Major Ethical Systems

Site: Saylor Academy
Course: PHIL103: Moral and Political Philosophy
Book: Major Ethical Systems
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Date: Sunday, July 21, 2024, 7:03 AM


This chapter outlines the three broad categories of ethical systems normative ethics, applied ethics, and meta-ethics. Use the navigation arrows on the right and left side of the page to move forward through the eleven sections in this chapter. By the end of this reading, you will be able to define the three broad ethical systems and describe several approaches to ethics. Be sure you have a good understanding of the important approaches for Unit 1: deontology, consequentialism, and natural law.

Major Ethical Systems

When learning how to resolve ethical dilemmas, it is important to be able to articulate a justifiable rationale for why we believe one decision seems right and another seems wrong. Having a basic understanding of the major ethical theories will help us toward an ethical resolution learning how to articulate and justify the decision.

At times, some of the ethical theories may seem overly philosophical for our purposes; we may even wonder why we should study theories that were sometimes developed centuries ago when we are primarily dealing with present-day issues. In other instances, some of the ethical theories may seem overbearing. The theories we look at here, however, are important to help us understand why the decisions we make, or someone else makes, are ethical or unethical.

For example, a decision may be made that appears on the surface to be unethical, but when we are aware of the philosophical system used in the decision making, we can then understand the root of the decision and, at the very least, see its intended morality. This allows us to view ethical issues from different perspectives and assists us in making informed decisions.

This book is concerned primarily with normative ethics and understanding only the common normative ethical theories. By dissecting the normative theories of ethics, we can have a clear understanding on the moral decisions we ought to make, or the reason some people make the decisions they do. Ethical theories will be examined only briefly as the focus of this book is contemporary ethical issues facing law enforcement. The descriptions of the following ethical theories are very basic and address only the points required for a basic understanding in a law enforcement context. Examples of how a theory may relate to and assist law enforcement are included.

Overview of Ethical Theories

There are three categories of ethical theories:

  1. Normative ethics
  2. Meta ethics
  3. Applied ethics
Normative theories tell us not only what we ought to do, but also why we do things that in some instances may appear counterintuitive to what we think an ethical decision would be. Such theories are often called ethical systems because they provide a system that allows people to determine ethical actions that individuals should take. Evans and Macmillan define normative ethics as "theories of ethics that are concerned with the norms, standards or criteria that define principles of ethical behaviour". The most common examples of normative ethical theories are utilitarianism, Kantian duty-based ethics (deontology), and divine command theory, which are described later in this chapter. These systems are used by individuals to make decisions when confronted with ethical dilemmas.

Meta-ethics does not address how we ought to behave; rather, meta-ethics is related more to the study of ethical theory itself. Here the interest is in evaluating moral and ethical theories and systems. For example, moral relativism is a meta-ethical theory because it interprets discussions around ethics; a question asked within moral relativism is "is ethics culturally relative?" Evans and Macmillan define meta-ethics as "theories of ethics concerned with the moral concepts, theories, and the meaning of moral language. Pollock further defines meta-ethics as "a discipline that investigates the meaning of ethical systems and whether they are relative or are universal, and are self-constructed or are independent of human creation".

For the purposes of this book, meta-ethics will relate to the way we look at and understand normative ethical theories. More concisely, meta-ethics concerns an interpretation and evaluation of the language used within normative ethical theories.

Applied ethics describes how we apply normative theories to specific issues, usually related to work or belonging to an organization; for example, policies and procedures of organizations or ethical codes of outlaw bikers versus ethical codes of police officers. Evans and Macmillan define applied ethics as "theories of ethics concerned with the application of normative ethics to particular ethical issues". An example is knowing and practising the code of ethics for BC Corrections as an employee of BC Corrections or following the British Columbia Police Code of Ethics as a police officer.

With the overview of the three categories of ethical theories we will further analyze each ethical theory or system.

The normative ethical theories that are briefly covered in this chapter are:

  • Utilitarianism
  • Deontology
  • Virtue ethics
  • Ethics of care
  • Egoism
  • Religion or divine command theory
  • Natural Law
  • Social contract theory
  • Rawls's theory of justice
  • Moral relativism

Source: Steve McCartney and Rick Parent,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Utilitarian Ethics

Utilitarian ethics is a normative ethical system that is primarily concerned with the consequences of ethical decisions; therefore it can be described as a teleological theory or consequentialist theory, which are essentially the same thing, both having a notion that the consequence of the act is the most important determinant of the act being moral or not. Teleological reasoning takes into consideration that the ethical decision is dependent upon the consequences ("ends") of the actions. In teleological reasoning, a person will do the right thing if the consequences of his or her actions are good. Additionally, if an action by a person was an act that was "not good," but the consequences turned out to be "good," under some theories of teleological reasoning, the act may be deemed a good ethical act. This is also referred to as "consequentialist moral reasoning," where we locate morality in the consequences of our actions.

As a result of the consequentialist nature of utilitarianism, the means to get to the ethical decision ("end") are secondary; the end result is that which must be considered before determining the morality of the decision.

Jeremy Bentham developed the principles of utility by defining it as a measure of maximizing pleasure while minimizing pain. Bentham wrote that everyone prefers pleasure over pain. It is with this belief that utilitarian moral principles are founded. In developing the theory of utilitarianism, Bentham may have meant pleasure as in "happiness" and pain as in "sadness"; however, Bentham's rendering of utilitarianism sounded hedonistic, as if sensuality was the measure Bentham associated with pleasure.

John Stuart Mill reconsidered the principles of utilitarianism and suggested that pleasure should not merely refer to sensual pleasure but also to mental pleasure, such as music, literature, and friendship. Mill sought to make intellectual pleasures preferable to sensual ones.

