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Selflessness and Motivation for Ethical Behavior


Over the past few decades, corporate public sector scandals have become rampant, which leaves many people to question why the available rules cannot prevent unethical behavior. Some ethical breaches often tend to violate organizational formal rules. However, others can be perceived as falling within a dangerous grey area or an ambiguous territory in which it becomes difficult to judge (Scholl et al., 2016). In other words, some actions undertaken by personnel within the corporate or public administration may fall within the organizational laws, and yet they can still be regarded as unethical. Therefore, it is important to understand the reason why people behave the way they do and to examine what can be done to change the situation.

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The focus of this paper will be to examine how selflessness can be the solution to unethical behavior. The argument presented will be that to reduce immoral conduct and maintain a healthy relationship between individuals and society, there is a need to be ethical. Therefore, selflessness and motivation for ethical behavior will be the key themes discussed.

Selflessness is particularly important for leadership because organizational leaders are the ones who can instill a sense of ethics in their followers. Most importantly, the leaders are also the ones in a position to act unethically and cause major scandals. According to Lloyd (2019), the challenges that leadership poses to individuals include self-interest, problems of ego, and the temptations of power. The concept of selflessness entails being empathetic and putting the needs of other people first.

Additionally, selfless leadership means overcoming the temptations to pursue selfish interests at the expense of other people, including society at large. Selfless leadership has also been shown to be the ethical foundation for leadership, meaning that the first step toward achieving ethical behavior in the public administration system is by instilling selflessness among the leaders.

Immoral conduct in public administration is an important issue because it undermines the delivery of public services and causes other problems that affect the people. For example, the inappropriate use of public resources deprives people of key services. The many scandals that have taken place have had some negative implications for the general public. From a theoretical perspective, the causes of immoral or unethical conduct include self-interested behavior. The public choice theory (PCT) was developed in the second half of the 20th century to help outline standard economic assumptions regarding human behavior in public administration and political processes.

The PCT is aligned with the rational choice theory, meaning that the PCT posits that elected and unelected public officials are rational beings who seek to maximize their utility (Zamir & Sulitzeanu-Kenan, 2017). Therefore, it can be argued that the history of unethical behavior in public administration spans several decades with scholarly interests arising throughout the second half of the 20th century. Regardless of when ethical behavior became a matter of public interest, it is apparent that selfishness is the key contributing factor to immoral conduct.

The current sociopolitical environment has focused majorly on addressing the determinants of ethical behavior in public organizations where a comparison between leadership and rules is made. In other words, it has been expressed that immoral behaviors occur even when there are rules governing the conduct of personnel. Scholars have expressed that there is a better alternative in leadership, which fosters ethical conduct in corporate and public administration systems (Downe et al., 2016).

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The question of what motivates ethical behavior can be examined in terms of exploring the contributions that ethical leadership makes toward promoting moral conduct. The leaders can create and maintain an ethical culture using various skills and approaches, an aspect that the law has failed to achieve. Therefore, one of the key values that should be prioritized to prevent scandals and ethical breaches is effective leadership.

Another key concept that needs exploration is motivation because the research topic also seeks to understand what motivates ethical behavior. Several theories and frameworks have been developed to help understand this concept, including McClelland’s need theory. There is a need to understand the processes of motivation and the responses to ethical conflicts as suggested by Scholl et al. (2016). One of the theories that will be highlighted in this paper is the moral utility theory described by Hirsh et al. (2018), which draws ideas from economics, psychology, neuroscience, and organizational behavior.

The theory posits that people’s brain intuitively estimates the utilities of their actions and that the level of utility of unethical actions can be judged by the degree of guilt that the individuals can feel. Therefore, the need for people to be ethical can be approached from both the element of selflessness and motivation for ethical behavior. The role of ethical leadership cannot be underestimated, especially when considering that leading by example, reinforcing ethics, rewarding ethical behavior, and developing personal codes can all be a means by which ethical leadership can be manifested.

Discussion and Analysis

The ethical breaches that have taken place over the past decades are evidence of the failure of individuals to embrace good conduct through the prioritization of self-interests. According to Belle and Cantarelli (2017), adherence to high standards of moral conduct is inherent in the missions of public entities because their main purpose is to serve the public interests. Both elected and non-elected public officials need to make sure that they develop good relationships between the government institutions and society. However, such a feat cannot be achieved when the leaders in these organizations, or even other personnel, engage in unethical conduct.

