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The Ethics of Ethics

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

By Tracy Rickman, Ygnacio Flores and Don Mason
April 1, 2016

After Hurricane Katrina, emergency management program administrators experienced a paradigm shift in how they responded ethically to disasters. The response to Hurricane Katrina was marred with planning and response issues at the local, state and national level that rang with an ethical dilemma of segregation. A national response to this was the enactment of the post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006. Emergency managers had failed to plan for the entire population of almost every area affected by the hurricane. The social divide between those in the upper and lower social economic status was apparent and shameful.

Most recently, the lead poisoning experienced in Flint, Mich., and the lack of a meaningful response to this crisis has provided insight into ethical challenges where teleological and deontological influences where not developed or referenced in positive actions by the responsible authorities. In Flint, the decision to utilize water from the Flint River was an ethical choice not based on current knowledge of water safety concerns but of cost saving concerns. With more than 40 percent of Flint’s residents living below the poverty line, the decision to use a contaminated water supply at the expense of the impoverished added to the perfect storm of city planning gone awry. Yet, once the contaminated water from the Flint River was directly linked to the city residents’ health issues, the decision to “do the right thing” took months to enact. Only after the U.S. Attorney’s office in Detroit and the EPA opened up investigations did public administrators recognize a state of emergency. In hindsight, the decisionmaking process by Flint’s administrator’s begs a critical question: was the decision to use water from Flint River truly about cost savings or was it more?

Compounding the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the profession of emergency management was the 2014 arrest and conviction of New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin on graft charges stemming from ethical crimes, including misuse of federal funds designated for recovery programs. The mayor was not alone in attempting to make a profit from disaster. Several companies moved into the disaster area and provided services at a premium cost. When raising the question of right and morally acceptable ethical decisions our public administrators make, we must dissect their values, education and training tied to the topic. We must explore the virtue of their praxis and consider their actions. In the end, public administrators are those we elect to make decisions that affect our daily lives.

The outcry against these events have since been joined by ethical breaches in several other professions as evidenced by Enron, Healthsouth, Freddie Mac and AIG, to name a few. These cumulative events demanded that ethics be part of the professional requirement to serve in positions of special trust and confidence. Emergency management is one of these fields. However, how does one work ethics into professional development and performance?

For those in the emergency management profession, there is a requirement to receive training and/or qualification in ethical behavior. Has training and qualification in ethics brought any value to the field of emergency management? Does the process or curriculum used in ethical training and qualification sincerely serve to broaden the moral aptitude of emergency workers?

Ethical training has to include the development of a person’s ability to empathize with those in the disaster. This includes what their immediate and long terms needs are. Ethics also means making difficult decisions based on accepted social norms and morals, such as those used in establishing and operating an emergency triage station. Administrators of emergency management programs have to act within laws and other governing documents while balancing performance on saving lives. Here is the dilemma: does an administrator strive to save as many as possible or to save them all?

Ethics also includes the efficacy of fiscal responsibility. In the wake of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Boston Marathon Bombing, many administrators responsible for emergency management and public safety in general have spent funds on programs that may have made nice headlines but have served no viable purpose in the four phases of emergency management. Examples include militarized capabilities in the absence of visible threats, complex apparati that agency personnel are not qualified to operate and attendance at conferences that serve more as junkets than actual professional development (it is more not out of the ordinary for attendees to go the first day to hear the plenary speaker and get “evidence” of attending, and then enjoy the local entertainment).

Let us get back to the question of what is ethics. Is it moral? If so, whose moral values establish the standard? What community developed the morals? Are the moral values transferable? Are the actions just? This leads to the question of what jurisprudence is used as a measure.

Emergencies are unexpected events that require extraordinary leadership. It would be presumptuous to believe that a two-, four-, eight- or 24-hour class can make an administrator ethical. Ethics, and its associated synonyms, are best learned beginning with the high chair and not in the leadership chair. In an age of litigious mending, how does one impart the ethics of ethics?

Authors: Ygnacio “Nash” Flores, EdD, MBA, MPS, MA, is the dean of public safety academic programs at Rio Hondo College. Email: [email protected].

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One Response to The Ethics of Ethics

  1. John Pearson Reply

    April 22, 2016 at 6:12 pm

    The news today (May 22, 2016) is that 3 people are being indicted in the Flint water situation. And the column mentions that the mayor of New Orleans was convicted of graft in connection with Hurricane Katrina. We are a very litigious society. Ethical rules embedded in law are much more likely to achieve the desired result than codes of ethics that don’t have the force of law.

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