Hinman suggests there are four principle differences between pleasure and happiness:

  1. Happiness is related to the mind, whereas pleasure is related to the body (for example sexual pleasure, eating, drinking)
  2. Pleasure is of shorter duration than happiness. Happiness is long-term, focusing on the satisfaction of living well, or achieving life goals.
  3. Happiness may encompass pleasure and pain.
  4. There is an evaluative element in happiness versus pleasure.

There are two formulations of utilitarianism: act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism concerns the consequences of the first instance, where the utility of that act is all that is regarded.

The second formulation of utilitarianism, rule utilitarianism, concerns the consequences of the majority of people following a certain rule that is immoral, which would be negative. With rule utilitarianism, to determine the ethics of an act, the questions to ask are "What would happen if there was a universal rule that condones this action?" and "Would such a rule promote the consequences that would best serve a moral society?" Rule utilitarianism operates as a check and balance for utilitarian principles, assuring that decisions that may be utilitarian in principle are qualified with the notion of universality, asking "what would the result be if everyone followed a rule that allowed this act?"

The best way to illustrate consequentialist theory is through an implausible story proposed by Michael Sandel.

Imagine you are the driver of a trolley car train and are speeding along. As you are heading to the work yard, you realize the brakes don't work. Ahead you see five workers on the track. They are busy jack hammering and do not see you approach. You as the driver have the ability to determine where the train goes by switching the tracks to another track. However that track has one worker, who is also oblivious to your approach. By physically switching the tracks, you will save five, but your actions will kill the lone worker.

The moral dilemma is such that we are required to determine what the consequences or the end result should be. The questions you need to ask are:

What action would you take?
Are the end results, or the consequences of your actions, important?
What action would a Rule Utilitarian take?
What action would an Act Utilitarian take?

Q. How can utilitarian theory assist law enforcement in moral dilemmas?

Law enforcement officers possess a great deal of discretion that must be exercised by all officers of every rank, regardless of their experience. When exercising this discretion, officers will be confronted on a daily basis with issues that are complex, and may not be covered in the agency's policy and most certainly would not have been covered in their formal education or police academy or other training. Law enforcement officers also are required to make exigent decisions, without the ability to consult with senior officers or policy and procedures. In some instances, when confronted with decisions, officers may want to rely on utilitarianism to make an ethical decision that is defensible when scrutinized in the future. For example, an officer tasked with policing a large pro-marijuana protest group may observe a person within the group selling marijuana. Legally, the officer has the duty to charge that person with trafficking in a controlled substance under the Controlled Drug and Substance Act, a serious indictable offence. However, from a utilitarian position, the officer may elect not to arrest and charge the suspect for two reasons:

  1. The act of not arresting would make more pro-marijuana group happier compared to the number of people would be unhappy with that decision. We can reasonably say that society at large is becoming more relaxed about marijuana use, and the movement to legalize marijuana is strong and getting stronger. Perhaps the officer would recognize this, and make his or her decision accordingly. If the drug being trafficked was crack cocaine, then the officer would likely adjust the decision. (If the drug was a more lethal drug, that could cause death, the officer would be compelled by duty to arrest the suspect in order to prevent harm).
  2. If the arrest is made for trafficking , the consequence would likely be a serious violent confrontation with the large pro-marijuana group. The arrest by the police would not make the majority of these individuals happy. As a result, while arresting the trafficker may be the duty of the officer, the officer may come to the conclusion that the consequences of making an arrest are likely to be negative. Therefore by using discretion, the officer is utilizing utilitarian principles in his or her decision making.

From a rule utilitarianism perspective, the officer should consider what the consequences would be if there were a rule that everyone was allowed to smoke and sell marijuana. If the officer believes that society would be well served by this rule, then the officer should allow the sale to continue. Should the officer believe the rule would be detrimental to society, the officer should consider this as well, and at least consider making the arrest.

The Problems with Utilitarianism

Like all normative theories of ethics, utilitarianism cannot address all of the ethical dilemmas we face. Sometimes using utilitarian principles may be harmful to a group of people or to an individual. Some of the major problems with utilitarian consequentialist ethics include the following:

