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Essay on Ethics in Public Policy

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The modern world continues to struggle with ethical dilemmas in the private and public sector. Many of the proposed solutions for social betterment have failed or culminated in extreme outcomes, like the Holocaust. A tension between scientific rationality and philosophy have created a paradox of human behavior, where public administration policies have produced systems that allow evil to function and operate openly through moral inversion. Understanding the factors that create ethical frameworks, and how they are sometimes bypassed, assists public servants with making better decisions for the good of the whole.

In Richard Wilkinson’s TED talk (2011) entitled ‘How Economic Equality Harms Societies’ one of the social problems indexed is ‘imprisonment’ (Wilkinson, 2011). The plotted data shows the United States with a disproportionately high incarceration rate, which Wilkinson explains is not always an outcome caused by more crime, but instead is mostly from harsher sentencing (Wilkinson, 2011). Adams and Balfour (2015) expand on the prison population explosion as it relates to the supposed ‘war’ on drugs. Rooted in severe penalties for “substances at least some of which arguably cause much less harm to society as a whole than legal narcotics such as tobacco and alcohol” the incarceration rates embody the concept that Adams and Balfour refer to as a ‘surplus population’ (Adams & Balfour, 2015, p. 113). As is sometimes quipped by criminal justice reformers, a society often imprisons those it does not like more than it does true criminals. Add to the equation the amount of jobs sustained through the prison industry, plus the supplies produced by prisoners, and a clearer picture of the similarities between current incarceration policies and the slave labor of the Nazi camp, Mittelbau-Dora, comes into focus (Adams & Balfour, 2015). Yet, if questioned, prudent public servants would balk at such a comparison. For the average public service worker, there may be no reason to contemplate the ethical dilemma of a judge reviewing his cases for the day at a desk supplied by Federal Prison Industries (FPI), or to question prisoners farming for mere pennies an hour. In the mind of many, the convicted are paying their dues to society. However, how can a morally strong argument be made to continue to keep someone in prison for years for drug possession in a state that now has legalized the same drug for recreational use? Creeping administrative banality may one day indeed lead to “drug policies evolving to the point where the routine acts of administrators could be directed at eliminated an unwanted population” (Adams & Balfour, 2015, p. 114). The disparate incarceration rates in America are an example of the shift in methods of problem solving to embodying supremacy of technical rationality in the formation of public policy (Adams & Balfour, 2015). Cooper (2012) explains that “most of the time we are ad hoc problem solvers, not comprehensive moral philosophers” (p. 21). Therefore, it follows that public servants would seek out repeatable solutions for solving problems. However, as Adams and Balfour (2015) point out, many of the ills that plague society are not ‘discrete problems’. Not only has rational problem solving been unsuccessful at ending social issues like poverty and crime, erroneous trust in flawed scientific studies compound the lack of sustainable solutions (Fanelli, 2009). Instead of relinquishing moral and social struggles to technical rationality, Cooper (2012) puts it best that “without the illumination born of the marriage of abstract thought and practical experience, it is impossible to see where we are going” (p. 13).

Whether a government entity bodes better with a code of ethics or ethical legislation is situational at best, but a combination of both is the general application. The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) lists a code of ethics to assist municipalities in forming ethical guidance for achieving organizational goals. The code consists of twelve tenets (International City/County Management Association, 2018). The code of ethics published by ICMA emphasizes high ethical behavior in both professional and personal dealings to ensure the trust of, most importantly, the public, but also public officials and employees (ICMA, 2018). Cooper (2012) describes the importance of prioritizing public interest in the hierarchy of principles for ethical-decision making by public administrators. The oath taken by public servants focuses on upholding the public interest and the ICMA code of ethics is a framework by which officials can commit to actionable steps to achieve this end. In addition, the code is a voluntary agreement made by members to hold themselves and other members accountable to the tenets prescribed.

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In comparison, ethics legislation is a set of laws that codify ethical behavior standards within a governing body to be adhered to by the public service employees and appointed or elected officials of said public entity. Establishing laws sets the intention of punitive outcomes for violations of defined ethical regulations. On the surface this is a well-intentioned act to protect the integrity of the governing body. However, much like example Case Study #2 in Chapter One of ‘Managing in the Public Sector: A Casebook in Ethics and Leadership by Sharp, Aguirre, and Kickham’, there may be unintended consequences in the rigidity of law (Sharp, Aguirre, & Kickham, 2010). This case highlights how seemingly productive, effective, and otherwise exemplary employees, like June Adkins, could end up terminated, in her case, or possibly worse in varying circumstances, because hardship considerations may not be factored into the establishment of rules and laws (Sharp, Aguirre, & Kickham, 2010). In theory, establishing definitive rules with consequences for IRS employees to file their taxes in a timely manner reflects a commitment to citizens that the laws that govern them are not eschewed by those that serve them. However, the rigidity of the deadlines imposed by the employee policy in the case study possibly supersede what the citizenry is subject to endure. While it is morally prudent to expect public servants to be above reproach in their actions when working in service to the people, it should be considered that they are also humans that error, and those errors may not be of malice intent. Punishments that do not include some type of safety valve can in themselves become a moral dilemma and turn into masked administrative evil. Adams and Balfour (2015) provide examples of how legislation can turn the authority of the government from masked to unmasked administrative evil. The passage of two pieces of legislation pushed by Hitler in Germany in 1933, the Emergency Regulation in Defense of the People and the State and the Law for Removing the Distress of People and the Reich (Enabling Act) allowed for the creation of statutes such as the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which led to the removal from public service, Jews and those people deemed ‘unreliable’. These laws more than assured the remaining civil servants would be members of the Nazi Party and solidified the social devaluation of certain ethnicities and demographics of people leading up to World War II (Adams & Balfour, 2015).

