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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Ethics in Public Service

Dr. David L. Perry

Adapted from a workshop conducted for Leadership Santa Clara on June 8, 2000.


- Highlight some current ethical issues in public service.
- Identify ethics in relation to law, etiquette, and empirical disciplines.
- Examine theories challenging the objectivity of morality.
- Identify some general ethical principles, and some specific to public officials.
- Note some conflicts among ethical obligations.
- Provide a framework for analyzing ethical issues & making ethical decisions.
- Analyze some contending arguments about capital punishment.
- Explore questions about who or what should count in moral deliberations.
- Discuss issues surrounding land & housing in the Bay Area.

Some facts suggesting current ethical issues in public service:

- The number of homeless people in the Bay Area is apparently increasing.

- Thousands of California residents have no health insurance: they make just enough income to disqualify for Medicaid, but are too poor to afford private health insurance, or they work for employers who don’t provide it.

- The gambling industry is now the largest financial contributor to California legislators.

- An elected official allegedly encouraged contributions from insurance companies that his agency regulates to fund nonprofit organizations that promoted his own political prestige, then allowed those companies to avoid paying full compensation to policyholders. (See San Jose Mercury News, 8 June 2000.)

- A newspaper executive allegedly promised to curb editorial criticism of an elected official, in exchange for that official not opposing his company’s merger with another newspaper (

- Some local ranchers are being prevented from selling certain parts of their land to wineries, because their ponds are considered essential to the survival of a rare salamander species.

- A major local employer wants to build a large new production facility and a parking lot; this will eliminate some fragile wetland areas and displace some rare burrowing owls. (See San Jose Mercury News, 7 June 2000.)

In many cases we could spell out the ethical issues that arise here clearly and precisely. In other cases we might only have a vague sense of unease about them, and be unable to distinguish ethical considerations from others.

What is ethics?

The words "ethics" and "morality" have Greek and Latin origins, respectively. Traditionally they referred to customary values and rules of conduct (as in "cultural ethos" and "social mores"), as well as insights about what counts as human excellence and flourishing. "Ethics" and "morality" are often used interchangeably by us today. But ethics also refers to moral philosophy, i.e., a discipline of critical analysis of the meaning and justification of moral beliefs.

Ethics and morality--along with law and etiquette--are essentially normative, that is, they prescribe human behavior as obligatory, prohibited, or permissible. There’s considerable overlap between ethics and law, and ethics and etiquette. Much of the law embodies ethical principles: respect for basic rights to life, property, and the right of citizens to participate in political life. It’s usually unethical to break the law. A breach of etiquette can also be unethical if it is done intentionally to offend someone simply for one’s own amusement.

Ethics goes beyond etiquette, though, to include matters that nearly every human society considers significant: actions such as lying, breaking a promise or killing someone are more serious than social faux pas. Ethics also has to do with human character and motivation, which in many cases are irrelevant to etiquette and law. And law and etiquette can sometimes be criticized on moral grounds: consider U.S. laws and customs that historically treated African Americans and women as less than full citizens.

In contrast to ethics and other normative disciplines, many fields of study such as the natural sciences, psychology, history and economics are empirical, meaning that they attempt to describe, explain or predict events or motives or actions. In general, empirical disciplines deal with facts and probabilities, while normative disciplines promote or assess values. Empirical disciplines study what exists, what happened, or what tends to happen under certain conditions; their claims can at least in theory be tested using controlled scientific methods or in light of the best available evidence. Moral principles state how human beings ought to treat one another; moral claims cannot be proven or disproven by empirical means alone.

Ethical arguments often rely on empirical assumptions, though. And empirical claims are often made in ways that attempt to persuade people to accept a moral conclusion. In order to be able to tell whether ethical arguments are sound or cogent, we need to be able to distinguish between different types of moral claims, and between moral and empirical claims. We also must determine whether those claims are being used properly in support of moral conclusions. I’ll come back to this later in connection with the issue of capital punishment.

