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The Means and Ends Dilemma

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A Teaching Topic in Ethics and Accountability

The Means and Ends Dilemma

This teaching topic considers when it is appropriate for public officials to take actions that violate widely held ethical norms or principles in order to prevent catastrophes or significantly advance the public interest. As a stark example, students are asked to consider whether it may ever be appropriate for governments to torture a terror suspect if doing so held the potential to save many innocent lives.          

Topic Learning Outcome: Students will be aware of some of the potential ethical dilemmas policymakers may face in their careers, and will understand the circumstances under which policymakers may consider taking actions that violate widely held ethical norms to achieve important public objectives.

Recommended Readings:

University of Toronto: PPG-2011 Ethics and the Public Interest

Michael Walzer, “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 2 (Winter, 1973), 160-80.

Arthur Isak Applbaum “Professional detachment: The executioner of Paris,” Harvard Law Review, 109 (1995), 458–486

Judith Jarvis Thomson, “The Trolley Problem,” Yale Law Journal 94 (1985), 1395-1415

University of Southern California: PPD-667 (Public Ethics)

French, Peter A. 1983. “Dirty Hands” In Ethics in Government. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall. Chapter 2 (Dirty Hands).

Newbold, Stephanie R. "Statesmanship and Ethics: The Case of Thomas Jefferson's Dirty Hands." Public Administration Review 65, no. 6 (2005): 669-677.

Bok, Sissela. Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. Chapter 12 (Lies for the Public Good).

University of New Mexico: PADM-590 (Ethics in Public Administration)

Dobel, J. P. Public Integrity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. Chapter 5 (Staying in: The Ethics of Commitment in Office) – Chapter 6 (Getting Out: The Ethics of Resigning from Office)

Sample Assessment Questions:

1.) Imagine that you are an advisor to Prime Minister Trudeau during the October Crisis. Write a two-page memo to the Prime Minister either in support of or in opposition to the use of the War Measures Act.

Page Created by: Matthew Seddon and Ben Eisen, last updated by James Ban 17 August, 2015


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School of Public Policy and Governance