The argument can be made that a code of ethics does not have the force of law required to elevate ethical behavior to a status of universal adherence. However, the examples provided by Cooper in Chapter Two of ‘The Responsible Administrator: An Approach to Ethics for the Administrative Role’, assist the reader in understanding how difficult it can be to discern the best outcome when situations can be framed from different moral perspectives (Cooper, 2012). An example provided is a manager having to decide whether to tell their spouse of an impending termination of a contract with the spouse’s company that will negatively affect the couple personally, but the same manager will also damage the organization if they share the upcoming termination with their spouse (Cooper, 2012). Cooper (2012) provides an explanation of Henry David Aiken’s framework for assessing ethical dilemmas. This four-level process includes expressive level, moral rules level, ethical analysis level and post-ethical level. It is within the ethical analysis level that one could argue a code of ethics can have more positive outcomes than ethical legislation. Take for example how many laws a society creates as a knee-jerk reaction, while operating out of the expressive level. While this level should merely be used as a placeholder for awareness and emotional processing of an ethical violation it has led to laws with dire unforeseen outcomes.

A difficult example to discuss without appearing to defend evil are those laws created for sexual offenders. These have led to the punishment of couples within close age range yet not both of the age of consent or the establishment of tent cities like the one under the Julia Tuttle causeway in Miami-Dade County, Florida, from 2006 to 2010. Sex offenders occupied the causeway because zoning rules for their offenses left them very few places to relocate (Levenson, 2018). While we must have punitive laws for such awful offenses, a more rational legislation could have been promulgated by using the ethical analysis level of ethical reflection. This level also allows for a more robust and dynamic creation of ethics codes. By forming teams of stakeholders, intention and outcomes can be imagined and discussed with a broader view of the problem at hand, and just as importantly, problems that may arise when implementing solutions.

A code of ethics does not have to be finalized in such a way that it is unmovable and slow to reform, like legislation. Building upon experience and broadening the scope of view of a problem or set of problems would give a code of ethics the flexibility to adapt in a situational way. This does not mean the application of a code of ethics would be intended to be applied incongruently or be circumvented, like Volkswagen’s technological adaptations to bypass regulation in ‘Dieselgate’ (Mujkic & Klingner, 2018). Instead, where feasible, a code of ethics for public service allows civil servants the contemplative space to consider moral outcomes in the theoretical realm and still allow for consequences when codes are violated. When adopted by all, the codes become a cultural norm and ultimately a principle by which decisions are processed intuitively. As Cooper (2012) states “ethical public administration requires a theoretical perspective on the role of the public administrator” (p. 14). It may oftentimes be easier to disregard a law if it does not fit our ideology, but not as easy to disregard our internalized acceptance of what is right and just. A code of ethics works toward this internalized acceptance of ethical responsibility.


  1. Adams, G., & Balfour, D. (2014). Unmasking Administrative Evil (Vol. 4th ed). Hoboken: Routledge. Retrieved from
  2. Cooper, T. L. (2012). The Responsible Administrator: An Approach to Ethics for the Administrative Role (Vol. 6th ed). Hoboken: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved from
  3. Fanelli, D. (2009). How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data. PLoS ONE, 4(5), 1–11.
  4. International City/County Management Association (2018). ICMA Code of Ethics. Retrieved from
  5. Levenson, J. S. (2018). Hidden Challenges: Sex Offenders Legislated into Homelessness. Journal of Social Work, 18(3), 348. Retrieved from
  6. Mujkic, E. & Klingler D. (2018) Dieselgate: How Hubris and Bad Leadership Caused the Biggest Scandal in Automotive History, Public Integrity, DOI: 10.1080/10999922.2018.1522180.
  7. Sharp, B. S., Aguirre, G., & Kickham, K. (2011). Managing in the Public Sector: A Casebook in Ethics and Leadership. Longman. Retrieved from
  8. Wilkinson, R. (2011, July). How Economic Equality Harms Societies [Video File]. Retrieved from

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Essay on Ethics in Public Policy. (2023, January 31). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 29, 2023, from
“Essay on Ethics in Public Policy.” Edubirdie, 31 Jan. 2023,
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