Is morality objective? In other words, are there moral obligations that apply to all rational beings?

Consider some theories that deny this, and some reasons why those theories fail (cf. James Rachels, Elements of Moral Philosophy, third edition, 1999):

Nihilism: Morality is an illusion; there are no moral obligations. This would mean that there’s nothing inherently wrong with something like cruelty, which seems strongly counterintuitive. A nihilist would have no grounds upon which to argue rationally against someone else who wanted to harm him or her just for the fun of it.

Psychological egoism: We can’t avoid being selfish, hence there’s no point in reasoning about ethics. Selfishness can sometimes masquerade as altruism, to be sure. But PE is too sweeping and reductionistic: even if showing compassion toward others makes you happy, that isn’t necessarily why you do it. Even if we are sometimes selfish, we can have unselfish motives, too.

Normative egoism: I have no moral obligations to anyone else; only my interests count in deciding what I should do. But if others’ interests are similar to yours in relevant ways, it's arbitrary and thus irrational to ignore or discount theirs.

Subjective relativism: Ethics is relative to individual beliefs; whatever you believe is right is right "for you." But consider examples of rape, child abuse, torture, and slavery. Even if the perpetrators of such things believe them to be okay, that doesn’t make them right.

Cultural relativism: Ethics is relative to cultural beliefs. Clearly some cultural differences are significant, e.g., how the elderly are treated, or the status of women. But many values and rules are shared across cultures, such as those against lying, stealing, and murder. More importantly, the refutation of CR is like that of subjectivism: a culture’s belief in something doesn’t make it true "for them." (Is the earth really flat for people who believe it’s flat?) Moral disagreement between cultures doesn’t prove there’s no objectively true morality. We need to be on guard against ethnocentrism, but we shouldn’t be afraid to challenge cultural beliefs and practices that seem to violate basic human rights.

Many people in this country are "knee-jerk relativists," because they worry about "imposing" values on anyone else. But few people are comfortable remaining relativists after the implications of such views are recognized. All of the theories above fail to prove that moral principles can’t be objective in some sense. Rejecting them doesn’t necessarily lead to arrogance or imperialism, since our own views are subject to rational critique and revision like everyone else’s. The point is to stand by those ethical principles that have the best reasons supporting them, and to refine or reject principles that are shown to be based on bad reasoning.

What are some ethical principles that seem to apply objectively to all of us?

- Compassion; concern for the well-being of others.

- Nonmaleficence: avoiding inflicting suffering and hardship on others.

- Beneficence: preventing and alleviating others’ suffering; meeting the needs of the most vulnerable; promoting others’ happiness (strongest toward our family and friends).

- Fairness; treating people the way they deserve to be treated; as having equal rights unless merit or need justifies special treatment.

- Courage in opposing injustice.

- Respect for individual autonomy; not manipulating rational individuals even for their own good.

- Respect for the Constitution and other laws enacted by legitimate governing bodies.

- Honesty; not deceiving anyone who deserves to know the truth.

- Not making promises that we don’t intend to keep.

- Keeping promises that we made freely.

- Integrity; upholding our obligations in spite of personal inconvenience.

Some specific obligations of public officials:

- Use impartial judgment in the service of all constituents.

- Avoid conflicts of interest that could undermine your objective judgment.

- Don’t show favoritism toward family and friends in hiring.

- Don’t solicit or accept bribes from people seeking to influence your official decisions.

- Don’t invest in property or companies that could be affected by your official decisions.

In the revised "Code of Ethics and Values" of the City of Santa Clara, section 1.f. says, "I will show respect for persons…." The City Council in discussing the implications of this principle recently added, "I will not rubber-hose the staff in a public meeting. I will not name-call, storm off, snipe, talk under my breath with others while the public is testifying, or in other ways demean staff, [the] public, or other commissioners during public meetings."

Are any moral principles, rules or values absolute?

