Topic outline

  • Course Introduction

    Students of political science should understand how ethics, culture, religion, and morality help to shape public debate, policymaking, and policy execution. This course will provide you with an overview of the role that ethical, cultural, religious, and moral principles play in the formulation and execution of public policy by lawmakers and other public officials.

    After studying the foundational theories of ethics and morality in politics, you will review arguments about existing issues in domestic and international policy, studying each dilemma from a variety of perspectives. Common themes seen in ethics debates include justice, equality, fairness, individual liberty, free enterprise, charity, fundamental human rights, and minimizing harm to others. These themes are integrated into various decision-making models, such as the Utilitarian Approach, the Fairness and Justice Approach, and the Rights Approach.

    In the execution of public policy, it is impossible to do no harm to others; often, public policy requires the redistribution of resources, denial of rights or privileges, or promotion of one group at the expense of another. Decision-making frameworks are used to help balance competing interests and make the best, or sometimes "the least worst,” decision. In this course, you will examine five types of decision frameworks used to make and implement public policy, as well as rationales used to justify inequitable impact and outcomes of policies.

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  • Unit 1: The Role of Ethics and Morality in Politics

    In this unit, you will begin your study of ethics in politics and governance. Ethics are rules that guide the decision-making process. They are rooted in religion, morality, law, education, experience, and human strengths and weaknesses. You will examine several definitions of "ethics” and learn how the "ethics” of our leaders have evolved over time. For instance, the Founding Fathers of the United States are often portrayed as highly moral men--yet, most of them were slave owners. What may have been considered ethical in previous decades is no longer considered ethical due to evolving cultural norms and societal mores.

    In the United States, federal and state government employees are subjected to formal ethical codes that seek to avoid or mitigate damage to the public caused by political activities, lobbying, conflicts of interest, bribery, graft, spoils, and nepotism. Both the executive and legislative branches of government have agencies or officials charged with investigating allegations of breaches of ethical codes by employees or other officials. Punishment for such violations is often tinged with political overtones. Officials may be censured or impeached. Employees may receive disciplinary action ranging from counseling to termination.

    Ethics in international affairs are quite complicated. The stated desire by a leader to "do the right thing” may be trumped by national security concerns or lack of resources. As with many things in today's world, economic and social injustice abroad can impact our national security--one needs only to look to Afghanistan and the role its disintegration into a failed state played in the events of 9/11 to see this.

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  • Unit 2: Theoretical Frameworks for Analyses of Ethical Dilemmas

    In this unit, you will examine both classical and contemporary theories of ethics, as well as frameworks that can be used by decision makers to resolve ethical dilemmas. The five primary frameworks are the Common Good, Fairness or Justice, Utilitarian, Rights, and Virtue approaches. Each framework seeks to identify problems, gather facts, and assess solutions, but the method for assessing the viability of available solutions differs between the different frameworks.

    While a policymaker may have a preferred approach to many problems, one approach may not be appropriate or feasible for all types of dilemmas political leaders may face. Knowledge of a variety of approaches and how each can be applied to a given situation is necessary.

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  • Unit 3: Ethical Dilemmas in Governance: Individual Liberty, Public Safety, and Justice

    In this unit, you will examine a few of the different types of ethical dilemmas that policymakers face in the areas of individual liberties, public safety, and criminal justice. This unit will focus on the rights based on the United States Constitution, such as the protection of speech and political acts under the First Amendment, the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment, punishment of felons, and issues involving drugs and illegal immigration. This unit will examine questions like: How do individual rights need to be balanced with the security needs of the state? Where do the rights of individuals end and the rights of society as a whole begin?

    Each of these dilemmas may be examined under the five frameworks discussed in Unit 2, sometimes resulting in different outcomes. You will see which frameworks lawmakers, judges, and officials tend to apply to different types of issues and circumstances. Understanding how these dilemmas are approached and resolved in practice is important for students of political science and public policy; it is also essential knowledge for those planning to enter the legal, public service, or lobbying professions.

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  • Unit 4: Ethical Dilemmas in Governance: Income Taxation, EEO Compliance, and Affirmative Action

    In this unit, you will examine three controversial areas of public policy in which the government intentionally treats groups of people differently in order to promote the common good. Since 1916, the federal government has taxed the income of citizens, residents, and anyone present in the United States or its sovereign territories. Most states and a few cities also impose income taxes. There are many critiques of the income tax system, claiming that it is grossly unfair. The basis for the claim of injustice depends, of course, on the group being examined.

    Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act all seek to ensure that barriers to employment and advancement are not based on race, national origin, disability, gender, religion, age, or family status. If such policies are not economically neutral, how do we assess claims of fairness against claims of economic efficiency?

    Affirmative action programs have been criticized by some for giving preferential treatment to certain groups, often to the perceived detriment of others. The intent behind the program is to remedy past systemic discriminatory practices. While there have been some noted abuses and injustices in the system, much of the public uproar is due to a misunderstanding of the application of the policy and "urban myths” about affirmative action. 

    What is the ethical justification for treating individuals "differently” in certain circumstances? What gives government the right to tell businesses how to operate, particularly in the selection, hiring, and discipline of employees? Each of these dilemmas may be examined under the five frameworks discussed in Unit 2, sometimes resulting in different outcomes. You will see which frameworks lawmakers, judges, and officials tend to apply to different types of issues and circumstances. Understanding how these dilemmas are approached and resolved in practice is important for students of political science and public policy; it is also essential knowledge for those planning to enter the legal, public service, or lobbying professions.

