented towards a prior established practical

reason. For Kant, dignity of the individual is a universal value which can be considered intrinsic to the

human being. The philosophy of human rights is based on this intrinsic value of human dignity, as well

as the bioethical theories referring to the sacredness of human life. If dignity is an intrinsic value of the

human subject, it can be legitimately extended to the human being in the embryonic stage. This is

where large discussions emerge, regarding the moral unacceptability of abortion, experiments on

human embryos and also cloning. This essentialist vision is questioned (Schroeder, 2012), showing that

there are values which are intrinsic by their nature, but which cannot exist in relation to other objects.

The intrinsic good of a value may not reside in the object carrying the value, without this decreasing its

value or turning it into an instrumental value. Robert Elliot showed that nature as a whole should be

considered as an intrinsic value, since its own value resides in nature itself, but this value could be

manifested only in relation to different objects that exist in nature, including the human species. If we

reduced nature to its instrumental value – of the environment of the development of the human species

– we could justify the claim of other values, for example the economic ones, to have axiological

priority. The intrinsic values have an axiological constituent in the virtue of their own properties. The

instrumental values have no axiological substance in themselves, but in their capacity to lead to

achievement – to make exist – other values with intrinsic character. The intrinsic values therefore have

axiological priority over the instrumental ones, while the latter have an ontological priority, since they

bring the former ones to life.

Christine Korsgaard (1983) showed that this distinction can be thought of in the sense of being

between values – purpose and values –mean, therefore we adhere to the categorical imperative and the

last value of the human individual. The ontological priority of the instrumental values ahead of the

intrinsic ones is matched by the axiological priority of the intrinsic values, which leads to an aporia and

implicitly to the deconstruction of the claim of universality of the very intrinsic values. Following the

deconstruction in different constructive instances (Sandu, Caras, 2013; Caras (Frunza), 2014), we

consider useful the distinction between constitutive values, those values which lead to the emergence of

a social institution and operational values, as values which guide the functioning of that institution

(Caras (Frunza), Sandu, 2014/not-found$; Sandu, Caras (Frunza), 2014). The distinction proposed overcomes the

inconveniences of dividing the values into intrinsic and instrumental by taking into consideration the

nature of social construct of any form of value. Once developed, a value – in a process of negotiation of

interpretations and of establishing values – becomes constitutive for different social institutions. In the

process of functioning of the social institution, values are generated through communicative action and

transformed into principles of good practice. Both the constitutive and operational values can have an

axiological dual status of both intrinsic and instrumental values. The value of public good, for example,

can be considered as being constitutive for modern administrative systems, but also as having an

intrinsic nature within the discursive universe of the administrative system. Public good can be, at the

same time, an instrumental value since it is done within public systems. The instrumental value doesn’t

undermine the nature of the constitutive value since public good is being established with the

administrative system. The relationship between constitutive and operational values is derived at an

ontological level without the existence of an axiological subordination between them. The two types of

values operate on different levels of the social reality, the same value being both constitutive and

operational in different levels of social reality. Referring to the constitutive values, the scientific

literature (Moss, 2009) includes them in the intrinsic values, taking into account their generative nature.

Starting from Korsgaard’s distinction (1983) between intrinsic and extrinsic values classified on the

resource of value, Moss (2009) observes that the intrinsic values may or may not have an instrumental

character. Ackrill (1997) introduces the idea of constitutive values (constituent in Ackrill’s terms)

which are described as values oriented towards something, without being a meaning for that something.

In this regard, the value of equality may have a constitutive character for the public good, but, at the

same time, have its own intrinsic value. The model proposed here, being based on a constructionist

relational theory, completely rules out the intrinsic or extrinsic character of the value, since there can

be no value not constituted through an agreement on the interpretations, assigned by communicative

actors. A value pre-existing the pact of language should be apodictic and unrelated, in any form, to the

act of language that institutes it. Such language, if it exists, can have no connection to the

communicative action, therefore also to the moral action. That value would really be transcendental in

the Kantian sense, but impossible to constitute for practical reasoning. The constructionist waiving to

essentialism - although starting from suspending the distinction between the thing itself and the

phenomenon, and from the phenomenological reduction, taking into account the post-modern

experience of the deconstruction of meta-narrations – completely eliminates the transcendental

character of values and the claim of values not to be constituted in the context of the communicative

action. The neo-empirical approach can be overcome through the proposed distinction, between

constitutive and operational values which, based on introducing the idea of plurality of the social

worlds which derives one from the other, make possible that, for a given world, a value to have a

constitutive character, without the value being directly immanent to that social world.

Public good can be considered a constitutive value for each administrative system, but will not

appear as such in the discourse referring to the ethics of public administration, but rather as operational

drifts meant to institute it (Caras (Frunza), Sandu, 2014/not-found$; Sandu, Caras (Frunza), 2014). The operational

values can, in turn, be expressed as having an intrinsic character for the level of reality in which that

institution is constituted and functions. They can be addressed as ‘essence’ for that communicational

universe whose limits it establishes. Their value is derived from the constitutive one which, however, is

in another level of discourse. Given the ambiguity of using the concepts of intrinsic-extrinsic in the

constructionist perspective discussed, we consider it necessary to give up the distinction between

intrinsic-extrinsic as being congruent to the model of social reality communicatively constructed. The

distinction can further be operational in other social ontologies, other than the semiotic-constructionist

(Sandu, 2015b).

