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Back to Basics: What is the difference between being Morally & Ethically Right?
By Carl ToersBijns, former deputy warden, ASPC Eyman, Florence AZ
Published: 06/13/2016

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As a correctional officer, there will be times when your reputation or word is tested between being morally or ethically right. Many don’t know the difference and in all honesty, it didn’t come that easy to me either as it took a little research to find out how the two need to be considered or taken when questioning our own behaviors.

Many officers take an oath to uphold and enforce certain rules and statutory requirements pertaining to the local, state or United States Constitution as it was meant to be understood, interpreted and written. Enforcing our system of laws or those articles listed within our sacred Constitution is something that is very significant and guides us in our daily work and it is inferred that every statutory requirement must be held to the highest standard or value possible under most circumstances.

First, let it be clearly understood, the basis for ethics must be morals and not the other way around. This is the most important message written here today as if you apply your personal morals and values to your ethics, you may find yourself on the wrong side of the law or its intended description for directions how to dispense your duty and your decision makings. In today’s organizational cultures, our ethics have been eroded or changed by cultural morals and priorities. That must never be the case when you serve under the oath of office.

Wrongful morals, significant importance to personal values and other human elements that are inconsistent with the law’s intentions would in most cases, violate the vested interest of the law and given in to weak inconsistent moral decisions that are designed to serve all except the law. Ethics must be founded on something substantial and not personal conveniences, or other personal factors that undermine human decency and morally straight conduct.

Keeping yourself morally straight is a promise made to yourself to be honest with your thoughts, your words and your actions. The underpinning of such conduct is based on your ability to do what is the right thing to do under the guidelines of the law or the spirit of the law without going outside those parameters set forth in your oath as a peace officer or correctional officer. There is no ‘fudge factor’ or indiscriminate thinking to make up your own rules or actions.

The Chambers English Dictionary (1998 edition) highlights important distinctions between ethics and morals:

ethics—the science of morals, that branch of philosophy which is concerned with human character and conduct: a system of morals, rules of behavior:

moral—of or relating to character or conduct considered as good or bad (evil): ethical: conformed to or directed towards right, virtuous: esp. virtuous in matters of significant importance: capable of knowing right and wrong: subject to the moral law;

morality—quality of being moral: that which renders an action right or wrong: the practice of moral duties apart from religion: virtue: the doctrine of actions as right or wrong.

Certainly, we can see how this relates to the job. There is always a legal basis for your actions and how you carry out your tasks, duties and assignments under your oath and agency policies and procedures. Most of them are basic practical guidelines that govern not just human behaviors but also how you operate machines, the technology assigned to you and many other factors within your span of control. How you execute your duties is based on how well you know your job and its expectations.

Over time, government has tried its best to give every officer the tools of the trade to make good decisions. Some tools need adaptation, modification or improvising to get the job done and completed. Acceptance that some policies are flawed as well as some of our laws are irrelevant to the point of governing or enforcement of these rules as well as the rules of conduct. These can be addressed or questioned in post-action reports or documentations.

We do what we have sworn to do and unless there is a clear violation of the law when doing so, we need to ensure that we apply these principles to the fullest extent of the law or rule, according to the manner we were trained, assigned and expected to perform.

Corrections.com author, Carl ToersBijns, (retired), has worked in corrections for over 25 yrs He held positions of a Correctional Officer I, II, III [Captain] Chief of Security Mental Health Treatment Center – Program Director – Associate Warden - Deputy Warden of Administration & Operations. Carl’s prison philosophy is all about the safety of the public, staff and inmates, "I believe my strongest quality is that I create strategies that are practical, functional and cost effective."

Other articles by ToersBijns:


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