Ethics and Society Overview
Society has always had a pronounced effect on ethical behavior, particularly in law enforcement practitioners. The importance of integrity and ethical consciousness was evident throughout the entire history of the profession (Norberg, 2013). The actions in general and particularly the ethical behavior of the police reflect the society in which the police functions. For example, suppose society does not allocate sufficient resources to care for those with mental illnesses. In that case, the police officers will likely be unprepared to deal with such populations and thus conduct themselves unethically (Jones & Mendieta, 2021). This example raises the question of how we should develop and apply the enforceable law in a world that is not ideal and has inherent injustices. For instance, how should the police enforce the law that has been democratically approved yet is deemed unjust. According to Jones and Mendieta, police work “comes with the ethical responsibility of evaluating the law and which aspects of it to prioritize” (2021, p. 8). This responsibility stems from the societal expectations of law enforcement practitioners’ ethics. Just as the police can help the community achieve its ideal state, its support is vital for law enforcement (Jones & Mendieta, 2021). Thus, law enforcement practitioners need to match societal expectations to maintain productive relationships with the public.
Throughout history, society has played a central role in the development of the law. Among earlier examples is common law, which merely formalizes and legitimizes internal community rules. Even today, common law continues “to play a significant role in the development of the law” (Schmalleger & Hall, 2017, p. 9). In a modern democratic society moral values of prominent groups play a central role in the legislation process. Specifically, the legalization of medical marijuana has been an area of law directly affected by changing societal views on the problem. A recent study shows that “morality perspectives of states … have a significant effect on the adoption of medical marijuana laws” (Kim, 2019). Like societal expectations define how law enforcers prioritize the laws, societal values define legislation and changes therein. It is the direct responsibility of the criminal law to “support fundamental social values” (Schmalleger & Hall, 2017). Thus, lawmakers must fulfill their duty by following the changes in those values and adjusting the legislature accordingly.
Relationships between morality and ethics within American law enforcement reflect the diversity of the practitioners and their moral views. Within borders of a particular state, all police officers hold an ethical obligation to uphold the same state’s law. However, those officers can also have diverse moral values, defined by their background, religion, family history, and other factors. While a moral dilemma stemming from a clash of ethical responsibility and personal morals is unlikely for some officers, others face such conundrums regularly.
Finally, society’s changing views impact ethical guidelines within American law enforcement directly. Evolving societal opinions often lead to changes in legislation, as discussed above. Still, the legislation changes are slow, while the new moral standard’s impact on how society views and evaluates the actions of police officers can be immediate. Furthermore, with the prevalence of recording devices and social media, every action taken by a law enforcement practitioner can and will be taken to the court of society’s judgment. Any actual or perceived misconduct of a law officer can receive extensive public attention and undermine the mutual trust between the police and the community (Monaghan, 2017). Thus, law enforcement practitioners must regularly revise and update their ethical guidelines to maintain mutually beneficial relationships with the public. With such updates, the police can not only better serve its community but also evolve itself.
An ethical dilemma is a situation in which a person must make a difficult choice between two or more alternatives, where at least some of those alternatives will cause the person to betray either their ethical and moral values or their personal values. In scenario two, the ethical dilemma stems from the clash between legislative necessity and personal morals. Many exemplary cases of ethical dilemmas in the law enforcement practice describe such a “clash between individual values, morality, and legislation during a police intervention” (Norberg, 2011, p. 35). In scenario two, the police officer must enforce the law prohibiting driving impaired by alcohol or other substances. However, the officer might be motivated by the case’s specific circumstances to turn a blind eye to the incident.
The dilemma in scenario two challenges normative ethics, which defines moral standards, regulates our conduct and categorizes actions as right or wrong. More specifically, the scenario puts the police officer in a situation where personal motivations challenge their ethical obligation to uphold the law. Unlike other dilemmas, this one does not offer two unethical choices, thus leaving the subject to choose the lesser of the two evil. Here, it is clear which action is right within the ethical standards for law enforcement practitioners. Still, the surrounding circumstances make taking the morally right action challenging, as it can lead to irreparable damage to one’s reputation, carrier, and overall wellbeing.
Several factors determine the difficulty of choice in scenario two. First, the alcohol smell and impaired movement and speech of the mayor suggest he was indeed under the influence. The mayor sitting in the driver’s seat and the absence of other people in the car indicate that the mayor was driving. The contradiction between the mayor’s statement and the lack of skid marks suggests that he was lying. Thus, there is significant evidence that the mayor was driving under the influence. Second, there are no witnesses in the area, and the mayor highlights that the officer did not see the mayor driving. Thus, the mayor’s crime could prove challenging to prosecute. Third, the mayor indirectly threatened the police officer by emphasizing the mayor’s connections in the police department and his influence over the officer’s future carrier. The first group of factors drives the ethical dilemma in favor of taking the mayor in for the drug test. The second and the third groups of factors support the opposite course of action. Finally, perhaps the most significant is the fact that the car was severely damaged. This damage indicates the degree of recklessness and impairment in the mayor’s driving.
To make a choice in this scenario, one must consider the implications of both options. First, let us examine the consequences of bringing the mayor to the station for the drug test. The most negative but also least likely outcome is the mayor testing negative. In this case, the police officer had compromised his reputation and, possibly, future carrier without achieving anything, albeit without betraying their ethics. In the more likely outcome, the mayor is tested positive and is prosecuted for driving under the influence. The exact outcome for the officer’s carrier would depend on the following events, their coverage in media, and word of mouth, which can rely mainly on the mayor’s social standing. If the officer identifies the cause of the accident as an animal on the road, the mayor’s crime goes unreported and unpunished. The crucial implication of this event is the high possibility of reoccurring behavior leading to more substantial consequences. If the mayor’s actions go without repercussion, he will likely repeat the offense, leading to casualties. This implication of possible future victims is a fundamental deciding factor in this dilemma.
Jones, B., & Mendieta, E. (2021) Introduction: Police Ethics after Ferguson. In Jones, B., & Mendieta, E. (Eds.), The Ethics of Policing: New Perspectives on Law Enforcement (pp. 1-22). NYU Press.
Kim, G. J. (2019). Examining the predictors of medical marijuana legalization in the United States using an empirically based taxonomy approach. Policy Studies, 1-20. Web.
Monaghan, J. (2017). The special moral obligations of law enforcement. Journal of Political Philosophy, 25(2), 1-20. Web.
Norberg, K. (2013). Legislation vs. morality – a police officer’s ethical dilemma. Police Practice and Research, 14(1), 35-44. Web.
Schmalleger, F. & Hall D.E. (2017). Chapter 1: The Nature and History of Criminal Law. In Criminal law today (6th ed) (pp. 1-38). Pearson.