The main purpose of this section is to describe why ethical breaches are important in public administration, their causes, and how the modern sociopolitical environment affects the ethical problem. Additionally, it has been proposed that only by being ethical can ethical problems be solved. Therefore, this section will explore how people can behave ethically, where selflessness and motivation for ethical behavior are explored. Ethical leadership is also discussed as one of the key values and means to resolve unethical behavior in public entities.

Ethics in Public Administration

Public administration in the modern world is a particularly sensitive subject that causes polarization in the public domain. Since the 1880s, public administration majorly focused on pursuing efficiency and effectiveness and, at the same time, balancing the conflicting tenets of equality and democracy. Such scholars as Alkadry et al. (2017) state that the officials tended to use the technical-rationality approach, which ignored the influence of context, history, and politics.

The approach has been regarded as the ethic of getting things done, meaning that the outcomes were valued more than other aspects, including consideration for how people and groups could be left vulnerable. In a democratic context, it becomes apparent that the mode of administration adopted deployed will have a direct implication on the delivery of services to the public, which can also help explain why sensitive issues and scandals arise. Considering the complexity of public service, it can be argued that only ethical leaders can help improve the quality of public services and prevent fraudulent activities from taking place.

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Unethical behavior in the public administration system is a major problem for modern democratic societies that rely on government institutions to safeguard their wellbeing. A question of what causes unethical behavior has been explored by several scholars where a consensus has been reached that personal behavioral, cognitive, and psychological factors play a key role. A meta-analysis presented by Belle and Canterelli (2017) illustrates that multiple studies seem to agree that greed, social influences, egocentrism, self-view, goal-setting, time pressure, and moral reminders determine ethical or unethical behavior in public administration.

Therefore, it can be argued that once these factors have been proven scientifically the next step should be to find a means of developing interventions for these factors to make them yield positive outcomes in the context of ethical behavior. The public administration system also has several features that make it impossible to achieve the desired level of equity. Therefore, many officials are driven by greed to engage in unethical behavior as they hope to achieve fairness, including in pay differences and wealth distribution across the civil service.

As mentioned above, greed is a major factor in unethical behavior in the public administration system. Such scholars as Zamir and Sulitzeanu-Kenan (2017) have backed this position by explaining self-interested behavior among officials. Zamir and Sulitzeanu-Kenan (2017) have used the PCT model to explain that public officials are rational beings who seek to maximize their utility. Unethical behavior in public administration is usually in the form of misallocating public resources or undertaking other activities that serve them as opposed to delivering services to the people. Therefore, a personal utility is an extent to which these individuals can benefit themselves from the positions they hold in public administration.

Even with the rules and legislation, there exist grey areas where it is hard to judge whether or not a person has broken the regulations. Zamir and Sulitzeanu-Kenan (2017) explain that norms are also part of the key factors contributing to unethical behavior. In a scenario where there is a norm among officials to practice such behavior as preferential hiring, those in offices and positions of higher authority will tend to continue the practice.

Motivation for Ethical Behavior

The need for ethical behavior in public administration has been established, with the rationale being that it leads to better service delivery and prevents fraud and scandals. As expressed earlier, the causes of unethical behavior have been empirically explored, which then leaves the question of how to develop interventions that can improve ethical outcomes. Therefore, it is important to understand, as established in the thesis statement, that the best way to make people create and maintain healthy relationships between individuals in the public administration system is by being ethical. An exploration of how or what motivates ethical behavior is critical in this research.

The subject of motivating ethical behavior in public administration has received considerable attention from scholars. Scholl et al. (2016) define motivation as the factors that direct, energize, and sustain moral conduct. Additionally, ethical behavior has been described as the extent to which an action, decision, performance, or behavior meets the communicated ethical standards and values. From these definitions, it can be argued that public entities have a well-established code that governs the actions of the officials and that they have a clear distinction between acceptable and unacceptable conduct.

Despite the many theories of motivation applied to ethical conduct, it is important to appreciate that many actions of individuals are subject to their personality types. According to Hirsh et al. (2018), the moral utility theory outlines the influence of basic psychological needs and suggests that the needs are linked to the personality characteristics of an individual. Therefore, such needs as affiliation and competence have proven to be significant motivators of ethical decision-making.

