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Ethical Blindness in Public Life

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Terry Newell
July 12, 2016

There are volumes of ethics laws for public servants and training alerts them to these requirements. So, why did schedulers at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) falsify patient appointment wait times?  How did the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) end up singling out conservative groups for special scrutiny in their applications for tax-exempt status?  These actions were not illegal, but they were unethical. Clearly, ethics laws cannot guarantee ethical behavior. Something is wrong that legislation could not and cannot fix.

The ethics apparatus in government does much good, but its subtle message can be: “If it’s not illegal, it must be OK.” The focus on what not to do can excuse public servants from thinking carefully about what they should do.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, dogged by her decision to use a private email server, tried to put that controversy to rest by saying it was for convenience. In short, she saw a management problem and chose an efficient response. She did not see (others might argue did not care about) a lurking ethics issue: a conflict in moral values. How should she balance efficiency with transparency and privacy with full disclosure?  In failing to confront this question, she invited questions about her integrity.

The Ethical Iceberg

She is not alone, as the VA and IRS also now know. Such problems can emerge from a blind spot. Ethics issues are embedded in some decisions that appear to be solely management or technical questions. Thinking of all the potential ethics issues we might face as an iceberg floating in the ocean of government decision making, those that involve questions of law and regulation are the tip of that iceberg, the part visible above the water. We can see them coming. Yet there are ethics issues below the water line, hidden from view in what appear to be just management or technical problems, waiting to tear into the hull of our integrity and effectiveness. We are not willfully unethical. We just don’t see what we need to see.

Slide2Motivated Blindness

So, the VA, IRS, and Secretary Clinton might have had ethical myopia. Work by business professor Max Bazerman suggests that there can also be another kind of ethical blindness. Sometimes it is in our self-interest not to see an ethical dilemma. VA supervisors, intent on meeting wait-time performance metrics, had a powerful incentive to ignore the ethical consequences of the pressure they put on schedulers. The IRS, faced with an overload of applications, had an incentive to ignore the ethical implications of grouping “like” applications. Bazerman calls this motivated blindness because while we want to be ethical, when it does not seem in our self-interest, we can be unethical.

Is There a Way to “See” More Clearly?

Avoiding ethical blindness is hard to do alone. We don’t see what we can’t (or prefer not to) see. There are, however, ways to sharpen our ethical eyesight:

  • Improve the ability to spot value conflicts to ensure you know when you have an ethical dilemma. As illustrated partially below, at least three values sets may be at work in any government decision. Conflicts can occur within or across values sets. At the IRS, for example, efficiency conflicted with equality and fairness. 


Constitutional Values Organizational Values Personal Values
Representative government Efficiency Achievement
Due process Effectiveness Honesty
Separation of powers Chain of command Fairness
Equality Timeliness Compassion
Responsiveness Collaboration Responsibility
Subordination of military Creativity Freedom
to civilian authority Stewardship of resources Loyalty


  • Bring in other viewpoints, especially from people without a vested interest in the issue or in pleasing you. They may spot value conflicts you can’t. They may see where motivated blindness lurks.
  • Think about the public servant you want to be. Ask yourself: is what I am planning to do consistent with my commitment to public service and my cherished values?
  • Watch out for rationalizations, such as “it’s legal,” “everyone does it” and “I had no other choice.”
  • As Bazerman suggests, be wary of language euphemisms. “Enhanced interrogation techniques” replaced “torture” in the language about prisoner interrogation, enabling many to blind themselves to the ethical questions they should have confronted.
  • Don’t act in the heat of the moment. Lots of unethical decisions get made under the pressure of time, circumstance and emotion. When these are at work, consider any decision as tentative. Revisit it the next day, when you have had a chance to calm down.

Hardly any public servant wants to be unethical. Many that end up crossing ethical boundaries wonder how it happened. Avoiding ethical blindness won’t solve every such problem, but good sight is better than hindsight.

Author: Terry Newell is president of his training firm, Leadership for a Responsibility Society and is the former dean of faculty of the Federal Executive Institute. His latest book is titled, To Serve with Honor: Doing the Right Thing in Government. Email: [email protected]

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