Dilemmas and Decisions: Practical Ethics for Public Life

October 7, 2013

By Phillip Boyle

Phillip Boyle will serve as a presenter for the interactive seminar, "Dilemmas and Decisions: Practical Ethics for Public Life," at the Congress of Cities conference on Wednesday, November 13, 2013 in Seattle, Washington.

Ethics education and training comes in two basic flavors: objective or external, and subjective or internal.

Objective or codified ethics is grounded in ethics laws, codes of ethics, rules, standards of conduct, and conflicts of interest. Most ethics training is objective or external, focused on rules and codes. Ethics laws tend to be reactive, specifying things that a public official may not do and identifying what will happen to those who breaks the rules. The focus of ethics laws  tend to be on issues involving sex and money, nepotism and financial conflicts of interest, for example.

Ethics laws and codes also describe things that a public official should do, such as "work on behalf of the public interest." However, statements like these are easier to agree with than to put into practice.

Most public officials have been exposed to some form of objective ethics training. This type of training is necessary and essential, but it is not sufficient for developing collective and institutional ethics.

Subjective ethics or ethics education is grounded in values, concepts such as character and virtue, morality and moral authority, duty and obligation, and principles for resolving ethical dilemmas. Using interactive exercises and small group problem solving, the upcoming ethics workshop at the Congress of Cities focuses on subjective ethics and explores the everyday meaning of values, ethics, and morality. Participants will learn how to recognize ethical dilemmas, and become familiar with common types of dilemmas and ethical reasoning.

Ethics education allows public officials to become better public leaders in several ways. It helps officials recognize both the advantages and limitations of codified ethics. It helps officials think about how values, morality, virtue, character, and obligations play out in their everyday relationships and decisions.  It also provides an opportunity to discuss sources of moral authority and how these sources inform personal and professional decision-making processes.

Finally, it helps officials distinguish "right vs. right" from "right vs. wrong" dilemmas, and apply ethical decision-making principles to dilemmas and decisions. Most importantly, it helps officials see public service and public leadership as a moral enterprise.

Dr. Phillip Boyle is a Public Service Associate at the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, focusing on Govermental Training, Education and Development.