Developing the Individual and Organizational Ethic: An Interview with Dr. Jeff Fox, PhD

Ethics, whether we realize it or not, is a foundation of our governmental and justice system — even of our very society in which we live.

So what happens when our individual ethical values don’t match the ethics of the organizations we work for?


Check out this recorded webinar when Dr. Jeff Fox discusses:

  • ethical responsiveness, or lack thereof,
  • ethical approaches and public safety issues,
  • organizational responsibility, accountability, and liability,
  • personal accountability, responsibility, obligation, and duty.


Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Let’s start with the basics. We all hear the term “ethics” bantered about. But what is ethics and how does it relate to the law?

Dr. Jeff Fox PhD:  Ethics means a moral code or philosophy.  Ethics relates to moral action, conduct, motive or character or ethical emotion.  It means professionally right and conforming to professional standards of conduct.

It is important to note that ethics rise above what the law requires. Law is actually the least acceptable level of human behavior a society has decided to tolerate. One may stay within the confines of what is statutorily legal but might still fall outside the bounds of what is ethical.



Ethics rise above what the law requires.

Law is actually the least acceptable level of human behavior

a society has decided to tolerate.


Let’s look at a potential ethical dilemma. A child is drowning in a pool. You did not push the child in and have no criminal liability. However, you just stand there and watch the child drown. Under pretty much any ethical framework you have acted unethically, even though you did not act at all.

Let’s use Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics. With virtue ethics, we are to seek the mean and avoid excess and defect. There are ten basic virtues of which four are cardinal. By not doing anything this was in the defect. I would say it violated several virtues in that is was cowardice, less than due, unresponsive, lazy, and overly cautious. So, what should this person have done? It depends on many things. What was around and what were this person’s abilities? He or she might have called for help. If trained he could have attempted a water rescue or at least attempted to throw a line to the child or a flotation device. These acts would have been in the mean.  So, what about the reverse of defect which would be excess. This could have occurred as well. If the person could not swim at all and jumped in and also drowned that would be excess in that it was rash.

One could argue it was courageous, but it was still rash in that he did not help and only made matters worse. Under Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which really creates a universal rule, the same results apply. Kant would argue along the lines of do unto others. We would want someone to help save us from drowning but not also drown. I know some are thinking, “well this guy who drowned was a hero.” This might be true, but would we suggest or recommend anyone else do this? It might have been different if he could swim and tried and became overwhelmed.



At some point, we do get to decide for ourselves

how we will behave in life and what we will emulate or model

and what we will not.



JCH: Where does one’s personal “ethics” come from? Is it something that you just learn from your family? 

Dr. Jeff Fox PhD: This is the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Is it nature or nurture? I think it is both to some degree, but it leans heavily toward being learned. If you believe in free will, as I do, then we are free to choose how we act. This does not mean that there are not a great many influences that help lead us to our choices. These influences are both positive and negative and occur over a lifetime. I believe we are born with an innate conscience that should help guide us in a proper way to behave. If one is a socio or psychopath, then this may be an issue. Imagine the cartoon characters sitting on both our shoulders arguing for us to make good or bad decisions.

In our early childhood, we go through phases of development called imprinting, modeling, and socialization. I think it is here where our ethics are heavily influenced.  Unfortunately, we do not get to pick how we are raised, do we? But, at some point, we do get to decide for ourselves how we will behave in life and what we will emulate or model and what we will not.

Deontological ethics are duty-oriented whereas teleological ethics are consequence-oriented.    Ethics can also be classified into two broad groupings: religious and secular.

Religious ethics come from many sources on the individual level.  Yet, when considering U. S. government/citizen relations, ethics, and policy there is no doubt that, those were heavily influenced by Judeo/Christian principles which helped form the laws of the nation.  The Bible, along with the Ten Commandments, strongly influenced our founding fathers and the laws that were passed. As time has passed, secularism has become much more influential in policy development.  Yet those same religious ethics, or lack thereof, drives much of the debate and motivational impetus behind many issues.

For our purposes, we will focus on secular ethics such as Bentham’s and Mill’s Utilitarianism, Aristotle’s Virtue ethics, and Kant’s Kantian ethics or The Categorical Imperative.  These three sets of ethical frameworks have been some of the most influential on government policy development.  While we will address secular ethics and decision-making it is not meant to diminish the tremendous role religion plays in many people’s lives and in their decision-making process.  The Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is key to many people’s decision-making process.

Today, we are constantly bombarded with negative and unethical behavior. We see it on television and in the movies. We hear it on the news. We experience it in our lives by being the victim of shady deals. We also see bad behavior being celebrated and rewarded. We ask ourselves what is wrong with today’s young people. All we need to do is look in the mirror. Behavior that is rewarded is often repeated.



