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Moral competence in public life

6 April 2010




This paper explores one dimension of professional skill, referred to as ‘moral competence’. This means the set of individual attributes and dispositions that make for good governance. Public institutions should either seek these attributes when recruiting or cultivate them on the job through an appropriate ethos and well-designed structural supports, which then constitute the moral competence of the institutions themselves. Winston’s working assumption on good governance is that the duties of practitioners and the nature of the polity are inextricably linked. What a practitioner should be depends crucially on what the practitioner is legitimately expected to do, and that depends on the polity. The central question, then, is what constitutes moral competence for a practitioner of democratic governance. Winston outline six generic attributes that are constituent components of the good practitioner, and variable attributes of individuals. These are not character traits or personal virtues in the ordinary sense, but qualities of those acting in their official capacities. They are requisite skills for dealing with complex institutional and political exigencies, adequate to producing certain effects in the world. Thus, we should not expect individuals necessarily to exhibit these traits in other aspects of their lives. The nominal tags for the six types of competence are civility, fidelity, respect, proficiency, prudence, and reflection.

These Occasional Papers are jointly published by ANZSOG and the (former) Victorian State Services Authority.

Suggested citation

Winston, K. (2010). Moral competence in public life. SSA/ANZSOG Occasional Paper, 4. Melbourne: ANZSOG.


Authors: Kenneth Winston
Published Date: 6 April 2010

Case study

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