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University of Alabama Press
Justice and Public Administration / Edition 1

Justice and Public Administration / Edition 1

by Charles F. Abel


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Justice and Public Administration / Edition 1

Justice and Administration is an ambitious effort to grapple with justice as a theoretical component of the practice of public administration, yet with sufficient theoretical power to be meaningful in philosophy, political studies, and sociology.
The time is ripe for such an effort, as the questions that gather under the labels of modernity, the postmodern and critical theory now transcend a single discipline. The work of John Rawls on justice in public life has had a generation of influence on scholarship, and this work seems to have a high degree of likelihood of making meaningful statements on these questions in the field.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 2900817315848
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 10/21/2007
Edition description: 1
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 1.50(h) x 9.50(d)

About the Author

Charles F. Abel is Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Administration at Stephen F. Austin State University. He is the coauthor of The Justification of Political Trials and Punishment and Restitution: A Restitutionary Approach to Crime and the Criminal, and Dependency Theory and the Return of High Politics.
Arthur J. Sementelli is Associate Professor of Public Administration at Florida Atlantic University and coauthor of Evolutionary Critical Theory and its Role in Public Affairs.

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Justice and Public Administration



Copyright © 2007 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-1584-9

Chapter One


It is an accepted though not an especially popular belief that Public Administration is, at bottom, a political endeavor. That the governmental policies actually experienced are those interpretations of law, executive orders, and judicial decisions that have been both made and put into practice by public administrators, is so obvious that professions of shock at the idea are hard to credit. It is no secret, in the circles where public administrators forgather, that the interpretation of any given charge requires administrators to not only identify and prioritize the social values that are at stake, but to make some very hard choices when those values come into conflict. Briefly, administrators fashion policy and make value choices. And in the process they set the precedents and compose implicitly the rationales for government intervention and practice (Yates, 1981).

Now, in a democracy, "the first obligation of the appointive official or bureaucrat is to be explicit about the value premises and implications of public decisions" (Yates, 1981, p. 306). In our particular sort of democracy, public officials must sooner or later justify both the design and the implementation of their practices in moral terms. Unfortunately, scholars and practitioners seem to pay insufficient attention to the justification of both the administrator's interpretations of policy and the value choices that he or she makes. Some suggest that this may be due to the fact that we, as a society, lack a firmly rooted public philosophy. As a consequence, virtually no constraints or normative principles exist to guide governmental action or inaction (Yates, 1981). Others discuss how neither theorists nor practitioners in Public Administration regularly examine the bothersome tension between what is beneficial contextually and what is good overall (Schon, 1983). As a result, administrators tend to choose interpretations and to prioritize values heuristically (Lind, Kulik, Ambrose, & Park, 1993), or impressionistically, or with regard to what is most expedient, or with regard to satisfying the demands of the most persistently vocal publics. In the process, they often fail to identify with any precision exactly what needs to be justified; nor do they consider in any depth exactly how competing values and claims might be either pursued in tandem, or balanced against one another, or defined acceptably to disparate individuals and groups.

The Need for an Administrative Concept of Justice

So, in the end, we in the profession of Public Administration too often merely advocate the use of just practices (Pops & Pavlak, 1991) without having a truly developed, truly applicable understanding of what justice is within the sphere of our own endeavor. In this state of affairs, when impelled to justification, we as administrators and as theorists often rush to borrow concepts and principles from political, economic, and management theory. Sometimes we point to the studies of psychologists, sociologists, and the decision sciences to garner evidence for what we may at least claim works, even if it is not recognizably just. As these expedients seem to serve the moment, and as we gain some legitimacy from this practice (Myer & Rowan, 1977), administrative justice, though considered a good idea all around, remains an unknown ideal.

Now, because it remains an unknown ideal, all of our pointing and borrowing is ultimately unsatisfactory. Perhaps the most important reason that justice remains an unknown ideal is that when it is considered abstractly, it is an essentially contested concept (Gallie, 1956, p. 169). It is a term, "the proper use of which inevitably involves endless disputes about its proper uses on the part of its users" (p. 169). The disputes are inevitable and endless because the term is "appraisive, complex, open in meaning, [and] explicable in terms of its parts, so that selecting from among the mutually exclusive meanings of necessity entails the adoption of particular values and world views" (p. 169). The disputes, then, are about the essence or central meaning of the term itself. And people put up with this endless altercation because the contest over its meaning is both indispensable to the usefulness of the term, and inherent to the very ways that the concept is used. Anyone using the word justice, for example, who does not recognize why others use it differently, does not understand the full implications of the term. And as the diverging goals and values that are stressed by the different uses of the term remain important dimensions of the concept, the continual contesting of the term's meaning ensures a continuing critical discourse over how justice is best attained.

