International Challenges and Perspectives
Edited by Jeffrey A. Raffel, Peter Leisink and Anthony E. Middlebrooks
Chapter 16: Leadership, Administrative Evil and the Ethics of Incompetence: The Failed Response to Hurricane Katrina
Guy B. Adams and Danny L. Balfour [Hurricane Katrina] . . . is a public administration case study in failure of gigantic proportions. (Ink 2006, p. 800) In pre-modern times natural disasters were believed to be acts of divine retribution, punishments for moral failure and disobedience. Science and technical rationality have banished such beliefs to the margins of modern society. Nevertheless a natural disaster can lay bare the underbelly of society and become a moral debacle in the absence of competent and ethical leadership. The disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, and subsequent revelations of the shoddy construction of levees around New Orleans, led us to consider the problem of leadership in terms of the following questions. Are acts of incompetence unethical? And do they fit within the definition of administrative evil, where one behaves according to expectations from an organizational or policy perspective and yet participates in a moral failure that results in harm to people? More broadly what is the relationship between incompetence and ethical behavior for leaders? To what extent do ethical failures underlie, or exacerbate, acts of administrative incompetence? These are important questions because, as our case study illustrates, the combination of ethical failure and incompetence appears to greatly increase the likelihood of leadership failures. In addressing these questions we first provide characterizations of evil and administrative evil, and then explain the role of technical rationality as an enabler of administrative evil. Briefly we take note of the touchstone of administrative evil, the Holocaust of World War II. Next we...
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