  • Measuring happiness is difficult. Happiness is subjective and as a result is open to interpretation. Is happiness in winning a million dollars more significant than the happiness a person experiences when told by a doctor that he has a clean bill of health? Likewise, does the value of happiness increase with time, or with importance? If someone won a million dollars, would this be measured as "the most possible happy," as the million dollars will hopefully last for a long time? Conversely, a person received a clean bill of health after a routine checkup can be regarded as more important news; however this person is likely to forget this good news within days. So when we look at the happiness that is caused by these two events, we need to ask ourselves, "what makes us the most happy?"
  • Utilitarian ethics is concerned about the consequences of our actions, regardless of the action itself. However, it can be difficult to know what the consequences of our actions will be because of the variables that we do not control. For example, a police officer may believe that writing tickets at an intersection will create a safe intersection environment for everyone. However, it is difficult to determine for sure that this will be the outcome. Unintended consequences may instead occur. Suppose, for example, that while the officer is writing a ticket at the intersection, a fatal accident occurs due to the officer disrupting the traffic. In this instance, the unintended consequences could not have been predicted, especially if the officer acted in a safe manner while writing the ticket. The unintended consequences may be viewed as immoral by utilitarian standards because of the end result. People who maintain this logic are referred to as Actual Consequentialists because actual consequences are what determine if the act was right or wrong. However, some consequentialists would rightly take into consideration the fact that the fatal accident could not have possibly been foreseen, and therefore the act itself was still moral in spite of the unforeseen negative consequences. This appears to be a more logical approach to consequentialism as it incorporates a mental element (mens rea) in determining if the act was moral.
  • Desired ethical consequences that actually result from our actions do not always happen immediately. If the desired consequences of our actions do not occur immediately, how long must we wait for those good consequences to develop before we can say the action was ethical? Likewise, how long are we to wait to deem the consequences as positive or negative? For example, in a correctional institute, a warden who believes that weapons are being made in an inmate job program may cancel the program. The warden may  decide to cancel the program due to the inability of staff to ensure that the making of weapons does not occur. The warden's decision is ultimately based on ethics and a desire to ensure the well-being of corrections staff and inmates. However, the inmates may view this decision as punitive as the prohibited weapons are being made by only some inmates. In analyzing the ethics of the decision by the warden, the question would have to be asked, "how much time would have to expire before we could determine this was an ethical action versus a punitive one?"
  • Happiness should not be the only consequence or goal that matters in some ethical dilemmas. Some goals of the ethical decision, such as human rights, may matter more than the consequences of the action. For example, consider a detective who is investigating a series of sexual assaults has located evidence which is not admissible in court but clearly demonstrates that a suspect is guilty of the crimes. The detective realizes that the suspect is likely to recommit the crime, and therefore decides to plant false forensic evidence on the suspect to implicate him. While this action may result in positive consequences (and the greater happiness for the greater number of people), the actions are wrong and cannot be condoned. By removing the notions of justice, fairness, and basic human rights owed the suspect, the actions are immoral and unethical; they are actions that will eventually erode confidence in police. The consequences, from a utilitarian perspective, should not outweigh the notion of justice. In this way, utilitarianism can provide an excuse for those who commit wrongs for noble reasons. On the other hand, utilitarians may argue that the actions are actually not utilitarian because the long-term effects may have an opposite effect: less happiness for the greater number of people should lawful investigations not be trusted by society. This is an example of rule utilitarianism, where we can look at the benefits of having a rule that allows such actions (planning evidence) by law enforcement officers that would not promote the most happiness overall.
  • When utilitarian decisions benefit the majority at the expense of the minority, the minority's rights may not be taken into account. Utilitarian principles often run contrary to individual's rights, and at times are the antithesis to concepts of modern justice theories. When we are tempted to make a decision that will positively impact the majority, we must also consider the negative impact on the minority. In the example above, the detective who plants false forensic evidence on a suspect may feel that the maximum happiness to the majority of people makes the action ethical. However, the investigator is not respecting the rights of the individual suspect. Much the same way, when crime reduction policies, such as sex offender registries, allegedly promote community safety, offenders' rights are ignored due to the loss of privacy. This is especially so, given that studies indicate such registries are often ineffective and do little to protect the community.


Probably the most complex of all the ethical systems we look at here is Kantian logic, which is a deontological theory. The word deontology comes from the Greek word deon, meaning "obligation" or "duty". It is an ethical system primarily concerned with one's duty. It is also known as ethical formalism or absolutism.

Deontology was formulated by Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that the end result is not of primary importance; rather, the real importance is in determining the moral intent of a decision or action itself. Kant would assess the morality of one's action and disregard the consequences. He further believed that we have duties that are imperative and that these duties must never be abandoned, regardless of the anticipated outcome. These duties, according to Kant, are absolute and must be applied to everyone equally.

The notion of duty is important to law enforcement officers who are bound by law to perform their duty. A duty is something we are required to execute, regardless of whether we want to or not. The duty may have a personal or professional negative consequence attached to it, but as it is a requirement or obligation, it is absolute and/or imperative.

Kant distinguished two types of duties: conditional or hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives.

A hypothetical imperative is a duty that is necessary to accomplish a specific goal. It is something that we do to achieve an end. Banks uses the example of the duty of a student to study hard in order to get good grades. In law enforcement, we may look at the hypothetical duty of a patrol officer to write as many search warrants as possible to be considered for a detective job.

A categorical imperative is an unconditional rule or duty. Regardless of the impact on you that the decision may cause, the duty remains the same and must be done. In this way, the act is unrelated to the end result; it is a duty regardless of the outcome. One example in law enforcement is a domestic assault policy that imposes a duty on a police officer to charge a spouse with an assault if evidence exists. This is a duty regardless of the outcome or the wishes of the officer. The duty in this case is policy written by the British Columbia Attorney General's office. The categorical imperative does not only have to be written policy; a police officer who stops a violator may have a duty to write the ticket if certain conditions of the violator stop warrant it, such as the danger of the activity and the driving history of the driver. There is much to say about the categorical imperative for law enforcement; however, for the purposes of this book, we will concentrate on only a portion.

Within the categorical imperative, Kant states that "…every rational being, exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means". Kant is saying that we should never use people to attain our desired end result; that we should treat everyone with respect regardless of the outcome. O'Neil uses an example in which a person deliberately makes a promise to another person without ever intending to honour that promise. In this sense, the person who is being deceived cannot consent because the rule, or maxim, of the first person is not known. In a law enforcement context, a police investigator who promises a witness that she will not have to testify against someone if she gives a statement would not be respecting that person and would be using her as a means to an end. An officer would know that this is not a promise that should be made as it is ultimately up to Crown counsel to determine who testifies and who does not. Kant would argue that the promise is using the witness as means to an end, and therefore not ethical. A law enforcement officer must decide whether to follow a consequentialist perspective, in which the consequences of his or her actions are more important, or a Kantian perspective in which the witness ought not to be used as a means to the effective ends.

Coercion is also a way in which Kant would suggest that respect is not shown. Given the powers that law enforcement officers yield, coercion is a tactic that, while perhaps producing an effective end to an investigation, would be wrong in Kant's view regardless of the outcome because the coercion did not allow the other party to consent to the act. Kant's conclusion is the following maxim: "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end…"

Q. How can deontological theory assist law enforcement in moral dilemmas?

Universality. Kant suggests that we should consider the implications of our actions as if they were universal. If we are considering not paying transit fares by jumping over the turnstiles, we should consider the implications if all transit users did not pay. In a law enforcement context, we should consider the ramifications of our actions. For example, a lead investigator may consider misleading the media in order to trick a suspect into making a mistake and exposing himself. When the investigator applies the universality rule (i.e., the spectre of all investigators lying to the media universally), it allows the investigator to consider the negative ramifications of the action, even if the lie was made with the intentions of bringing out a moral consequence. This is comparable to rule utilitarianism, in which the universal application of actions should be considered.

