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The Ethical Trap

Once caught in the ethical trap, few people can escape.

A rookie police officer smelled alcohol on his training officer's breath as he entered the driver's side of the squad car at the beginning of the shift. The training officer admitted he drank one glass of wine with dinner, but the rookie suspected he was under the influence. To avoid an awkward confrontation, the rookie chose not to challenge his training officer's ability to drive. Shortly thereafter, the squad car collided with another vehicle. The driver of the other vehicle was killed. The rookie was required to write a signed sworn statement regarding the accident. He began to write his statement, but soon realized that he was caught in the ethical trap.

The ethical trap consists of two ethical decisions: a primary ethical decision and a secondary ethical decision. A poor primary ethical decision often leads to a secondary ethical decision. A secondary ethical dilemma is inherently more difficult to resolve because not only does the secondary decision need a resolution but the primary decision, now judged as errant, requires justification. If the rookie lies to protect his training officer, he faces administrative action or worse if the truth is revealed. If the rookie tells the truth and admits that he knew or suspected his training officer was intoxicated, then he must explain why he did not immediately report his training officer to the watch commander. Once caught in the ethical trap, few people can escape.

Ethic Codes

Ethic codes establish guidelines for conduct and behavior. The inherent power of a code of ethics rises no higher than the collective moral character of those who subscribe to the code. Theoretically, a code of ethics sets guidelines for ideal behavior. However, in reality, it represents minimum standards of behavior. Typically, after achieving minimum standards, motivation to achieve higher moral and ethical standards becomes less ardent.

Unfortunately, ethical decision-making models, no matter how elaborate, cannot adequately portray the complexity of many ethical dilemmas. Contrived scenarios in a classroom differ significantly from real-life ethical dilemmas. In the classroom, detached participants provide idealized solutions that neatly fit a proscribed code of ethics. In a classroom setting, if anyone who is asked what the rookie should have done when he smelled alcohol on his training officer's breath answers other than, "The rookie should have immediately reported him," risks indignation and ridicule. However, making the right decision in real life demands strength of character because the reality of circumstances often blurs the line between right and wrong.

If the rookie would have reported his training officer, the rookie would have done the right thing and he would have theoretically saved a life, precluded his training officer from an intense administrative inquiry, and lifelong guilt. However, the theoretically saved life, the intense administrative inquiry, and the lifelong guilt are inconsequential because, in reality, the loss of life never occurred, the intense administrative inquiry never took place, and the training office never felt the pangs of guilt. No one will realize the potential impact of the rookie's action because he made the right ethical decision.

Without knowing the true impact of his ethical decision, the rookie is stuck with reality: The training officer despises the rookie because his actions initiated an administrative inquiry. Additionally, the other members of the police department are likely to ostracize the rookie for reporting a fellow officer. The rookie made a courageous decision but his actions could end his career in law enforcement, at least in his current police department.

Ethical Decision-Making Process

The ethical decision-making process consists of two questions: What should I do? and What will I do? When making an ethical decision, a person conducts a personal risk-benefit analysis. Studies confirm that people confronted with ethical decisions do less than they believe they should do and choose a course of action that benefits themselves first over the benefit of others or the community at large.

Reporting the training officer carries certain personal risks. Ideally, the rookie should make the right ethical decision notwithstanding the consequences; however, in reality, he risks angering his training officer, losing the trust of his fellow officers, and risking the possibility of ostracism.

In this scenario, the rookie knew the answer to the question, "What should I do?" but chose not to act accordingly. If the rookie chooses not to report his training officer and nothing happens, the rookie preempts personal harm and a secondary ethical dilemma. A problem only arises when a primary ethical decision results in an adverse event, in this case a fatal accident. The rookie made a personal risk assessment and gambled that no adverse action would occur. The gamble is a high-stakes one because once an adverse action takes place, the primary ethical decision cannot be changed and the rookie gets caught in the ethical trap.

Avoiding the Ethical Trap

Living an ethical life reduces the number of ethical dilemmas a person faces. Unethical people instinctively refrain from inappropriate behavior in the presence of ethical people, especially a person who holds unethical people accountable.

If the rookie historically made ethical decisions regarding both large and small acts, then the probability of his training officer coming to work intoxicated lessens significantly. In the event the training officer came to work intoxicated, the rookie could offer the training officer two options: take the day off and go home or face the consequences. This course of action forces the training officer to make a decision and takes the burden off the rookie. However, if the rookie habitually made ethical decisions, the act of reporting the training officer will meet the expectations of the rookie's peers. In fact, the other officers probably would experience more shock if the rookie did not act ethically. In this event, the training officer likely would become the victim of his own bad decision, rather than the victim of betrayal.

An ethical decision consists of a series of choices, not simply one decision. Making bad primary ethical decisions increases not only the number of choices but also the future impact of those choices. More important, a bad primary ethical decision spring-loads the ethical trap, resulting in an increased potential for legal or administrative action or unresolved intrapersonal conflict.