Major Ethical Systems

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.

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.