The importance of duty. Law enforcement officers are required at times to fulfill their duty no matter what the personal costs. When confronted with a duty that they may not want to perform, the officers should consider that they agreed to perform duties when they swore their oath. These duties must be performed by someone, and when this duty falls to them, they must do their duty. For example, a patrol officer who does not want to criminally charge an acquaintance must consider her duty and the oath that she took when she joined the agency. The caveat to duty is that the duty must be done in good faith; that is, the duty should not be performed if the officer is aware that there is a lack of morality in the duty. It is often said among experienced police officers, "you are paid not for what you do, but for what you might have to do". This maxim refers to dangerous duty that you may not want to do, but are paid to do, and ought to do.

Law enforcement officers facing a dilemma in which rule utilitarianism and Kantian logic are at odds should further understand that the choice between the two schools of thought will yield different outcomes, and that the two schools of thought will help the officer understand the options and how to rationalize the decision made. It is not easy to know what option to choose, but officers should take into account the stakeholders involved, including witnesses, suspects, society, the agency and of course themselves.

Respect. Kant believed that a person should never be treated as a means to an end. The moral decision that a person makes must not in any way take advantage of a person. An example is lying to a person to gain "something" in return, even if the "something" is good or a conclusion that will assist and help people. An example in a law enforcement context would be an investigator using an informant to obtain information on another suspect, while offering the informant the chance to remove a charge, when the investigator knows that this will not happen.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics has its historical background in ancient Greece and was primarily developed by Aristotle. For the purposes of law enforcement, the major foundation in virtue ethics is the idea that if you are a good person, you will do good things, and to be good, you must do good. In essence, we do not do good things because of an analysis of the end result or of an equation to decide how many people to help versus harm. Rather, we do the right thing, or good thing, because of our good character as demonstrated throughout our life. Therefore, the good act is an automatic response requiring little thought. However, when faced with complex ethical dilemmas, the person who has demonstrated a life of good character will show good character, using temperance and intellect. The real question for Aristotle was not, "what should I do?" but rather "what type of person ought I be?" When our answer is that we ought to be a virtuous person, we are likely to act in a virtuous manner, and therefore in an ethical manner.

Aristotle also spoke of flourishing in life, or living in a state of well-being. He used the word eudaimonia (from the Greek eu, "good," and daimon, "spirit;" commonly translated as "happiness" or "welfare," but more accurately as "human flourishing") to express the state of well-being and living a flourishing life. Within this context, Aristotle concentrated on virtues and vices. Virtues are strengths of a person's character that promote flourishing and well-being. Conversely, vices are character flaws that impede flourishing and limit one's sense of well-being.

Hinman writes of different types of virtues that Aristotle proposed:

  • Executive virtues are examples of "strength of will," such as courage and perseverance.
  • Moral virtues are related to moral goodness. Examples are compassion, generosity, truthfulness, and good temper.
  • Intellectual virtues are related to the ability to consider options. Examples are wittiness, wisdom, and understanding.

When we look at some of these virtues collectively, we can see that they project attributes that we want law enforcement personnel to possess. In a law enforcement context, society has expectations of officers who:

  • Are courageous. Officers who are willing to put themselves in harm's way, in order to enforce the law, to protect people and property and to prevent crime.
  • Demonstrate perseverance. Officers who are not easily deterred from doing the right thing or  investigating crimes.
  • Exhibit compassion. Officers who are able to empathize and sympathize with lawbreakers and victims and who understand that situations are complex and that everyone deserves respect.
  • Act with generosity. Officers who offer themselves off duty by volunteering and who try to better the lives of others through community service.
  • Show truthfulness. Officers who are trustworthy and who can be counted on to speak the truth, even when the truth is embarrassing, or results in a not-guilty decision in a case that is important to the officer.
  • Display good temper. Officers who, when confronted with difficult situations, stay calm and who are able to withstand pressure to react physically or verbally.

The virtues listed above are attractive to law enforcement agencies, and people who demonstrate these virtues are those who law enforcement agencies and all other branches of public service want. Vichio suggests a list of core virtues that law enforcement personnel should possess. They include:

  • Prudence. Officers with the ability to decide the correct action to take when rules and policy are not present.
  • Trust. Officers with the ability to be relied upon for truth. This must exist between officers and civilians, officers themselves, and officers and the courts.
  • Effacement of self-interests.  Officers who do not abuse their position of authority or gain favouritisms due to their position.
  • Courage. Officers who place themselves in danger intellectually and physically. Officers who are not afraid of testifying in court and/or making arrests in tense and intimidating settings.
  • Intellectual honesty.  Officers who act while weighing what they learned in training and whose actions reflect their training and their academic abilities.
  • Justice. Officers who treat everyone fairly, regardless of personal biases, and who act toward individuals as if looking through a veil of neutrality.
  • Responsibility. Officers who understand what is right and that there are other courses of actions, but have the intent to do right. Officers who can be counted upon to keep oaths, and to be accountable.

The Center for American and International Law identifies what they term the Six Pillars of Character. They created these pillars with the assistance of 30 national leaders and ethicists. The six pillars that they identified as being the most important characteristics of an ethical police officer are:

  1. Trustworthiness. Includes integrity, promise-keeping, and loyalty.
  2. Respect. Treating everyone with respect, regardless of any biases or provocations.
  3. Responsibility. Includes accountability, pursuit of excellence, and self-restraint.
  4. Justice and fairness. Includes equity and demonstrating due process.
  5. Caring. Showing concern for others. Showing consideration for decisions that affect others.
  6. Civic virtue and citizenship. Being socially conscious. Demonstrating concern for one's community.

