Ethics in criminal justice


According to the Encarta Electronic dictionary, ethics can be defined as the study of moral standards and how they affect conduct or a system of moral principles governing the appropriate conduct for a person or group.

An ethical system is basically is a source of one's personally beliefs of what is considered to be right or wrong. These beliefs can come from parental teachings, religious values, environmental circumstances or personal experiences. To further understand ethics we can see that it is divided into sub sections namely the Ethical Formalism System (Deontological), the Utilitarianism Systems (Teleological), Religion, Natural Law, Virtue, Care and Egoism.

The Deontological Ethical system, or otherwise called the nonconsequentialist system which relates to moral theories can be best described as a system which was dependent not on the result of the action but on the reason why the act was committed. That is, if the purpose for committing the act is good, then the act is considered good, despite the outcome. This is seen in the Ethical Formalism System, which was introduced by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who believed that the only thing that is inherently good is, good will and that if something is wrong once it will always be wrong, and this was also otherwise known as an absolutist system. He also said that certain actions will result in certain results, something he referred to as hypothetical imperatives.

On the other hand, the teleological system or consequentialist system can be considered to be the opposite of the Deontological system as it associated with the result of the action instead of the intent. That is, the act would be considered good only if outcome was good or if the intention was good but the result was unfavorable then the entire act would then be considered to be frowned upon. Utilitarianism, which can further be divided into two subsections (1) Act utilitarianism and (2) Rule utilitarianism, is an example of this system type, which, according to Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), was such that if the outcome of an act benefitted the society then the act would then be considered good, also, the benefit of the society was of greater importance than that of the individual citizen of the society. This meant that the individual would be sacrificed, so that the result would be beneficial to the society.

Although Ethical Formalism and Utilitarianism are examples of the Deontological and Teleological systems respectively and shows their disparity, there are other types of ethical systems that can defined using both Deontological and Teleological definition applications.

Religion, which can be defined as an institutionalized or personal system of beliefs and practices relating to the divine, can also be assumed to be the oldest of the ethical systems as it has been around from the dawn of time and has regulated the behavior of men by addressing the fundamental issues of life. Additionally in this system, both the Deontological and the Teleological definitions can apply as religion can depend on either the intent, the result or both put together to determine if an act is to be considered good or not. Additionally religion also relies on the interpretation of the Devine's instructions or the circumstances surrounding the action to again define its goodness.

Another ethical system, known as Natural Law, which has a definition that is similar to that of the Religion System but pays no allegiance to any deity. This type of system relies solely on the belief that what occurs naturally is good and the belief that general laws of nature can be applied as a system of justice for all societies, regardless of their individual culture or customs. Additionally this system places interest on both the intent and result of an action but shows its deference by using morality as its basis.

The foregoing systems of ethics dealt specifically with the circumstances surrounding the action, whereas with ethics of virtue, this system concentrates generally on the individual performing the act. In this system, the belief is that if the individual is considered a good person then the act would automatically be considered to be good. This would then make this system a Teleological one since the cause of his action will be looked at as his attributes will cause him to act in a particular manner.

The ethics of care system, which as the name depicts, is a system in which the morality of the action depends on compassion rather than rights and is sometimes referred to as the “Feminine Morality or Mother's Voice”. This system can also be considered to be the most humane of all the ethical systems as its determining factor of deciding if an action is good or not, is the ability of the individual to show a caring nature. This feature makes this system a teleological one as the intent of the individual is basically to do good which relies greatly on human relationships and needs and see that the benefit of society is always better.

Egoism is another ethical system that has its meaning close to that of the Care System as it deals specifically with caring. The difference with this system is that the individual cares not for the good of the society but of him-self and seeks to believe that what ever is good for his own survival and happiness is to be considered generally good. The only drawback with Egoism is that it can be considered to be against ethics and has potential to cause conflict.

Having looked at a number of Ethical Systems, it can be seen that the general concept was how an individual related to his actions and how society saw the action as being either good or not. That is whether society looked at the intention, result or personality of the individual in relation to the action. In addition, if members of society are affected, if the action was merely to obtain a particular result, if the action was accepted as a norm or was a positive influence to society or finally if someone else would perform the same act if placed in the same situation would all be dependent on if there was first a decision to be made to act.

The ability to perform an action that was able fulfill the aforementioned criteria would be referred to as making Ethical Decisions. Ethical Decision-making is a formative part of any social organization and ensures the smooth running of the organization. In order to decide weather an Ethical Decision was made in any given situation, the individual assessing the situation would have to possess number of basic attributes that must be applied, which would include sympathy, open-mindedness, commonsense, emotional stability and the ability to apply them without prejudice.

One such institution that will be affected by ethics would the Legal System who provides law enforcement for the society. As each individual would have their own method of showing ethical behaviour, each of the Ethical Systems would have an impact on law enforcement. That is for each system there would be individual considerations to be looked at.

For instance with the Utilitarianism system, the result of his action may be acceptable but the intention or methods may be questionable, or with the Ethical Formalism system, although the intentions my be good, the results may not be what he planned for, or even with the Egoism system where the actions of the individual are simply for self gain, neither the intention nor the result will be in the best interest of the department and by extension the society.

In this aspect it shows that ethics is a subjective system dependent on the individuals involved. This clearly shows that ethics should not relied upon to occur naturally but a process of action that should be thought to give a standard method of how to react in a given situation as to avoid any particular individual to rely on his own judgment in decision making. This standard method should be added to the basic training of law enforcement personnel and should also followed by follow-ups and retraining as to continuity and consistence.


Microsoft Student 2009 (Electronic)

Encarta Dictionary (Electronic)

Ethical Dilemmas and Decisions in Criminal Justice

5th Edition by Joycelyn M. Pollock