Possibly: Consider "Don’t rape," and "Don’t torture children or animals." There are no clear exceptions to those rules. But it’s often very difficult to state moral rules that aren’t vulnerable to counterexamples: "Don’t kill." – Never in self-defense? Never in defense of other innocent people? Never kill animals to survive? "Don’t lie" – Even to save lives or to prevent other serious harm? Principles can sometimes be strengthened, though, by incorporating exceptional cases. By refining general principles in "conversation" with concrete rules, we can hope to achieve what the philosopher John Rawls called "reflective equilibrium" (A Theory of Justice, 1971, revised 1999).

Perhaps most ethical principles should be considered prima facie binding on us: i.e., universal (not relative to cultural or individual beliefs) and timeless (slavery, e.g., was never objectively ethical), but not absolute. Ethical principles will often reinforce each other in opposition to selfishness and cruelty. But there will sometimes be situations where ethical principles conflict with one another, and we can’t always establish in advance which should take precedence. (This approach was developed by the philosopher W. D. Ross in The Right and the Good, 1930.)

Consider some of the moral conflicts and tradeoffs in the following cases:

- Paternalistic laws (ones that restrict the freedom of persons for their own good): laws requiring seat belts, air bags, motorcycle helmets; involuntary commitment of the mentally ill (how much must a depressed or psychotic person suffer before we can rightly override their refusal of treatment?).

- Duties of public officials to be open and accountable to citizens, vs. the need for secrecy in sensitive diplomatic negotiations, police undercover operations etc.

Conflict is probably inevitable in democratic politics. Even if we could agree at the level of abstract principles and general policies, we might still disagree on how to apply them: "I’ll pay taxes to build freeways, airports, homeless shelters, mental hospitals, prisons and landfills, but don’t put them in my neighborhood!" Politicians and civil servants cannot hope to please everyone. Activists should not assume that their values are the only ones worth promoting.

A framework for analyzing ethical issues and making ethical decisions:

Explain the issue: What seems to be at stake morally? Outline the contending arguments, clarifying their explicit claims and implicit assumptions.

Explore the relevant facts: What empirical claims are being made? (Historical, predictive etc.) Is there adequate and unambiguous evidence of what happened? How plausible are the claims made about what is likely to happen? Are any important empirical studies being ignored?

Imagine alternative actions: What could be done instead?

Assess the relevant moral claims and values: Are good reasons offered in support of them, or are they asserted without justification? Who will be helped and harmed by alternative actions? Is the argument exclusively consequentialist? If so, does it ignore non-consequentialist values or rights? If some interests or rights are claimed to take precedence over others, is that claim reasonable? Are any fundamental rights of persons at risk?

Evaluate logical soundness and cogency: Eliminate irrelevant claims and insinuations, such as ad hominem attacks on opponents’ character to distract the audience from the issue at hand (an endemic problem in politics!). Does the argument flow logically? Does its conclusion follow from its premises in a valid or strong way?

Eliminate or reduce obstacles to right action: Are there incentives or pressures to do the wrong thing? (Political, social, financial, psychological.) If so, can they be alleviated, negotiated, or countered? How can ethical standards be reinforced in our organization, e.g., in the ways in which we establish objectives, evaluate and reward performance, and investigate misconduct?

Consider some contending arguments about capital punishment (CP):

Note that I not only analyze them, but indicate which points I find most compelling.

- CP prevents murderers from ever killing again. (Empirical) But life in prison without parole can be just as effective as CP in that regard.

- CP is not effective in deterring murder. (Empirical) E.g., of the total number of people executed in the U.S. since 1976, Texas has been responsible for over 1/3; but it also has one of the highest per-capita murder rates.

- If CP were effective in deterring murder, then it would be morally justified. (Consequentialist) But punishment is only appropriate for those who are guilty of crimes. It’s wrong to punish the innocent even if doing so is effective in deterring crime. (Non-Consequentialist) Thus even if CP were effective as a deterrent (or otherwise produced better consequences than no CP), that would not make it right.

