Tools for Navigating Ethical Dilemmas: Being Ethical Requires More Than Just Following Laws

By Kerns, Peggy; Huntley, Susan | State Legislatures, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Tools for Navigating Ethical Dilemmas: Being Ethical Requires More Than Just Following Laws


Kerns, Peggy, Huntley, Susan, State Legislatures


Alaska's introduction to its Standards of Conduct section goes on to state "no code of conduct, however comprehensive, can anticipate all situations in which violations may occur nor can it prescribe behaviors that are appropriate to every situation; in addition, laws and regulations regarding ethical responsibilities cannot legislate morality, eradicate corruption, or eliminate bad judgment."

Alaska couldn't have said it better. Laws have their place, but ethics cannot be legislated.

A GREATER RESPONSIBILITY

We all try to be ethical people. If we are public servants, and holders of the public's trust, we have a responsibility to operate with high ethical standards. Legislatures pass ethics laws and rules that are lists of do's and don'ts that public officials must follow. These laws do not make a person ethical. They are necessary, but they provide only a framework to help guide a person's actions. As Alaska's statute says, ethics is much more.

Ethics is the standard of what is right and wrong. Being ethical is using our moral judgment. And it's not always easy. Ethical behavior takes courage and has to be practiced. Public officials feel added pressures. The ethical choices we make often occur in the public arena. They can get messy, and are under the media's lens.

Most of us don't think a lot about ethics as we go through our daily lives. We display our ethical core in many ways, but we usually don't talk about it. Every once in a while, we come to an ethical decision point that makes us stop and ask: What should I do? If there is a law to guide us, it's easy. If our instincts tell us it's a clear choice between right and wrong, it's easy. Although we may occasionally be tempted, these right-vs.-wrong dilemmas are usually solved quickly.

But the choice isn't always so clear, and there aren't always rules to follow. In a limited budget year, do I put more money into education or health care? Do I remain loyal to a colleague, even if I think he is wrong? Do I always keep my word, even if I change my mind? In these examples, there may be no clear distinction between right and wrong. Whatever decision we make is an ethical one, based on our core values.

Ethical dilemmas, then, involve choices between competing ethical values. At various times, we may rank these values differently, based on the circumstances. Ethical dilemmas present a choice between "right-vs.-right." When you are faced with an ethical dilemma, here are some steps to navigate:

-1- Be aware of the problem. Recognize a moral issue is at question. This step is important, because it requires us to think about the matter and not brush it off.

-2- Decide whose dilemma it is. Sometimes the answer is obvious. It's yours! There may be a situation where it's not your dilemma, but someone else's. Because we all rank our ethical values differently, what is a dilemma for one person may not be for another.

-3- Gather the facts. …

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