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  • Unit 5: Ethical Dilemmas in Governance: Care for the Poor, Sick, Elderly, and Infirm

    Since ancient times, one of the recognized purposes of government has been to bind communities together and help care for one another. In this unit, you will examine government policies that seek to provide benefits for the poor, sick, elderly, and infirm. How do lawmakers and officials justify "taking” from some in the form of taxes in order to "give” to others in need of assistance? What are the ethical and legal limitations on such programs? These questions form the basis for inquiry in this unit.

    Social welfare dilemmas may be examined under the five frameworks discussed in Unit 2, sometimes resulting in different outcomes. You will see which frameworks lawmakers, judges, and officials tend to apply to different types of issues and circumstances. Understanding how these dilemmas are approached and resolved in practice is important for students of political science and public policy; it is also essential knowledge for those planning to enter the legal, public service, or lobbying professions.

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  • Unit 6: Ethical Dilemmas in Governance: Issues Involving Families and Relationships

    Marital, personal, and family relationships are an area in which policymakers and officials often have to make difficult ethical and legal decisions. Should consenting adults be allowed to engage in sexual or marital relationships with whoever they choose? What are the limits that the government can/should place on such relationships? Whose interests are paramount in family relationships--those of the child or those of the parents and grandparents? What limits should the government place on procreation, contraception, and abortion?

    Each of these dilemmas may be examined under the five frameworks discussed in Unit 2, sometimes resulting in different outcomes. You will see which frameworks lawmakers, judges, and officials tend to apply to different types of issues and circumstances. Understanding how these dilemmas are approached and resolved in practice is important for students of political science and public policy; it is also essential knowledge for those planning to enter the legal, public service, or lobbying professions.

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  • Unit 7: Ethical Dilemmas in Governance: National Security

    In this unit, you will begin by examining issues of law and ethics that arise in conventional conflicts, such as wars, then you will look at issues of law and ethics that arise in nonconventional conflicts, such as espionage and terrorism, and you will conclude by exploring issues regarding composition of military forces. What are the justifications for war? What limits, if any, should be placed on war? How should we treat "the enemy?” Should women be allowed to serve in the military? Should there be limits on the roles that women play in combat? Should sexual preference play any role in military recruitment or retention?

    Each of these dilemmas may be examined under the five frameworks discussed in Unit 2, sometimes resulting in different outcomes. You will see which frameworks lawmakers, judges, and officials tend to apply to different types of issues and circumstances. Understanding how these dilemmas are approached and resolved in practice is important for students of political science and public policy; it is also essential knowledge for those planning to enter the legal, public service, or lobbying professions.

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  • Unit 8: Ethical Dilemmas in Governance: Foreign Relations, Foreign Trade, Foreign Aid, and Military Intervention

    In this unit, you will examine ethical issues that arise in foreign policy. What is America's ethical role in the world? Should we be the world's policeman? Do we have a duty to act multilaterally, or should we act unilaterally, and if so, under what circumstances? What is America's duty to care for the poor, sick, or infirm outside of our borders? What legal and ethical constraints should be placed on international trade? How do we balance moral obligations with national security realities and global financial realities?

    Each of these dilemmas may be examined under the five frameworks discussed in Unit 2, sometimes resulting in different outcomes. You will see which frameworks lawmakers, judges, and officials tend to apply to different types of issues and circumstances. Understanding how these dilemmas are approached and resolved in practice is important for students of political science and public policy; it is also essential knowledge for those planning to enter the legal, public service, or lobbying professions.

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  • Unit 9: Ethical Dilemmas in Governance: Science, Technology, and Commerce

    In this unit, you will examine the role that ethics play in the policymaking process for laws and regulations involving science, technology, and commerce. Should the government engage in corporate "social welfare,” or should we allow the free market to choose commercial "winners” and "losers?” What types of commercial regulations should the government impose without burdening the free flow of goods and services in our economy? What limits should be placed on medical research or cloning of foodstuffs? How do we balance individual bodily autonomy with the need to protect the public by restricting the spread of infection and disease? How should individual privacy rights online be balanced against security and public safety concerns?

    Each of these dilemmas may be examined under the five frameworks discussed in Unit 2, sometimes resulting in different outcomes. You will see which frameworks lawmakers, judges, and officials tend to apply to different types of issues and circumstances. Understanding how these dilemmas are approached and resolved in practice is important for you to know as a student of political science and public policy; it is also essential knowledge for those planning to enter the legal, public service, or lobbying professions.

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  • Unit 10: Ethical Dilemmas in Governance: Daily Operations of Government, Lobbying, Campaigns and Elections

    In this final unit, you will examine common ethical dilemmas faced by public servants and officials in their daily work, as well as issues specific to campaigns and elections. What restrictions should be placed on acceptance of gifts and favors? What duties and responsibilities do public servants and officials owe to citizens? How are ethical issues investigated? How are ethical regulations enforced? What restrictions should be placed on donations to political campaigns or efforts to lobby policymakers?

    Each of these dilemmas may be examined under the five frameworks discussed in Unit 2, sometimes resulting in different outcomes. You will see which frameworks lawmakers, judges, and officials tend to apply to different types of issues and circumstances. Understanding how these dilemmas are approached and resolved in practice is important for students of political science and public policy; it is also essential knowledge for those planning to enter the legal, public service, or lobbying professions.

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  • Optional Course Evaluation Survey

    Please take a few moments to provide some feedback about this course at the link below. Consider completing the survey whether you have completed the course, you are nearly at that point, or you have just come to study one unit or a few units of this course.

    Link: Optional Course Evaluation Survey (HTML)

    Your feedback will focus our efforts to continually improve our course design, content, technology, and general ease-of-use. Additionally, your input will be considered alongside our consulting professors' evaluation of the course during its next round of peer review. As always, please report urgent course experience concerns to contact@saylor.org and/or our Discourse forums.

  • Final Exam

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