Ethics: More Than Just A Set of Rules

(from Maine Townsman, July 1990)
By Michael Josephson

Though the following article may be somewhat dated, it is still believed to include information that may be useful to the reader.

I don't agree that ethics in government is an oxymoron (like jumbo shrimp). But I do think it is important to recognize that there is a constant conflict between the practical realities of politics, personal ambition and the democratic ideal of selfless public service.

Ethics and politics place very different demands on persons which are not easily reconcilable.

While ethics is a branch of philosophy concerned with moral duties and how persons should behave, with regard to both ends and means, politics is an intrinsically pragmatic enterprise which judges people and acts only in terms of the effective use of power and the achievement of results.

Ethics is based on adherence to the universal moral principles of honesty, integrity, promise keeping, loyalty, fairness, caring and respect for others, law abidingness, pursuit of excellence and accountability.

Yet many argue that these principles are only loosely applicable to politics, which has its own morality, including the notion that "all’s fair in love, war and politics."

There are two vital steps to ethics: knowing what is right and doing it. In the real world of politics, both are difficult.

Though ethics legislation may be the issue of the day, those who really want to improve the ethical quality of government need to acknowledge the limited role of laws and the more important role of character and commitment.

"Public office is a public trust." This maxim, supported by the related idea that participatory democracy requires public confidence in the integrity of government, lays the foundation for the ethical demands placed on people in government and the laws that establish standards of behavior.

Laws and rules are appropriate when they concern the use of public funds, property, facilities and influence, and in safeguarding the independence of public officials by specifying unacceptable forms of conflict of interest. Laws are needed to establish minimum norms of behavior, clarify the responsibilities of government officials and employees, and prevent abuse of public office.

Referring to such laws and rules as 'ethics laws' or 'ethical standards,' however, is misleading and counterproductive. Misleading because the laws deal only with a narrow spectrum of ethical issues facing professionals in the public sector; counterproductive because it invites those subject to the regulations to treat the minimalist laws as standards of ethical propriety.

This also encourages a legalistic approach to ethics that honors no more than the letter of the law and induces people to use narrow technical rules as the only moral criterion of conduct. This creates the attitude, "If it's legal, it's ethical."

Although laws can coerce limited compliance, they are far too narrow and minimal to provide a substitute for ethics.

We expect too much from laws and demand too little from people.

We should insist that all public officials develop the skill of ethical decision-making and that every piece of ethics legislation includes a provision for ethics training.

The vast majority of people in government are fundamentally decent and want to do the right thing. In fact, most engage in elaborate rationalizations to justify ethically dubious conduct in order to convince themselves that they are acting ethically.

Public officials can create a positive ethical culture that fosters and rewards moral behavior and discourages improper conduct.

Leadership by Example 

A person preaches a better sermon with his life than his lips, because the most potent inspirational technique is to lead by example.

The Golden Rule is not only an invaluable guide to ethics, it is a most effective method of leadership.

One who wants colleagues or subordinates to be honest and candid must be honest and candid with them. One who wants others to keep the letter and spirit of their commitments, must keep commitments.

On the other hand, hypocrisy and inconsistency, even on small matters, can destroy trust and the ability to exercise moral leadership. It helps me to remember the story about the father who, upon finding that his son had taken a set of colored marking pens from school, rebuked him, told him he had to return the pens and apologize to the teacher, and concluded, "If you needed pens why didn't you tell me? I would have taken some from the office?"

Values Orientation

In establishing an ethical culture, assure that all individuals, especially newcomers, know about and understand the laws, rules and values that should guide their behavior. A well-planned orientation program is vital.

Its goal is to create pride in public service that strengthens moral resolve and the commitment to high ethical standards.

Dealing With Laws and Public Expectations

Abiding by the law is a moral imperative for people in government. There is no surer way to a front-page scandal than violations of the law, even technical ones. Thus, all public officials must know about relevant laws and policies. Simply providing booklets or manuals is not enough; few read them and even fewer can understand them without clarification.

While reviewing these rules, stress the role and limitations of external regulations, including the fact that ethics laws do not cover many areas of potential problems and that technical compliance with laws is necessary, but not always enough. A person can be dishonest, break commitments, and be unfair and unaccountable without breaking the law.

Laws cannot replace the need for a sensitive conscience or free one of the moral obligations to adhere to traditional ethical principles. To encourage acceptance of the moral obligation to abide by both the letter and spirit of the law, use every opportunity to clarify the reasons for the rules and the importance of the 'appearance of impropriety' test.


Unify individuals within the organization behind the traditional ethical values. One way to do this is to appeal to the common interest of all members in the ethical behavior of every individual. Group meetings and meetings with representative employees to develop a spirit of community and mutuality are important. Make all employees understand that it's to everyone's advantage that people in government must be, and must be perceived to be, ethical.


Identify pressures and factors that create ethical problems so that the group's goals and purposes with respect to these problems can be clarified. An ethics program should come from within an organization rather than be imposed from without in order for it to take hold. Survey both the people in the organization and those served by it to discover ethical problems and issues relevant and responsive to the needs of the organization.