Consider, by way of example, the Platonic opinion that justice may only be realized in a republican community where harmony-by which he meant conformity and coercion-rids us of "the more warlike and cynical images of justice" (Solomon & Murphy, 2000, p. 11), among which he counted Thrasymachus's image of justice as the interests of the strong (Plato, 1993, chap. 1). Well, as much as we might protest either definition, each simply represents an opinion about which parts of the concept are most important in the different contexts in which the term is used. And as the term is appraisive, they simply differ over which values, represented by the different parts, and should be stressed in order to use the term properly. Succinctly put, coercion, interest, and conformity are simply rearranged, assigned to different actors, and prioritized differently to define and to redefine the concept. These parts are not lost, but simply rearranged yet again, in the Rawlsian community of justice; where a veil of ignorance coerces conformity save only to the extent that it serves the interests of the weak (Rawls, 1971). Nor are they lost in the Nozickian community where a just starting position coerces conformity to any distribution of goods that is harmonized by the subsequent free exchanges of consenting adults (Nozick, 1977). Nor are they lost in either the endless number of bounded Walzerian communities that coerce conformity to their peculiar communitarian meanings of justice, or the complex justice that he supposes will harmonize the overall outcome as each of us receives benefits in one sphere that we are denied in another (Walzer, 1983).

So, when current philosophers bemoan the fact that our understanding of justice has not evolved so very much beyond the notions of proffered by Rawls and Nozick, what they are really saying is that we have not progressed much beyond Plato. We are simply continuing the endless dispute over how the term ought to be used most properly in the abstract. And, for philosophers, this may be considered quite a jolly state of affairs. After all, pointing around at all of the different uses of the term is great fun, and it helps us to appreciate the complexity and nuance of the goals and values that are being sought when it comes to interpreting laws and choosing among values. However, all of this pointing and borrowing will not help us to discover what we administrators mean by the term just, since we don't really know what it (the word just) means at this moment; we only know how it works in our current administrative practices. The meaning of the goals and values of justice in Pubic Administration will take on a definite sense only as we develop that meaning through living out the administrative discourses, administrative practices, and administrative power struggles into which we weave the term (Gallie, 1956; Wittgenstein, 1953).

And it is important that we come to a definite sense of what we mean by justice in Public Administration if we are to take a meaningful role in the public discourse concerning justice. Justice is pursued in the public realm, not by an unswerving impulse to a visionary ideal, nor by a popular vote, but by pursuing all of the dimensions of all of the term's varying uses, more or less simultaneously, through an intentional ambiguity structured into public institutions. This structured- in ambiguity insures an awareness of the achievement's complexity among those with different values and goals; and the bureaucratic pressure of opposing interpretations insures that all dimensions of the concept are at least addressed. Structured- in ambiguity, then, is one very practical way of attaining as much of what we all can agree to as being just outcomes (e.g., justice as equality, justice as recognition of merit, justice as fulfilling needs) as is possible given our diversity. But if Public Administration has no concept of its own, it has nothing to add and so it has no voice reminding others of what its practitioners actually experience as they go about living with the results of interpreting and choosing on the bases of how others understand the concept.

Our Approach

By now, it should be quite apparent to a reader that there is more happening here than simply confusion about what is just. The discourses and inter changes among groups in the public realm can best be understood as language- games (Wittgenstein, 1953) and symbolic behaviors signaling, not the disintegration of the concept (Baudrillard, 1994) but the growth of its nuance given the changing forms of social life into which it is woven.

Unfortunately, in current administrative scholarship we are left most often with reflections, critiques, and transmutations of the Platonic (Dahl, 1991), which are then appended to conceptions of the proper roles of authority (Golembiewski, 1961), used to accessorize many different ideals of the good society, and conformed to some broad discussion of a public sphere. Rather than advancing the study of justice with our own voice, we find ourselves consistently returning to these well-traveled routes, these very abstract, but established views of justice. And because we have no voice of our own, we are simply left with the problem that everyone's understanding of justice still falls short (Somers, 1995). This makes any sort of integrated development of justice, practice, and theory difficult if not impossible-given the manner in which scholars are currently developing theory. Even in the realm of critical theory, with its contemporary concerns about many of the missing dimensions among the classical and modern conceptions of justice, we find that our understanding of what is just remains woefully underdeveloped. For these reasons it is imperative that we develop our voice and thereby a more thorough understanding of justice that reflects both the modern artifacts and postmodern realities of our world.

