This is an important question. It’s an ethical dilemma that stands before every correctional professional because we shape, restrain, and reform the lives of our society’s convicts, both inside and outside of prison walls. In this way, we impact the lives of every member of our nation.
Whenever an ethical challenge is present, how you process this dilemma says a lot about you, your department, and the profession of corrections as a whole.
With the weight of this responsibility in mind, it’s important to define and understand the two basic ethical systems. We use these to process everything from simple, everyday challenges all the way up to those “rock and a hard spot,” potentially career-ending predicaments.
We call these systems the “deontological” and “teleological” points of view, and I will briefly discuss both of them here before looking at their implications for training and day-to-day procedures and procedures.
The Deontological Ethical System The deontological ethical system is grounded in the belief that how and why you do something is more important than the result(s) your behavior produces.
If your actions are inherently good, then it doesn’t matter what the outcome is — your conduct is ethically sound. Likewise, if your actions are inherently bad, then it doesn’t matter what the outcome is — your conduct is ethically wrong.
For example, take an inmate who wants to learn a trade. Driven by a desire to make a difference in that person’s life you work hard to get him into the proper training program. Once released, however, the individual uses the skills you helped him acquire to go out and commit further crimes. Were you wrong to assist?
Under the deontological ethical system the answer would be no. Your actions would be vindicated because your motivations were just, regardless of the fact that the results of those actions produced negative consequences. This is a process-oriented approach.
The Teleological Ethical System The teleological ethical system takes a near-opposite perspective. Under this belief system, the consequences of your behavior are the most important concern, not whether your actions were inherently good or bad. In other words, it doesn’t matter how you produce the results as long as the desired outcome occurs.
Going back to the same inmate scenario given above, the teleological viewpoint would find your behavior (teaching an inmate a trade that they ultimately use to commit further crimes) unethical because even thought you had good intentions, the end result was negative. This is an ends-oriented approach.
So which is better? Each viewpoint has obvious advantages and disadvantages. Some argue that those using a deontological perspective lack a sense of individual accountability because, for them, people are not responsible for the results of their behavior. In addition, they will highlight the subjective nature of what are (and are not) inherently good or bad methods of teaching or influencing others.
For instance: Does it really matter that you permanently scar one human being (an inmate) as long as it prevents him from hurting others?
In response, those opposed to the teleological framework will highlight that we can’t possibly control what convicts do after they leave our control, but we can focus on making sure we do our jobs right and justly. More importantly, they’ll emphasize the negative effects of the “do whatever it takes” attitude.
It seems like there is no simple, or universal, answer, especially considering the variety of variables. However, there is one extremely significant external factor that shuts down the teleological perspective.
We call it Noble Cause Corruption.
Noble Cause Corruption and Training Noble Cause Corruption is a teleological (ends-oriented) approach to an ethical dilemma that says good correctional professionals will utilize unethical, and sometimes illegal, means to obtain a desired result.
Remember, we are talking about good people — frequently, but not exclusively, officers — trying to do the right thing (Noble Cause), but due to bureaucratic red tape, a lack of evidence, or any other roadblock to “getting the job done,” they feel forced to bend or even break the rules to change the bad guy (Corruption).
The bottom line: Noble Cause Corruption, and thus teleological ideologies in general, dramatically increase the likelihood of a serious situation that could easily turn horribly messy, ending your career in corrections and, potentially, scarring or ending the lives of you and/or others.
So what do you do when faced with the temptation of Noble Cause Corruption? The answer is simple: Remember your training!
Today, a large portion of my research agenda is focused on both academy and in-service ethics training for officers.
On average, we’ve found, approximately one third of all incoming academy cadets have a teleological ethical ideology, which puts them at risk for Noble Cause Corruption once they begin their in-facility training.
While on the surface this may seem like bad news, the good news is that academy instructors — if they’re sharp and well-trained — can increase the focus of their training on conducting oneself in an honorable and professional manner.
How to Avoid a Crisis While there are a number of techniques that can modify the ethical orientation of new officers (keeping in mind that many new staff members come into the academy, or out of university, with unrealistic expectations of themselves and the profession), the following two techniques are simple guidelines any officer can use to help direct a rookie through a difficult situation:
1) Follow your P&P (policies and procedures): Every department has a standard set of P&P. When in doubt, especially if you’re a new, default to these tested and approved guidelines. At the very least, when Internal Affairs comes knocking at your door, you’ll not only be able to articulate how you did what you did, but more importantly why you did it. 2) Always Act Professionally (AAP): Sure, this sounds simple enough. But any seasoned professional knows how quickly rationality can be pushed aside by pride, stubborn goals, and/or adrenaline.
If you ever struggle with this, try to remember the following: “If you Always Act Professionally you’ll be less AAP to get in trouble. Yes, I know AAP should be spelled “apt,” but then it wouldn’t help you remember the rule!
I’ll cover this concept in more detail in a later article, but I’m guessing everyone reading this piece has a good idea of what AAP means.
Having worked in the criminal justice field for a number of years, I can certainly sympathize with the temptation to fall into the trap of Noble Cause Corruption.
We all have goals we’re expected to achieve. Officers, for instance, are expected to keep their module or unit in line, drug free, and running in an orderly fashion at all times.
When you’re not able to achieve these goals — especially when getting pressure from above to “do your job” — the temptation to adopt an ends oriented approach increases dramatically. But never forget that conducting yourself in an honorable and professional manner is always more important than the end result (a deontological perspective).
If you don’t believe me, take a moment and think of the people in your profession that you admire, respect, and someday hope to emulate. Chances are they’re the ones who believe the ends do not justify the means and act accordingly.
What is my Ethical Ideology? Would you like to know your ethical ideology? To do so, simply go to the following website and complete the brief on-line survey. All information is confidential (you don’t give your name) and once you’ve submitted your survey you’ll be given the results and a brief narrative of what they mean. There is no charge for this service to corrections personnel, but please only take the survey once.
Individual Ethical Ideology Survey (for individuals only, agencies or training officers please contact me directly for an agency review site):
Training officers: A number of agencies across the nation are currently using this online survey to assist them in the training of their academy cadets and in-service officers.
Trainees receive immediate individual results and training officers receive a class report and training recommendations within 72 hours. If you’d like more information about this free service, how it can be modified to fit your needs and how its use can improve your ethics training, please contact me, Dr. Bruce Bayley, at: email@example.com or 801-626-8134. NOTE: If you’ve contacted me before, but never received a response, please try again. Unfortunately my university server had filters that blocked some of those trying to reach me (I found this out through follow-up phone calls), but I’ve been told these issues have been resolved.
About the author
Dr. Bruce Bayley is a former Correctional Officer and Deputy Juvenile Probation Officer. After retiring from duty-related injuries sustained in corrections, Dr. Bayley currently works as an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Weber State University and adjunct instructor at the Weber State Police Academy. Along with research in ethics and correctional special operations teams, Dr. Bayley currently teaches courses in Ethics, Theories of Crime and Delinquency, Corrections, and Criminal Justice. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: 801-626-8134.