Q. How can virtue ethics assist law enforcement in moral dilemmas?

As mentioned previously, law enforcement agencies place a great emphasis on good behaviour of their officers. One way to ensure a strong likelihood of good behaviour is to hire those who have moral character that reflect the values of the agency. In clearly identifying these characteristics, agencies are likely to attract those who also identify with these characteristics.

  1. Virtue ethics, at its core, is also simplistic, having two tenets that are important for law enforcement. There is no need to measure consequences or the morality of the action. Simply, the task is to be good and do good acts. If officers are good, they will act in a virtuous manner.
  2. There is a need to practise virtue. By practising being virtuous, you will become virtuous in difficult situations automatically. Given this view, it is critical for law enforcement agencies to ensure that applicants wanting to join the agency have practised being virtuous to the point where it has become a habit. Applicants who have practised the virtues listed above will be officers who demonstrate those virtues by habit.

Ethics of Care

Also known as feminist ethics, ethics of care is primarily concerned with caring for others. This has evolved from the need to care for those who cannot care for themselves, such as infants. It is a system that assists us in our relations with other people and thereby strengthens how we positively interact with people. The concept of ethics of care is consistent with many peace-keeping and peace-making roles within law enforcement. Officers routinely find themselves refereeing non-assault domestic and civil arguments while attempting to bring a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Ethics of care is, at times, an important perspective for law enforcement officers when they see a person in need and decide to perform an act of care or kindness. Officers who perform a caring act are, according to ethics of care, acting out of compassion rather from a sense of duty; it is within this context that ethics of care can be a reminder to law enforcement officers that often an ethical solution may be to make peace through consensus and understanding, rather than resolve issues formally through charges.

Ethics of care also supports the notion that issues should be resolved with compassion while building human relationships. In this way, a person should strive to build relationships with the community or individuals. With individuals, the building of rapport is critical to providing compassion to those in crisis and/or need.

Q. How can ethics of care theory assist law enforcement in moral dilemmas?

Building rapport with members of the community is an important aspect of community policing. This enables officers to identify issues and to deal with them with compassion. For example, an officer who builds rapport with students in a high school may become aware of a bullying situation. It is with compassion that the officer will be pushed to action to resolve this issue. Or an officer who is called to a grocery store to arrest a mentally ill street person who is stealing food may, instead of arresting the suspect, find an alternative route, such as connecting the suspect with a social service agency, or arranging for a social worker to help the person find a home.

Law enforcement officers should attempt, where possible, to address such issues with compassion and respect for all the parties involved.


Unlike other theories that prescribe how we ought to behave, egoism is a descriptive principle that does not tell us necessarily how we ought to behave, but rather why we behave the way we do. It infers that the person who acts in an egotistical manner does so because it is natural to act in this way, and therefore it is a moral action unto itself.

According to the tenets of egoism, the core reason that someone does any action is self-serving by bringing happiness or some other benefit to him- or herself. If someone performs an action that appears to be altruistic, the action was likely performed to give the actor gratification in some way. This may come in many forms; for example in the form of positive media attention, or just feeling good about oneself.

The following example may illustrate how a heroic act by law enforcement officers may be viewed differently through the lens of egoism. On June 10, 2014, Vancouver police detectives witnessed a shooting on the seawall in Yaletown. A gunfight ensued in which the suspect was able to escape via bicycle. Armed and reloaded, the suspect pedalled away and was followed by one of the detectives. The suspect fired at the pursuing detective, narrowly missing her. The detective pursued the suspect while being shot at until other police officers arrived who shot the suspect in an exchange of gunfire.

Most people would look at this case and believe that the detective was selflessly trying to apprehend a dangerous suspect before anyone else was shot. While this may be true, proponents of egoism would suggest that the detective acted in her own self-interest because capturing the suspect would satisfy her happiness, that she wanted media attention, or that she thought her actions would look good to her colleagues, thereby making her happy. This is a cynical view of her actions, but may help us understand why some people act in a way that puts them in danger.

Another way to demonstrate egoism is to place yourself in a situation in which you see someone who requires help. Suppose you decide that not assisting would cause you to feel guilty, thereby troubling you. As a response, you assist the person. From an outsider's perspective, you were acting selflessly and in the interest of the person who was requiring assistance. The end result of your actions, though, was twofold:

  1. Your actions assisted the person in need.
  2. Your actions made you feel good, allowing you to rid yourself of that troubling feeling resulting from guilt.

Q. How can egoism assist law enforcement in moral dilemmas?

Egoism does not suggest that police officers should act in their own self-interest; certainly this would not be appropriate for law enforcement personnel. Where egoism may help is to better understand why people do things that may appear selfish. This may help us develop empathy for the suspects that appear to be selfish and allow us to better understand that their actions are driven by egoism. Egoism may also assist us in understanding the motives of others, allowing us to look at these motives with more skeptically than we would otherwise.

Egoism can also provide explanations of misconduct among law enforcement officers. Officers who abuse the trust placed on them by society and abuse their authority could be said to be acting in an egoistic state. In this sense, law enforcement officers are  acting in their own self-interest and not in the interest of their agency, the individual citizen who was the target of and officer, and society in general. Ultimately, the end result of bad behaviour by law enforcement personnel, according to Souryal, is "arguably feeding one's ego".

In a broader sense, ethical egoists may also view everything we do as an extension of a desire to live at peace in a society that respects all; every positive action we take is actually selfish activity, so that we can make a better society to live in. In this way, egoists can be positive in their actions making what are apparent good and ethical decisions. However proponents of the egoist theory would suggest that the decisions are at their root self-serving, and therefore egoist in nature.