To this end, rather than continually bobbing about in the realm of pure theory, or simply reapplying existing conceptions, we hope to develop a different understanding of justice, one that might be more useful to administrative theory and practice. In this book we explore the conventional views and their underlying assumptions, and raise questions of the usefulness and workability of such conceptions in Public Administration. This, in turn, enables us to offer a more dynamic understanding of justice, moving toward something that is not simply a heuristic or an atheoretical function of some specific application of choices. Instead, we hope to enrich the understanding of justice, and offer mechanisms for understanding this essentially contested concept, its evolution, and its place in an emerging condition of postmodernity (Lyotard, 1999). Making justice function in light of a postmodern condition, where symbols, language, and politics often supersede action, intent, and belief, is important. When issues become formed and driven by images, where practices can evolve and become totally separate from reality, and where problems become recast continually in ever- changing language- games (Wittgenstein, 1953), there is a special need to understand how we can justify practices and choices in some practical way. Without some practical understanding of justice, we are often left with denatured solutions that only fit some contemporary political agenda, rather than the problem itself. Toward this end, we carefully explore, examine, and contextualize the abstract, normative, and pragmatic ideas of justice, arriving at a theoretical construct that can explain what justice is, or at least why the term is used in certain ways, in our contemporary society.

We understand that any concept of justice will remain essentially contested. Nevertheless, we hope to provide the reader with a concept that is not only useful in Public Administration, but also achievable, fluid, and decidedly community- dependent. Toward this end, and as does Aristotle, we argue that justice can be understood only as emerging from a community of shared interests (Aristotle, 1948, pp. 20-21). Unlike Aristotle, we are not tied to the idea that there is, or needs to be, a single community of interests. Rather there are a number of prevailing communities of interests, each of whose members recognize the same parts of the justice concept, and each of whose members understand how and why each of the others is prioritizing the parts differently. This enables us to see justice not as a static concept derivative of the way things should be according to the dictates of nature, or God, or reason, but as a dynamic, conflicted, and changing phenomenon that is a function of ever- changing relationships in a society.

More specifically, we will try to show that the concept of justice in all of our prevailing language-games, as constructed by the prevailing communities of shared interests in our society, involves a claim that one's interests deserve attention when it comes to dividing up social goods and services. This being so, justice has meaning only in the public realm of speech and action. In that realm, different uses of the term may be presented and negotiated into the language-game of that realm. But to be successfully negotiated in, to constitute a legitimate use of the term, all such uses must be intelligible; and intelligibility rests upon family resemblances to the ways the term has been previously used. Thus, although there is not any single form (in the Platonic sense) that legitimizes any specific use of the word, there is nevertheless a genealogical relationship linking each intelligible use of justice with all other current and previous uses.

In brief, although the scope of what justice means is undetermined, all uses, to be intelligible, must be linked through connections which may fade, but which still provide a distinguishable trail (Wittgenstein, 1953). Consequently, the meaning of justice in each of the prevailing communities of interests in our society is necessarily accessible to each of the others, as is an understanding of how the values of each community accord and conflict. We will attempt to show that as there is a shared vocabulary and grammar of justice among the prevailing communities of interests, there are necessarily shared interests and values, and that the only difference is the priority given to those interests and values by each community. If this is not the case, then the claims that each community is making and the standards that they are employing for evaluating the claims of others are unintelligible to one another, and although there is "legal sanction and superior power" (Aristotle, 1948, pp. 20-21), there is no justice.

We will try to show what the prevailing communities of interests are, and why the ideas of justice they yield are those that must be attended to and are therefore superior to the most cogent philosophical alternatives. We also seek to develop the notion of why both the normative and essentially contested nature of justice are not defects. Instead, they point toward methods of use, application, and operationalization. Given such an operationalization, these conceptions of justice can further generate real questions that can be systematically evaluated, a feature allowing us to assess our progress and adjust our methods toward seeing that justice is done, especially in the context of an administrative state.

Our Method

We begin with a brief epistemological exegesis, explaining both how we intend to arrive at our concept of justice in Public Administration and why it is necessarily dependent upon the prevailing communities of interests. We then place the issue in context, sketch the distinguishing features of each prevailing community's argument for the proper way of understanding justice, discuss their respective strengths and weaknesses, and delineate how our view allows a deeper, more satisfactory understanding of justice in Pubic Administration than does any of the others. We begin with epistemological concerns primarily because administering social justice involves actually choosing just courses of action. Choosing, in turn, requires that we struggle immediately with epistemological uncertainty. A satisfying answer to the question of how we know whether the action we choose is just, for example, certainly requires some account of how we know anything at all.


Excerpted from Justice and Public Administration by CHARLES F. ABEL ARTHUR J. SEMENTELLI Copyright © 2007 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     vii
Precis     1
Epistemology     15
The Meaning of Justice within America's Broad Social Context     32
Justice and Organizations     53
The Postmodern Condition and Semiotic Justice     64
Critiquing and Contextualizing Justice     91
Semiotic Justice and Public Administration     102
References     113
Index     125

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