Specify minimal standards of behavior for common situations, guidelines for analysis and decision-making in matters not specified, and clear statements of the ethical values and principles underlying the standards and guidelines.

Anticipating Unintended Consequences

A critical dimension of ethics education should focus on the ability to perceive latent ethical issues. Much inappropriate conduct is caused by insensitivity to the ethical implications of actions. Consequences neither intended nor anticipated often sneak up on an official's blind side.

Did former Attorney General Edwin Meese III evaluate the significance of his ongoing transactions with his good friend Bob Wallach?

When Gary Hart made his decision to see Donna Rice in his Washington condo, did he consider the risks and consequences to his candidacy, his family, his loyal staffers, and his supporters?

Was Speaker of the House Jim Wright thinking clearly when he allowed a full-time staffer to prepare a book for private publications and arranged a 55 percent royalty?

Use training strategies to enable people to anticipate and evaluate the practical and moral issues arising from decisions. One way to do this is to encourage decision makers to analyze systematically their options in terms of the ethical principles of honesty, integrity, keeping promises, loyalty, fairness, caring and respect for others, abiding by the law, and protecting the public trust.

Also, teach people to consider systematically how the decision will affect those affected by it.

Recognizing the Causes of Unethical Conduct

Sensitize decision makers to the factors that tend to overcome ethical instincts: self-interest, self-protection, self-deception and self-righteousness.

For example, rules imposing restrictions on the receipt of gifts, loans, or otherwise lawful money-making activities can seem oppressive and unfair, especially to those who believe they have already sacrificed their financial well-being to serve their government. Similarly, post-employment laws seeking to regulate the use of influence on former associates and subordinates can severely limit earning opportunities. People commonly perceive such rules as unwarranted, technical and senseless intrusions into private domains--even personal insults to integrity. Armed with these grievances, it becomes easier to disguise self-interest as righteous indignation, and to deceive oneself into believing that breaking or evading the law is justified.

Encourage employees to anticipate these reactions and to understand that their rationalizations are not essentially different from those of any other person who feels put upon by an unjust law. Obeying so-called "ethics laws" is simply part of the job.

Self-interest tends to dull one's ethical sensitivities. When personal interests are at stake, objectivity is almost impossible.

In such cases, people tend to overweigh the importance or miscalculate the justification for the questionable conduct. At that point, the ethical decision-maker will seek counsel from an objective outsider.

One way to increase the likelihood of voluntary good faith compliance with rules and adherence to the ‘appearance of impropriety’ test is to stress the fact that all people in public service have the opportunity and moral obligation to advance the image of good government. An ethically centered person should consciously advocate and adhere to high moral values and willingly avoid actions that jeopardize that image. An ethically centered person will understand that actions that could damage public confidence are, for that reason alone, improper.

 Ethical Competencies

Seeing the ethical issues (ethical consciousness) and wanting to do the right thing (ethical commitment) are not enough. There is still the matter of doing ethics, and ethics is easier said than done.

An ethics program should improve the ability to evaluate facts and make reasonably reliable predictions about the likely consequences of decisions.

Many people overestimate the costs of being ethical and underestimate the costs of compromising ethical values.

For example, decisions that involve deceit or secrecy often create collateral risks that are either not seen or evaluated properly.

An ethics program should improve proficiency in creative, realistic problem solving by teaching methods of developing alternative solutions and establishing them. Many public-sector professionals fail to choose the 'high road' because they believe that the consequences of the ethical decision are too costly. Programs should provide structures and approaches that will help an ethically committed person minimize or eliminate undesired results of a matter.

Finally, a comprehensive ethics program should incorporate methods to reinforce positive ethical behavior and discourage improper conduct by including issues of ethical sensitivity and performance in recruiting, hiring and promoting, developing means of rewarding ethical conduct and sanctioning unethical conduct, and establishing methods of discussing ethical problems and how to deal with them.

Although it's comforting to believe that honesty and ethics always pay and that dishonesty and impropriety always cost, observations do not support these as invariable conclusions--especially in the short run.

As a result, many fundamentally decent people abandon the "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" version of the Golden Rule in favor of the more cynical and pragmatic formulation of "Do unto others before they do unto you."

People in public service who want to be ethical, to do the right thing, must face up to the fact that they are occasionally at a disadvantage in competing with people who are not constrained by ethical principles.

In moral terms, it's better to lose than to sacrifice integrity. You cannot turn moral commitment on and off. What you are willing to do to 'win' depends on how you define the game. An ethical person simply cannot win by being dishonest, disloyal or unfair any more than you can 'win' a golf match by cheating.

About the Author

Michael Josephson is president of the Joseph & Edna Josephson Institute for the Advancement of Ethics, a tax exempt nonprofit membership organization which offers ethical decision making programs for public officials, journalists and others. The Institute publishes a quarterly entitled, Ethics: Easier Said Than Done. For more information, contact the institute at 310 Washington St., Suite 104, Marina del Rey, CA 90292. This article, an edited version of the original, is printed here with permission of the author and Western City, where it appeared in the March 1989 issue. It may appear suspicious, but Mr. Josephson is no relation to MMA's Jo Josephson.