- CP is inherently unethical; it’s no better than murder itself. (Non-Consequentialist) But not if a murderer can rightly be said to forfeit his right to life; in that case, the state in executing him does not necessarily wrong him in the sense that he wronged his innocent victim.

- CP is an appropriate form of retribution for certain crimes. (Non-Consequentialist) Thus CP could be justified even if it’s worthless as a deterrent.

- In many cases, people have been convicted of murder in the U.S. due to shoddy police work, false testimony by criminals who were offered incentives by prosecutors, and incompetent defense lawyers. Some innocent people may have been executed as a result. (Empirical)

- CP should be abolished if it cannot be administered in consistently just ways, or suspended until it can. (Non-Consequentialist) Note the recent action taken by the Governor of Illinois.

- Advances in forensic science and technology, including genetic tests, can or could eliminate ambiguities in many murder cases. (Empirical)

Who or what should count in our moral deliberations?

- How wide should our circle of moral concern extend?

- Who or what has a legitimate stake in what we might do?

- Who should be heard but isn’t being heard? Who among us is vulnerable, suffering, and voiceless?

- Are people the only ones who should count? If so, is it because of our intelligence? Then why not include chimps, dolphins etc.?

- If intelligence is what really matters, what about people with severe mental retardation?

- Should we expand the circle to include all sentient creatures, i.e., those capable of experience and suffering?

- Could it also be wrong to destroy non-sentient living things like trees or plants, even if they can’t experience anything and thus can’t be said to have interests in living? Do they have inherent value apart from their usefulness to us?

- Should we try to preserve the biodiversity of existing ecosystems?

- Is it possible to see inherent worth in all living things, and yet not risk human survival? Can we consistently care for animals and still eat some of them or use them to test pharmaceuticals?

- Could it ever be immoral to destroy inanimate things like rock formations, if doing so caused no living creature to suffer?

- Is there an appropriate hierarchy of moral status? Do some species’ interests always take precedence over those of "lower" species? Or should similar interests across species be treated similarly? E.g., does the suffering of a chimp "weigh" the same as the suffering of a child?

Scenario for discussion: Land and housing in the Bay Area:

Demand for housing is exceeding supply. Five jobs are created for every one home. Rents and home prices have gone up in recent years at rates higher than most of the rest of the U.S. Median price of a home in Santa Clara County went up 40% in past year.

Other contributing factors:

- Geography: water and mountains constrain housing growth and transportation (compare a city like Indianapolis with extensive prairie in which to expand);

- Pleasant climate (people are hesitant to move away simply to find cheaper homes);

- Past decisions to set aside Open Space, wetlands, parks, wildlife refuges;

- Zoning regulations that favor single-family homes over multi-family buildings.

Many people benefit from these trends: e.g., those who bought homes in the early 1990s have seen their value increase tremendously. But others have been hurt: their income can’t keep up with rising rents; their rental apartment "goes condo" and they can’t afford to buy it; elderly and working poor are hardest hit. Homelessness is increasing.

Some options for local governments:

- Don’t intervene further: allow the market to run within existing zoning and environmental constraints (or eliminate some or all of those constraints).

- If some industrial areas are not being used, change their zoning to residential.

- Buy land and build housing; subsidize rents or mortgages for people who otherwise could not afford housing.

- Limit or reduce the amount of land set aside for environmental or recreation purposes.

- Institute rent control, and prevent rental properties from "going condo."

- Limit job growth by raising the cost of starting and running a business.

Questions: Which option or combination of options do you think is the most ethical? Why? How would you defend your decision against opposing views?

(Note that merely increasing the supply of housing won’t completely solve the problem of homelessness. Other contributing factors include: mental illness; drug and alcohol abuse; spousal abuse; shortsighted financial planning by individuals; recessions; natural disasters.)

Recommended: Timothy Beatley, Ethical Land Use: Principles of Policy and Planning (1994).

David Perry is the Director of Ethics Programs, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, and Lecturer in Religious Studies.

Jun 8, 2000