Criticisms of Egoism

Egoism is an attempt at explaining how we naturally behave with our own interests as a central focus, and that we ought to behave in this way. However, it is an overly cynical perspective on how humans behave. There are plenty of examples of selfless acts that are committed every day and go without notice. While it is true that many donations are made and good deeds done with the expectation that positive publicity will be generated for the giver, this does not necessarily mean that the giver's sole purpose is to gain publicity. It is possible that publicity is a by-product of giving. Furthermore, while it is in the interests of people to make decisions that will better society, there is no evidence that everyone makes these decisions based on self-interest. If these decisions were universalized, then the world would be a markedly poorer place to live in.

Religion or Divine Command Theory

Religion is often considered the most widely used system to make ethical decisions and to conduct moral reasoning. Throughout the world, people rely on a variety of religions to help them determine the most ethical action to take. While divine command theory is widely used throughout the world, there are differences: the application of the theory may differ from religion to religion, and it may differ within each religion.

One of the basic tenets for divine command theory is to use God as the source for all principles. In this way, to rely upon divine command theory, a person must believe that there is a willful and rational god that has provided the direction toward an ethical outcome. It is from God's commands that actions are determined to be right or wrong and, because of this, divine command theory provides an objective assessment of what is ethical or moral. However, there is ambiguity in the way in which some scripture is interpreted.

According to Pollock, there are four assumptions of divine command theory:

  1. There is a god.
  2. God commands and forbids certain acts.
  3. An action is right if God commands it.
  4. People ascertain what God commands or forbids.

Divine command theory also provides an explanation of why ethics and morality are so important. In religions, good acts are rewarded in the afterlife, while bad acts condemn the perpetrator to an everlasting punishment. What essentially makes religion such an incredibly powerful ethical system is that there is the spectre of a potentially eternal punishment in the afterlife. This notion of eventual punishment reinforces in its followers the necessity to make ethical decisions based on the commands of their god.

Barry describes that understanding God's will is done in three ways:

  1. Through individual conscience
  2. By religious authorities
  3. Through holy scripture

Q. How can divine command theory assist law enforcement in moral dilemmas?

It is important for law enforcement officers who do not practise religion to be cognizant of the importance of religion with believers. As religions provide the most commonly used ethical systems in the world, law enforcement personnel, regardless of their own beliefs, must be aware that not only will some officers refer to scripture, so too will members of the public. It is at times difficult for non-believing officers to understand the power of religion and the importance of its meaning to believers. Non-believers must be cognizant of situations in which, to them, decisions based on divine command theory may seem odd or unethical, but are ethical to the believer. This does not mean that the law does not apply, but that care must be taken to act with empathy when dealing with these situations.

Generally, for officers who believe in God, a source of comfort may be present when facing death or other traumatic events that non-believers may not experience. Officers dealing with death may find comfort in the belief that those who die may be in a better place, that their soul is eternal, and that death may mean that the soul goes to heaven. Believing that death is not the end, but a new beginning, may help officers who practise religion deal with pain and suffering.

Officers are routinely involved in circumstances in which situations appear to be unfair and where innocent bystanders are victimized with tragic outcomes. Officers who believe in God are also able to look at these situations and find comfort in the belief that God has a plan for everyone, even those who have been unfairly victimized. These officers can draw strength from their belief that the apparently random victimization wasn't so random, and that God was acting in a way that, while hard to explain, is planned for some reason only known to God.

Specifically, divine command theory can offer officers a written or prescribed direction to morality. Officers who are faced with a situation in which their values clash with society may fall back on divine command theory for direction in grey areas. An officer who is surrounded with unethical activity by officers, other criminal justice workers, and people on the street may be able to withstand pressure to join in the immoral practice with the belief that God commands moral behaviour toward everyone and prohibits such things as theft through corruption.

Officers could also use divine command theory to reaffirm in their own minds what is right, even when the Criminal Code or other legislation is unclear on a particular issue. By officers asking themselves what would God command or prohibit, they may be able to make a decision that they can justify.

Finally, officers who believe that God is always good would therefore believe that all of God's commands and prohibitions are good. By interpreting scripture, following the directions of religious authority, or making individual  interpretations of God's command and prohibitions, officers are therefore able to do good, understanding that ultimately it is God's commands that they follow, and therefore their actions are good.

Criticisms of Divine Command Theory

While religion may be the most common ethical system employed, it has many issues that can be problematic if used as a moral guideline for law enforcement officers. For law enforcement officers in a pluralistic society, who are entrenched in religious doctrine and make ethical decisions based on that religious doctrine, their ethical decisions will not be acceptable with numerous segments of the society that they are sworn to treat equally. While decisions based on religious doctrine may be satisfactory for a law enforcement officer in his or her personal life, they can create difficulties in the workplace. An example is a law enforcement officer who refuses to enforce a court order to clear a group of Christians protesting abortion. The Christian officer may take offecse to such an order, in spite of the court's ruling and society's general acceptance of abortion.

Specifically, in a criminal justice context, Rawls viewed religion in public life as something that was out of place and that should, instead, be a private affair. Our religious and personal morals should be put aside when doing the business of the public. It is important, according to Rawls, that workers in government institutions not demonstrate their religious affiliations because we all receive benefits from living in a pluralistic society and that, as a result, we ought to withhold our religious and personal morals to ensure equality.

