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Ethical Dilemmas: The Crucibles of Public Service

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

By Robert Brescia
September 20, 2020

An ethical dilemma or ethical paradox is a decisionmaking problem between two possible moral imperatives, neither of which is clearly acceptable nor preferable. The complexity arises out of the situational conflict in which obeying one would result in transgressing another.

In public service, there is hardly any room for transgressions of ethical imperatives. Most public servants, “Live in glass houses with the curtains open,” as former Texas Attorney General John Ben Shepperd used to say. Therefore, it is important for public servants and elected officials to understand their code of ethics and more importantly, subscribe to it—no room for error. When I was in the military, we used to say that there are three types of offenses that could get you gone in a heartbeat: 1) Security breaches, 2) Money misallocations and 3) “Zipper” offenses—no explanation needed on that one.

Following are some examples of ethical dilemmas that may constitute a personal “crucible” for you—an inflection point at which you must reach down for some intestinal fortitude (guts) to solve. Choose what you feel is the best answer.

Situation #1: The Officious Intermeddler.

You are a manager at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Your boss asks you to target the nonprofit organization called, “We Are Against Whatever You Are For.” He asks you to audit their financials and to squelch their request for tax exempt status. He also asks you to obtain sensitive tax data so that it can be used by a political party’s campaign.

  1. Provide the tax data but don’t do the audit—that would raise a red flag to the organization.
  2. Provide the tax data but ensure that it is provided to both political parties.
  3. Refuse to comply with these directives, as they are unethical.
  4. Remind your boss that complying with his directives could endanger him and the entire department. If he disagrees, then notify the Inspector General’s office.

Your answer: _______________________

Situation #2: The Parking Garage.

You return to your car in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) parking garage after several hours of absence. When you open your car door, it flies out of your hand and dents the car next to yours. You feel confident that no person or camera saw this incident. What should you do?

  1. Leave a note on the car’s windshield with your contact info explaining what happened.
  2. Get out of there fast!
  3. Hang around for ten minutes to see if the other driver returns to his car. If not, skedaddle rapidly.
  4. Call the (defunded) police.

Your answer: _______________________

If you were to change the facts around a bit, would your answer change? What about if you absolutely know you were seen or captured on camera? How about if your young child in the back seat saw the whole thing? What if the car you dented belonged to a Meals on Wheels driver who was delivering meals to extremely needy elderly residents?

Situation #3: To Pull (or not) the plug.

Your critically ill mother, a retired U.S. Senator, is a patient at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The doctors and nurses are turning to you to make medical decisions on her behalf. These doctors tell you that there is little chance of recovery. She is not in any pain. There is no living will on hand and you must decide to pull life support or not. What should you do?

  1. Find out what the last will and testament says first.
  2. Have the doctors pull the life support.
  3. Have the doctors continue the life support.
  4. See what the insurance will cover.

Your answer: _______________________


Ethical crucibles are what make and reveal the character of a public servant. There is no room for gray areas—only the whole and complete truth will count. There is no relativism—only universal truth about what is right, expressed by the many ethical guidelines that govern what public servants say and do. Remember what our parents taught us: “If you tell the truth, you won’t have to remember anything!” By the way, I like the following answers from the four situations listed above: 1) 4, 2) 1, 3) 3.

Author: Dr. Robert Brescia is a senior executive with service to the nation in military, business, and education. He respects the wisdom of generations, promotes learning, and teaches ethics to university students. Bob’s latest book is Destination Greatness – Creating a New Americanism. Bob has a doctoral degree with distinction in Executive Leadership from The George Washington University. Contact him at [email protected].

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