These three sets of ethical frameworks

(the Categorical Imperative, Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics and Mill’s Utilitarianism)

have been some of the most influential on government policy development.



JCH: Talk about the difference between one’s own personal ethics versus an agency’s ethical standards, code of conduct or professional expectations. How do these inter-relate?

Dr. Jeff Fox PhD: This question is, or should be, germane to the hiring process, shouldn’t it? Agencies should hire people who have the ethics which match their own. Of course, the agency’s ethics should be high and beyond reproach. It should be noted that there are no perfect people and there are no perfect agencies either.

We will have the agency’s formally recognized standards, codes, and expectations. Then we have the real ones. Hopefully, they match the agency’s. Agencies tend to develop their own unique organizational culture.  Informal values, beliefs, norms, rituals, and expectations come to play as much of, or more of, a role as do the formal expectations.  Often these informal rites are in direct conflict with the formal ones.  To some degree, continued employment is affected by how well or how much one adopts or accepts informal rules.  There are various stages of development involved in cultural socialization.

First, most employees join because they believe they identify with many of the goals and values they perceive to be reality.  Often this comes through contacts they have developed.

Next, the employee enters training and is taught the culture.  Much of this is subliminal and done through war stories.  They are taught what it takes to be a good employee.  Once they leave the academy, they train with a seasoned person.  Here he or she will learn the unwritten code of conduct.

During the next stage, the individual learns the realities of the job by using the process of internal adaptation.  During this stage, the employee has constant exposure to group norms and often comes to strongly identify with values and beliefs held within the organizational culture while absorbing its standards as his or her own.  It is not if the employee will be influenced but rather who will influence him or her. An informal subculture, which is going to exist regardless, is the most obvious threat to the internalization of ethical standards. That is, if the informal does not match the formal.



Agencies tend to develop their own unique organizational culture.

Informal values, beliefs, norms, rituals, and expectations

come to play as much of, or more of,

a role as do the formal expectations.



JCH: How do you see ethics (or the lack thereof) playing out in everyday life of the average justice professional?

Dr. Jeff Fox PhD: Ethics tries to give guidance and support prior to or during difficult ethical dilemmas. The level of ethics within an organization is usually informally established by the chief administrator. The complexity of ethical decision-making is created by the organization, professional norms, the individuals involved, and changing societal values.

Ethical decisions are a necessary part of working within a government or business. There is no single ethical guideline which all managers will agree is the answer to most ethical decision-making. Being able to apply a decision-making process comprised of practical and effective guidelines can be invaluable.

Explanations of corruption can be described in three general ways.

First is systemic.  That is deviance caused by the relationship between the employee and the public.

The second is institutional. These explanations point to general organizational problems such as low managerial visibility, low public visibility, peer group secrecy, poor role modeling by leadership being unethical, front-line interface with criminals, the tension between the use of discretion and bureaucracy, and so on.

The final explanation is the individual.  This explanation assumes the rotten apple theory.  In other words, the individual employee had deviant inclinations before he or she joined the agency.  Sloppy recruiting and poor backgrounds are a by-product of this.

Any democratic society must have faith in a justice system that acts in an ethical manner at all times.  If people lose faith and trust in this system of justice, of which policing is a key element and the first and closest to the people, then society will falter, and vigilantism may prevail.   Instilling ethical behavior must be a primary goal of every agency.  If we are to expect employees to behave ethically, we must treat them and the citizens they serve ethically.



Our employees get in trouble more often for ethical violations

than they do due to technical or procedural errors.

It is not that they don’t know how to use force,

it is more when to and when not to use force.


JCH: If the audience could take away one key point from your presentation, what do you hope it would be?

Dr. Jeff Fox PhD: There are three things, among many others, I hope the audience will take away.

First, the harm unethical behavior causes.

Each year two to three times as many officers kill themselves than are killed by offenders. Many of these suicides are due to ethical dilemmas. Nothing is more devastating to an organization or an employee than unethical acts.  Unethical acts destroy public trust, ruin careers and destroy lives, can lead to prison, and are a major cause of lawsuits for the department and individual.

Second, why unethical acts occur.

There are three general reasons for unethical acts or corruption.

1). Systemic-deviance caused by the relationship between police and the public.

2). Institutionalization-general organizational problems.

3). The individual-rotten apple.


Third our greatest training need.

Ethics training is our greatest need. When we stop and think about it our employees get in trouble more often for ethical violations then they do due to technical or procedural errors. It is not that they don’t know how to use force it is more when to and when not to use force. It is not that they don’t know what probable cause is so much as it is they might let extraneous factors cloud their judgment. They know how to search and inventory property but the idea to steal any property should never cross an employee’s mind.


Click Here to Watch “Developing the Individual and Organizational Ethic.”


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