We suggest the model of the distinction between constitutive values and operational values, where

the former underlie the emergence of a professional social system and the latter serve as the base of

their functioning. In our vision, the principles transpose the values in social practice, being the glue

between deontic axiological and the social practice.

The term ethical axiologic generally means the world of moral values and, in the context of

professional ethics, the ethical constitutive values of that profession. In the practice of regulating the

standards of ethics, we establish the (operational) value simultaneously with the principle which

includes them, being usually followed by an explanation of their social applicability (Sandu, Caras

(Frunza), 2014; Caras (Frunza), Sandu, 2014; Caras (Frunza), 2014).

In our opinion, the transition from values to principles is based on a deconstructive-reconstructive

process which makes the transition from the ethical universal to the social particular (Sandu, Caras,

2013; Caras (Frunza), 2014). Honesty and fairness are sometimes combined in a principle, according to which, expressing the public function and the service tasks must be performed in good faith1. In such

expression, the principle is imprecise and unclear. It aims to transpose two values: honesty and

fairness, in practice through a third value and not through an operational manner.

1 See the Code of Conduct of Public Servants in Romania, established by Law no. 7/2004 regarding the code of conduct of the public servant, and was first published in the Official Gazette of Romania, part I, no. 157 from 23.02.2004, republished in the Official Gazette of Romania, part I, no. 525 from 2.08.2007.

Social construction of ethical values

The constructionist perspective, just like the postmodern one, talks about a relativization of ethical

values, understood as social constructs. A social construct represents the result of a negotiation of

interpretations on the meaning of a term that occurs between the communicative actors of an

interpretative community (Vladutescu, 2014). The subject retrieves constructs through various

socializing processes and transforms them into operational definitions involved in his social action.

The social construction occurs only in interpretative contexts and the operational definitions are

dependent from the context in which they were developed. The constructs, once taken, are perceived as

universal, the subject not being endorsed by the dependence of context other than following a process

of reflection with epistemic value. Good faith is an example of a construct that should signify the

congruence between action and reason of the communicative actor. In other words, this should be

guided by ethical norms, acting in the best way possible, based on the known data. It is possible that,

when acting in good faith, the effect is an undesirable one, but the moral actor cannot be held

responsible for it.

This understanding of the term of good faith overlaps with that of honour. The latter is a value

which translates good faith in the plan of action and which, from this view point, only emerges at the

level of moral reason. As such, we consider good faith as being a constitutive value, while honour can

be considered an operational value. Honour can be discussed as an internal value of moral

consciousness, only in the sense of being honest with oneself. Honesty is a value related to behaviour

as it connects the individual to the alterity. You can be honest to someone, or to yourself as own

alterity. Honesty is, therefore, an operational value translatable of responsibility. If responsibility is

always towards someone (Levinas, 1999), one builds the self in relation to Alterity. Responsibility is

the self-moving towards the other, but it must be translated through a different value in order to

understand it in the plan of social action. This value is thought of here as fairness.

Responsibility exercised with fairness underpins any communicative action since it can generate

consensus. Exercising responsibility without fairness represents a form of paternalism, a false caring

which disregards the respect given by the autonomy of the other. Openness and transparency are

synthesized in a principle according to which the activities developed by the officials are public and

can be subject to monitoring the citizens.

We formulate a point of view according to what extent each constitutive or operational value can be

assigned an affirmative and a negative principle that would lead to the fair achievement of that value.

Dignity can be achieved only by respecting certain affirmative and negative principles and prohibiting

others, for example, through doing justice and excluding injustice. The categorical imperative itself,

through its two formulations, achieves this complementarity between affirmative-negative in grounding


Establishing one’s own moral law at the highest and most universal degree constitutes, in this

opinion, the positive side, while the negative one is covered by the prohibition of using the other as

means. The deontological codes should establish a minimum level of moral acceptability and conduct

of an individual and the standards of ethical performance should propose ‘professional virtues’ as

moral laws and, as such, should be synthesized into complex ethical codes including values, principles

and good practices. In practice we can find deontological codes which refer to both undesirable

behaviours and their sanctioning, as well as acceptable values and morally desirable behaviour.

Establishing ethics is basically done in order to avoid malpractice and its associated sanctions, and not

from a real development of social responsibility. Social responsibility is a legitimate structure (Bortun,

2014) used for image, rather than a real adherence to the constitutive ethical values that made necessary

the emergence of a social institution, in the broad sense of social structure, which introduces rules and

operates thereafter.


We can consider the functioning of public administration as being centred on the values of public

good, dignity, equity, responsibility and transparency. The values can be classified as constitutive and

operational, replacing the traditional inherent and instrumental values. The constitutive values are those

which lead to the emergence of an institution or are aggregated by social institutions, while the

operational values guide the functioning of the institutions within their limitations. The values are

transposed into social practice; we are supporting the primacy of the values facing the principles

strictly from the perspective of their social construction. We have shown the existence of three

constructive frameworks of values, the ontological, which shows the substrate and the context of value,

the axiological framework in itself, which highlights the relationship between a given value and the

other ethical values, and thirdly, the pragmatic framework, which shows ways of implementing the

values into social practice. The ethical principles are socially built only at the level of the third

constructive axis of axiological nature.


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