Additionally, the personality types can also help explain why some individuals will be keen to be ethical. Hirsh et al. (2018) explain that sensitivity to punishment and other external sanctions determined the extent to which officials behave morally. For example, the trait of neuroticism means that greater sensitivity to punishment forces people to avoid all actions with avers outcomes. The same applies to other traits where each of them determines how individuals perceive their actions and the outcomes.

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For instance, the trait of agreeableness means that a person will be more likely to perceive the positive utility in ethical decisions and the negative utility in unethical conduct. Pride in oneself and accomplishment, the need for competence, achievement, and mastery are highlighted as some of the most basic human needs in McClelland’s needs theory. Therefore, these aspects can have a positive influence on how people view the utilities in both ethical and unethical conduct.

The subject of moral growth and its relation to ethical conduct in public administration has not received much scholarly attention. However, the available literature can be used to make inferences, including that morals are part of human existence and that they determine what is perceived as good or bad and right or wrong. According to Ondrova (2017), the morality of actions is judged from the perspective of the values, which requires actions to be morally reasonable. In public administration, morality is a critical element because society creates and upholds values, which are then used to assess the morality of the decisions and conduct of public officials. Therefore, it can be argued that moral growth entails the development of the right attitudes and behaviors founded on cultural norms, rules, values, and laws.


The concept of selflessness has been studied in the context of virtue ethics and professional ethical traits in the context of public administration. In essence, selflessness is used to describe one of the primary qualities of a servant leader, meaning that the concepts are best understood from a leadership perspective. An argument can be made that the people serving in public offices are leaders or public servants, which justifies the notion that selflessness applies mostly to leadership. According to Coetzer et al. (2017), the ethical behavior and decision-making of an administrator are rooted in the inherent professional virtues, including selflessness and accountability for one’s conduct and actions.

The pursuit of selfish interest has been described as one of the primary motives for unethical behavior. Therefore, it can easily be argued that reversing selfishness can have the desired effect of making officials more ethical in their behaviors and decision-making. The PCT theory can also be used in this context, majorly because it has been used to successfully predict politics and governmental decisions. Zamir and Sulitzeanu-Kenan (2017) argue that behavioral findings indicate that people do not always seek to maximize their utility, which means that even well-intentioned people can also violate the code of ethics.

However, reversing selfishness is a subject that has not been explored, which only leaves room for speculation regarding whether or not people can be made to perceive the utility of ethical behavior as being greater than that of unethical behavior. The key point is that because greed and egocentrism are among the factors causing unethical conduct, the opposite of these actions and behaviors will yield positive outcomes in terms of ethics. Therefore, selflessness is proposed in this research as one of the key ways to make people behave ethically.

Lastly, it is important to express the need for empathy as a key feature of selflessness in public administration leadership. According to Rasmussen (2019), empathy has emerged as one of the most effective leadership traits because it helps leaders to understand to better serve their followers. In public administration, selfless leaders are those who acknowledge that their positions in society are supposed to help them serve people, meaning they should put society’s interests before their own.

Most importantly, empathetic leadership also instills the same behavior and attitude among followers. Therefore, it could be presupposed that selfless leadership in public administration builds a culture of empathy and selflessness, which could allow the entire system to function morally. Selflessness can be a personality trait or a cultural value upheld by the broader society. Therefore, ethical leaders and public administrators may be required to display this trait in conduct and decision-making.

Ethical Leadership

Many of the corporate and public administration scandals that have taken place in history have involved leaders focusing on personal gain. Such sentiment has been reiterated by several scholars, including Sanders et al. (2018), who explain that ethical leadership could help prevent such incidents. The basic idea is that where the moral identity of a person is more central to the sense of self, it becomes more important for that individual to act morally. In other words, moral identity is a key motivator for ethical behavior. The focus on ethical leadership stems from the fact that leaders in public administration are responsible for the behaviors and conduct of all city workers. An ethical leader not only acts ethically but also instills the same attitude in others in the public administration system.

Ethical leaders can help improve ethical behavior in the public administration system in several ways. Leading by example is one of the many mechanisms through which moral conduct is propagated throughout the workplace (Downe et al., 2016). Leaders are expected to set an example for others, which results in inspiration for others to emulate the behavior. Downe et al. (2016) state that there is supposed to be no gap between the words and actions of a leader. In ethical leadership, role modeling entails setting and maintaining standards of public service. Therefore, leading by example can be developed into a cultural norm, which will have the effect of facilitating ethical actions and decision-making across the entire public administration system.