Other criticisms of divine command theory include:

  • Religious scriptures are generally ancient and are hard to interpret against the complexities of today's society. As a result, religion as an ethical system does not provide specific ethical guidance to specific ethical dilemmas. Scriptures are ambiguous and are generally broad in nature.
  • There are many religions in the world, with each possessing different prescriptions for morality. Religions have different gods from one another that are worshipped. Does the god a person chooses make a difference? Can you pray to the "wrong" god, or no god?
  • Science has no evidence of the existence of God. Without a belief in the existence of God, divine command theory loses its authority among a large portion of the population who base their lives on science and empiricism.
  • If we do believe in God, "who" determines what the commands are is not absolutely known or agreed upon. Within religious sects, arguments about who interprets commands is commonly a schism that separates factions.
  • Those who believe in God can interpret the commands in their own way, thereby creating different interpretations to the solutions sought for ethical dilemmas; consequently, there can be confusion about what exactly is God's will.
  • Contradictions in scripture are confusing. On one side there is mention of the sanctity for life, but there are interpretations that are cited by fundamentalists that provide allowances to cause death to other humans. The most commonly used example of this is in the Quran, in which one passage reads that infidels are to be caught and slayed, but another preaches that Allah loves transgressors. Interestingly, the first verse, it is argued by Muslims, is taken out of context, and refers to Muslims providing self-defence. Interpretations as to what constitutes self-defence further complicates when this verse should be enacted. Should an infidel, in the eyes of a fundamentalist, be slayed for what the fundamentalist deems as an insult, and therefore an attack?
  • The notion that the might or power of God should be the basis of our ethical decisions indicates that the morality of the decision is based upon the fear of God's might and power. If this is so, then is the decision really an ethical decision, or is it coerced?
  • If God is omnipotent, and is also the basis of morality:
    • How can we rationalize the suffering of innocent children in developing countries?
    • Is this God's plan to allow this to happen? If it is, how can we call this moral?

Natural Law

Natural law was espoused by Saint Thomas Aquinas, who viewed the world as being created by God and understood that humans are rational beings capable of using their intellect to comprehend the world. By extension, God enabled humans to reason in a natural way to make ethical choices. Aquinas viewed the first principle of natural law as: "good is to be done and promoted, and evil is to be avoided". Simply put, natural law asserts that what is good is natural, and what is natural is good. Unlike Thomas Hobbes' cynical view in the social contract theory, Aquinas viewed humans as being naturally inclined to do good rather than evil.

Because of the natural inclination toward doing good, Aquinas viewed morality as a universal set of rights and wrongs that are shared across cultures. He delineated two basic human inclinations:

  1. To preserve one's own life
  2. To preserve the human species

Followers of natural law would suggest that the decision is moral if it furthers human life or preserves one's own life. Should the decision go against human life or preserving your own life, the decision is immoral.

Q. How can natural law assist law enforcement in moral dilemmas?

Natural law can reaffirm in officers the importance of their job, that being to preserve their own life and the human species. Officers could be reminded that property is not as important as life and that their sole function should be public safety, rather than the protection of property, which is one of the common law duties of police officers.

Officers could also use natural law as a reminder of the importance to preserve their own lives when confronted with dangerous situations, and that is natural to want to protect oneself.

Criticisms of Natural Law

A problem inherent in natural law is defining what is natural. A proponent of natural law may deduce that homosexuality is unnatural because it does not preserve the human species. However, biologists have documented many different species that engage in homosexual behaviour. Many people consider homosexual behaviour as unnatural; however, it is seen among a variety of animal species, therefore the case for this being a natural activity is strong.

Social Contract Theory

Social contract theory is another descriptive theory about society and the relationship between rules and laws, and why society needs them. Thomas Hobbes proposed that a society without rules and laws to govern our actions would be a dreadful place to live. Hobbes described a society without rules as living in a "state of nature". In such a state, people would act on their own accord, without any responsibility to their community. Life in a state of nature would be Darwinian, where the strongest survive and the weak perish. A society, in Hobbes' state of nature, would be without the comforts and necessities that we take for granted in modern western society. The society would have:

  •     No place for commerce
  •     Little or no culture
  •     No knowledge
  •     No leisure
  •     No security and continual fear
  •     No arts
  •     Little language

Social contract theory is a cynical, but possibly realistic, view of humanity without rules and people to enforce the rules. An example of a society in a state of nature can at times be observed when a society is plunged into chaos due a catastrophic event. This may occur in because of a war, such as happened in Rwanda, or by cause of a natural disaster, such as what happened in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In both of these examples a segment of society devolved from a country in which the rule of law was practised to a community in a state of nature. Rules and laws were forgotten and brute force dictated who would survive. Unfortunately, without laws and rules, and people to enforce those laws and rules, society devolves into a state of nature.

In general, even without the calamities of natural disasters and war, Hobbes assumed people would strive for more wealth and power in what could be described as a "dog eat dog" society, where, he believed, people will do whatever is required to survive in a state of nature, where rules and laws are non-existent. This would mean that people will act in "wicked" ways to survive, including attacking others before they are attacked themselves. With rules in place, people feel protected against attack.

In a state-of-nature society, the strongest would control others that are weak. Society would have no rules or laws forbidding or discouraging unethical or immoral behaviour. People would be forced to be solely self-interested in order to survive and prone to fight over possession of scarce goods (scarce because of the lack of commerce).

For Hobbes, the solution is a social contract in which society comes to a collective understanding - a social contract - that it is in everyone's interest to enforce rules that ensure safety and security for everyone, even the weakest. Thus, the social contract can deliver society from a state of nature to a flourishing society in which even the weak can survive. The degree to which society protects the weak may vari; however, in our society, we agree to the contract and need the contract to ensure security for all.

The social contract is unwritten, and is inherited at birth. It dictates that we will not break laws or certain moral codes and, in exchange, we reap the benefits of our society, namely security, survival, education and other necessities needed to live.

According to Pollock, there are five main reasons that laws are required in society:

  1. The harm principle: to prevent the serious physical assault against others that would be victimized.
  2. The offence principle: to prevent behaviour that would offend those who might otherwise be victimized.
  3. Legal paternalism: to prevent harm against everyone in general with regulations.
  4. Legal moralism: to preventing immoral activities such as prostitution and gambling.
  5. Benefit to others: to prevent actions that are detrimental to a segment of the population.

