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Loyalty as an Ethical Value in Public Service

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

By JoAnne Speers
December 1, 2023

Magnet and figures of people. Customer acquisition and retention.

The very first column in this series offered the concept of core values as a useful set of referents in determining what the “right thing” to do is in a particular situation. The column drew on Institute for Global Ethics research identifying “universal core values” resonating across cultures, nationalities and religions. The column referred to the values of trustworthiness, fairness, respect, responsibility and compassion as examples of such core values.

Some may believe this list omits an important value: loyalty. To be sure, loyalty can be an admirable trait, particularly in personal relationships. It has also arguably served humanity well from an evolutionary standpoint. But what about in professional contexts, including public service?

Experience suggests that loyalty is at best a double-edged sword when it comes to determining what the right thing to do is in a workplace situation. This column explores why.

Loyalty as an Inappropriate Decision Motivator

Loyalty’s flaws as a decision-making criteria often arise when loyalty becomes the sole or default decision criteria to the exclusion of other core values. In other words, as  R. E. Ewin concluded, loyalty becomes the raw material for vice and unethical decision-making when it requires setting aside one’s good judgment. Behavioral ethicists warn us that loyalty can engage our emotional and reactive decision-making tendencies (“System 1”), instead of our more deliberative and analytic (“System 2”) thinking. 

Loyalty as a Precursor to Complicity in Unethical Acts

Max Bazerman devotes an entire chapter of his book Complicit: How We Enable the Unethical and How to Stopto the proposition that misplaced loyalty can make one a party—intentionally or not–to unethical outcomes.

He notes that any number of our System 1, more emotional thought processes, can cause us to be complicit in unethical conduct. Among them are underweighting the risks of inaction (omission bias) or allowing ourselves to be distracted from the wrongdoing, either because we are focused on other aspects of our work (which causes the ethical dimensions of situations to fade from our awareness) or the “slippery slope” phenomenon where small transgressions lead to larger ones in a less noticeable way (also known as incrementalism). Our inclinations to do what we are told to do (obedience to authority bias) can also be a factor.

Fear of retribution and a desire not to lose our livelihoods (self-serving bias and motivated blindness) can also keep us from speaking up against wrongdoing.

A well-studied example is the enabling behavior that allows sexual harassment to occur, as Peggy Cunningham and Minette Drumwright have explored. Bazerman supplements those with chilling accounts of the networks that enable the “Blue Wall of Silence” surrounding police brutality to occur.

California’s City of Bell scandal is an additional public sector datapoint for the dark side of loyalty. That scandal, which the prosecuting district attorney famously described as “corruption on steroids,” involved the then city manager misappropriating millions of dollars in city funds from a small-working class suburb in southern California. According to a variety of sources, the manager actively cultivated staff loyalty, with the goal of encouraging some to directly assist in his efforts and others to turn a blind eye. Not surprisingly, the whistleblower that refused to look the other way faced retribution not only from the manager, but other city colleagues.

Loyalty Hierarchies as a Form of Rationalization

The September column explored the concept of rationalizing—or efforts to justify unethical behavior. One of the common forms of rationalizations is something called “appealing to higher loyalties.” As an example, scholars cite a study indicating that many police officers felt no ambivalence about perjuring themselves if the alternative was to testify against a colleague.  The reason, they concluded, is that the perjuring officers value loyalty to one another above their loyalty to the justice system and truth-telling. 

To What Should Public Administrator Be Loyal?

A helpful practice whenever one is pondering how to reason through the values considerations in a situation is to see if there are relevant provisions in one’s profession’s code of ethics. In this regard, the ASPA Code of Ethics and associated practices offer public servants sound advice on where—and where not–to place one’s loyalty. 

The ASPA Code specifically counsels public servants to subordinate personal interests and institutional loyalties to the public good (ASPA Code and Practices Provision #1d) and to resist organizational pressures to engage in unethical conduct (#6c and 7d). It also encourages public servants to speak up against such wrongdoing and support others in so doing (#6c, 7c and d). In short, a public servant’s loyalty must be to the public good.

With such loyalty to the public good comes an obligation to act. As Richard Jacobs observed, Section 7d of the ASPA Code and Practices encourages public administrators to address situations involving wrongdoing, including reporting them internally or even externally if necessary.  A previous column in this series describes strategies for minimizing the risks associated with doing so.  This recent column by Parisa Vanzant offers additional ideas.

Author: JoAnne Speers, MPP and JD, trains and consults on public service ethics. She previously served as chief executive of the Institute for Local Government, where she developed and directed its ethics program. JoAnne has also taught ethics as an adjunct professor and was recently inducted as a NAPA Fellow. Her email is jspeers@strategies4ethics.

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One Response to Loyalty as an Ethical Value in Public Service

  1. Ken Cooley Reply

    December 4, 2023 at 7:45 pm

    Democratic institutions are founded upon a kind of resolve to maintain fidelity – a type of loyalty – to agreed norms, but the content of those norms is all-important. The loyalty needed in a democracy is not that of fealty to a personality but loyalty to a fundamental understanding of the system of government.

    It has always struck me as important that in California, public officials take an oath pledging “consistent loyalty” not to any person or party but to the Constitution of the United States and the State of California.

    This type of resolute loyalty or fidelity to something greater than any individual is why 1100 years later we still marvel at the enormity of the Magna Carta in world history. That same idea remains a central conception within democracy, spanning within its scope the twin pillars of “separation of powers” and “balance of power” is why the power of legislative oversight into the conduct of the other branches of government remains a hallmark of health bicameral and bipartisan legislative institutions. It’s the lawmaker’s “superpower”.

    Name Ken Cooley

    Email Ken [email protected]


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