Ethical leadership in the public administration system should also be responsible for reinforcing ethics. Downe et al. (2016) suggest that leaders should act on individuals, which means persuading them to maintain high standards of ethical conduct. Such an attempt may include working informally to resolve conflicts and addressing other issues that have an ethical bearing on them. The scandals in public administration will become bad publicity for both the individuals and the organizations. Where the leaders are not part of the incidents, it can still be argued that the leadership has failed to instill the proper levels of ethical standards.

All fraudulent activity will most likely be blamed on the leadership, which means that reinforcing ethics should be among the top priorities of an administrator. In addition to reinforcing ethics, leaders can also undertake to reward ethical behavior as a means to motivate others to maintain the standards. According to Alkadry et al. (2017), public organizations have an explicit set of guiding principles and tend to thoroughly articulate behavioral expectations. Therefore, it can be argued that it is possible to assess ethical behavior and reward it accordingly.

Developing personal codes can be another mechanism through which ethical leadership can be achieved. The role of the code has been examined by Downe et al. (2016), who express that individuals in leadership positions shape the conduct of others by displaying better conduct. Developing a personal code of conduct is, therefore, an excellent way in which a leader can implement ethical leadership and inspire others. Even though the organizations have guiding principles and codes of ethics, as stated by Alkadry et al. (2017), ethical leaders can seek to further improve their conduct by developing and maintaining a personal code of conduct.

In addition to personal codes, the leaders must develop and implement ethical laws and regulations that can be used by the rest of the organizations. It has been expressed that some scholars have noted the inability of the rules and regulations to hinder immoral conduct. Therefore, it can be argued that these laws have serious gaps that should be addressed through effective leadership.

Conclusion and Final Thoughts

The focus of this paper has been to examine how scandals and unethical behavior can be prevented in the public administration system. The thesis statement proposes that the only way for public administrators to maintain a healthy relationship with society is by being ethical.

Therefore, an understanding is ethics in the public administration system has been deemed to be important. The discussion and analysis section of this paper has comprehensively articulated the need for ethics in public administration and how to achieve moral conduct. It has been expressed that in the modern democratic society, the approach used by officials in the public administration to deliver public services will be based on the extent to which they meet the social and cultural norms. The technical-rational approach that has been historically used, even though it can leave some groups of people vulnerable, has helped achieve the conclusion that even actions within the law can raise ethical concerns.

Scandals and other serious fraudulent incidents in public administration have been used to explain why ethical behaviors are necessary for public administration. Most importantly, an examination of the causes of unethical conduct reveals that the individuals and their traits determine how they act. The reasons are often personal, which include greed, egocentrism, and self-view. However, external factors have also been highlighted, including moral reminders and social influences. With the causes established, the next question becomes how public administrators can be motivated to behave ethically.

Three elements have been discussed in this paper to show how ethical behavior can be promoted. First, the motivation for ethical behavior used the theories and systems of motivation to explain how individual behaviors can be tuned to achieve positive outcomes. Such theories as PCT and moral utility explain the individual attitudes and perceptions toward ethical behavior. It has been explained that those that recognize positive utility in ethical behavior and negative utility in unethical behavior will be more likely to conduct themselves morally. Additionally, the PCT theory suggests that the extent to which people engage in unethical behavior depends on the level of guilt they can feel.

Other elements discussed in the paper as aids to ethical behavior include selflessness and ethical leadership. The main argument is that if selfish interests cause unethical behavior, then selfless reverses the conduct to ethical. Additionally, ethical leadership seeks to set the right examples, reinforce ethics, reward ethical behavior, and develop personal codes to facilitate ethical behavior.

The final thought is that public administration gives people a position of power, which can be exploited for personal gains. The individuals serving in such offices can only be hoped to be ethical because the rules and laws do not seem adequate in preventing scandals and fraudulent activity. Leadership has a critical role to play because only leaders can inspire others to become ethical. Individuals can decide on whether or not to conduct themselves morally. Therefore, personal traits are among the most effective tools to explain unethical behavior. Additionally, people can be motivated to be ethical, which means that public administration can be made better.


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