Problems with the social contract theory include the following:

  • It gives government too much power to make laws under the guise of protecting the public. Specifically, governments may use the cloak of the social contract to invoke the fear of a state of nature to warrant laws that are intrusive.
  • From the time that we are born, we do not knowingly agree to a contract and therefore do not consent to the contract. An outflow of this thought is a movement entitled the "Sovereign Citizens" or "Freemen of the Land". The FBI identifies these movements as individual citizens who reject government control and "the government operates outside of its jurisdiction. Because of this belief, they do not recognize federal, state, or local laws, policies, or regulations". The FBI considers these movements as domestic terrorist threats.
  • If we do accept the contract and wish to abide by it, we may not fully understand what our part of the contract is or ought to be.
  • Contracts can be unfair for some. For example, the poor do not get the same benefits of the contract.

Q. How can social contract theory assist law enforcement in moral dilemmas?

While social contract theory does not tell people how they ought to behave, it does provide a basis to understand why society has implemented rules, regulations, and laws. If not for the social contract theory, our understanding of the need for these rules would be limited.

Specifically for law enforcement, social contract theory is important to justify the power that law enforcement can exert over the population as a whole. The power imbalance, held by law enforcement, is part of the contract that society has agreed upon in exchange for security. Where the contract can be problematic is when the power used by law enforcement exceeds what is expected by society under the contract.

Rawls' Theory of Justice

John Rawls was a contemporary philosopher who studied theories surrounding justice. His theories are not focused on helping individuals cope with ethical dilemmas; rather they address general concepts that consider how the criminal justice system ought to behave and function in a liberal democracy. It is for this reason that it important that all law enforcement personnel be aware of Rawls' theories of justice or at least have a general understanding of the major concepts that he puts forth.

Rawls' theory is oriented toward liberalism and forms the basis for what law enforcement, and the criminal justice system, should strive for in a pluralistic and liberal society. Borrowing from some concepts of social contract theory, Rawls envisions a society in which the principles of justice are founded in a social contract. However, Rawls identifies problems with the social contract that do not allow fairness and equality to exist among members of society and therefore proposes a social contract which is negotiated behind a "veil of ignorance". Here the negotiating participants have no idea what their race, gender, education, health, sexual orientation, and other characteristics are so that the social contract is fair. Ultimately, Rawls argues that the primary concern of justice is fairness, and within this paradigm Rawls identifies two principles:

  1. "Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others". Rawls goes further by allowing each person to engage in activities, as long as he or she does not infringe on the rights of others.
  2. "Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage (b) attached to positions and offices open to all…". Likewise, everyone should share in the wealth of society and everyone should receive benefits from the distribution of wealth. Rawls does not argue that everyone should be paid the same, but rather that everyone should have benefit from a fair income and have access to those jobs that pay more.

These principles should be adhered to, according to Rawls, to ensure that disadvantages are neutralized and everyone receives the same benefits of justice.

Rawls further addresses ethics in the individual, though this is not the central tenet of his theory, and is somewhat of a general statement of how moral people should behave.

Moral Relativism

The principles of morality can be viewed as either relativist or absolutist. Moral relativism refers to the differences in morality from culture to culture. A moral relativist's perspective would state that what is moral in one culture may not be moral in another culture, depending upon the culture. This is important for police officers to understand in a pluralistic society in which many cultures and religions make up the community where the police officer works. It is important for officers to appreciate that what may be immoral in a traditional Canadian sense may not be moral to members of a culture traditionally found outside of Canada. In realizing this, officers may be able to withhold judgment, or at the very least empathize with the members from that community for what in the officer's perspective may be an immoral act.

Morality in policing is, in most cases, relativistic since police officers are prone to accept moral standards that allow them to achieve goals within the police subculture, often at times contrary to the morals within mainstream society. It is moral relativism that enables police officers to accept lying to suspects in interviews in order to gain confessions, or to witnesses to gain compliance. In this instance, an officer may believe that lying is not morally permissible in certain circumstances, but is permissible in other situations. Another example in which a moral relativist perspective may assist an officer is in understanding circumstances surrounding physical punishment of children who misbehave. A culture may maintain that physical puinishment is morally permissible, even though in Canada the same punishment may be in violation of the Criminal Code. It is helpful for officers to understand this while investigating these offences, so that they can build rapport and empathize with suspects, and use moral relativity as a theme in interviews to alleviate the guilt the suspect may feel.

Contrary to relativism, moral absolutism refers to the belief that morality is the same throughout all cultures; that what is right in one culture is right in all cultures and what is wrong in one culture is wrong in every culture. Here, the immoral act is always wrong, no matter the culture, because there are universal rules governing morality. Police officers who are absolutists would reject lying, relying instead on a deontological perspective in which the consequences of the lie do not matter.

Moral relativism is a meta-ethical theory because it seeks to understand whether morality is the same in different cultures. Proponents of moral relativism do not observe universal rules governing moral conduct; rather, moral rules are contingent on at least one of:

  • Personality
  • Culture
  • Situations

The difficulty with applying relativism to the police culture is that it does not take into account the diversity of individuals that make up the police culture. One of the initiatives of community policing is that police agencies now recruit from a wide range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. This diversity within law enforcement is reflected by the wide array of attitudes that police have toward various issues and the change that has occurred within policing. The ability of cultural norms to change is ever-present, and norms can and do change to reflect the values of other cultures. Ultimately, cultural relativism reflects the notion that what is right is permissible in the culture the actor is within and that moral principles are not universal. Within the policing context, the moral underpinnings of members of the police subculture are often in step with the morals of mainstream society, but at times they are not.