Sorting Right from Wrong: Being Ethical Goes beyond Just Following the Law

By Kerns, Peggy | State Legislatures, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Sorting Right from Wrong: Being Ethical Goes beyond Just Following the Law


Kerns, Peggy, State Legislatures


Alaska's code of ethics states the obvious: "High moral and ethical standards among public servants in the legislative branch of government are essential to assure the trust, respect, and confidence of the people of these states."

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But it goes on to make a point that might not be so evident: "No code of conduct, however comprehensive, can anticipate all situations in which violations may occur. 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.

We all try to be ethical people. If we are public servants, we have an enormous responsibility to operate with high ethical standards. It starts with obeying ethics laws and rules. Legislatures put into law the do's and don'ts, and following them ensures that public officials act legally. These laws do not make a lawmaker ethical, however. Ethics are much more than that.

IT'S NOT ALWAYS CLEAR

Ethics are the standard of what is right and wrong, and they are based on our values. Being ethical requires making a moral judgment, and that'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, often under the media's lens.

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

But the choice isn't always so clear, and there aren't always rules to follow. Do I vote to put more money into education or health care?

Do I remain loyal to a colleague, even if I think he's wrong? Do I keep my word to vote for a bill, 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.

MAKING CHOICES

Ethical dilemmas involve choices among competing values. At various times, we may rank these values differently, based on the circumstances. We love our families, but may neglect them during the long hours of legislative work. Ethical dilemmas present a choice between "right-versus-right." When faced with an ethical dilemma, here are some steps to help you navigate it.

1

Follow the law. Sounds obvious, but too many public officials get into trouble for not following the law. This is the stuff from which headlines are made, and fuels even more skepticism among a distrustful public.

2

Be aware you have an ethical dilemma. Learn to recognize when a moral issue is at question. This step is important, because it requires us to think about the matter and not brush it off. …

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