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Ethics, morality, and virtue: A foundation for modern training

By Dr. Bruce Bayley

Training officers to identify and address the broad spectrum of ethical issues they’ll face during the course of their career can be a daunting task. As with any good program, building upon a firm foundation will strengthen and improve the content being presented, as well as correct the application of the key principles being taught.

In a vast majority of ethics training today, the concepts of ethics, morality, and virtue are often used interchangeably. This is a mistake because each of these topics highlights vastly different concepts that, in the end, actually work in conjunction with each other. To emphasize these dynamics, however, a definition of each term is needed:

• Ethics – the philosophical examination of what constitutes right and wrong or good and bad behavior
• Morality – the function of applying ethical principles (technically you don’t have ethical behavior, your have moral behavior)
• Virtue – thought or behavior guided by high moral standards

As you can see, ethics are technically the cognitive assessment of what an officer can or can’t do (or should and shouldn’t do), while morality is the actual application of these assessments. A moral officer takes the ethical concepts and applies them correctly, while an immoral officer does not.

A virtuous officer moves beyond moral behavior to a higher stage of achievement. We all know people who do the right thing, but nothing more. Their actions are moral. Then there are those who go the extra mile. They not only do what is right, but they also set a standard of behavior to which everyone else can strive. Their actions are virtuous. Remember, you can be moral and not be virtuous, but you cannot be virtuous without also being moral.

To get a better sense of the relationships between ethics, morality, and virtue, and how these concepts can be used to strengthen or create a training program, let’s refer to the Officer Behavior Cycle shown in the diagram below:

Stage One: Ethics
For any program to be successful, you must first perform a critical review of what behaviors your department considers right or good, and then insure your officers are made aware of these ideals. Many agencies already have a standardized Code of Ethics that outline these concepts, but keep in mind that your Code of Ethics should be more than a stale document that takes up space on a wall. Rather, the Code should reflect the current needs and expectations of your officers and their profession, while at the same time integrating the cultural uniqueness of the community or environment they serve. Take your time in creating these assessments, because a Code of Ethics is more than just a statement of what an officer should or shouldn’t do; it also sets the foundation for the second phase of development – morality.

Stage 2: Morality
While Ethics forms the main cog in the Officer Behavior Cycle, officers cannot become virtuous without first addressing morality. Remember, morality isn’t only the understanding of the ethical ideals expressed in your Code of Ethics (such as taking a training class or signing the Code of Ethics), it’s also the internalization and practical application of those principles. This is why your ethical evaluation is so important – it drives the application of these principles in day-to-day interactions and duties. To help reinforce the correct application of these ideals, be sure to recognize and acknowledge officers who are “doing the right thing.” By doing this, you not only highlight moral behavior through positive reinforcement, but at the same time provide motivation for those in your department to strive towards the third and final stage in the Behavior Cycle – virtue.

Stage 3: Virtue
Before moving on to virtue, it’s important to emphasize that those officers who, for whatever reason, stay at Stage 2 are still an asset to your department. Their conduct is in line with the expectations of your agency and they’re meeting the ethical beliefs that are central to your mission. Virtuous officers are the gold standard – what we should all strive to be. These individuals are aware of the ethical values outlined in Stage 1, correctly apply them in Stage 2, and continually strive to exceed them in Stage 3. Ideally, these officers are placed in leadership positions, from running a module, to overseeing a unit, and finally up to leading your department. From a training perspective, be sure to set your ideals for virtuous behavior low enough so the majority of your officers feel that such conduct is “doable,” but not so low that everyone can achieve them. As with your Code of Ethics, virtuous attributes should be periodically reviewed so they continually challenge each person, while at the same time remaining consistent with your mission and culture.

Although this article focuses primarily on the Officer Behavior Cycle for individuals, keep in mind that these same principles apply to your department as a whole. When conducting the philosophical examination of what constitutes right and wrong or good and bad for your officers, be sure to perform the same assessment for your agency. How should your agency operate as a whole and what are the guiding principles that direct these actions? Are you taking these principles and correctly applying them in your interactions with your officers, adjacent agencies, vendors, political entities, and so on? Finally, what are the virtues that you want your agency to be known for and how will you strive to achieve them?

By successfully integrating the concepts of ethics, morality, and virtue in your training, both your officers and your agency will become an ideal that other facilities will strive to match.

Note: For more information on Codes of Ethics, please look for an up-coming article By Dr. Bruce Bayley addressing the topic.

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