The Police Code of Conduct designed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police stresses the ethical responsibilities all police officers are to observe. Police officers are bound by a strong sense of duty to the communities they serve. Philosopher W.D. Ross developed an ethical theory based on the concept of duty, but he recognized in a complicated world a moral agent could find themselves in moral dilemmas where adhering to one moral duty could conflict with another moral duty. To be a police officer is to work with humanity in a very complicated world. Therefore, it is appropriate to explore the dynamics of the Police Code of Conduct through the ethical theory of W.D. Ross.
Ross’s theory has three core principles; (1) ethical non-naturalism, (2) ethical intuitionism, and (3) deontological pluralism and prima facie duties (Simpson, online). Ethical non-naturalism simply asserts moral claims are absolutely true or false and the truth of moral claims depends on if the moral claim corresponds with the way the world objectively is (ibid.). An act is absolutely right or wrong, and to know if an act is right or wrong depends on if the act being right or wrong matches with the way society ideally functions.
Ethical intuitionism is the way we come to know and understand the truth of moral claims (ibid.). For Ross, moral truths become self-evident “when we have reached sufficient mental maturity and have given sufficient attention” to the moral claim (ibid.). As any act is absolutely right or wrong, a thoughtful and intelligent individual just knows if the act is right or wrong by using their common sense (ibid.).
Deontological pluralism asserts individuals have many duties, and adherence to one’s duties takes precedence over the consequences of any act (ibid.). Prima facie duties are duties which are self-evidently right (ibid.). Although Ross made duty paramount to consequences, prima facie duties recognize that individuals can face conflicts between duties which can be resolved through common sense (Skelton, online). Prima facie duties are not absolute obligations (ibid.). One prima facie duty may override another prima facie duty if doing so makes sense for the situation (ibid.). Prima facie duties cannot be given a priority ranking because every situation needs to be considered in itself for the appropriate response (Simpson, online; Skelton, online). For Ross, the appropriate response best matches the way society ideally functions; the response that best results in the higher end (ibid.). For example, suppose a person is speeding to rush a critically injured friend to the hospital. The person knows they have duty to not speed because its the law and it is dangerous to oneself and others, but the duty to save a life overrides the duty to not speed.
Several of Ross’s prima facie duties correspond with the IACP’s stated responsibilities for police officers. Ross’s prima facie duties include: fidelity, reparation, gratitude, non-maleficence, beneficence, self-improvement and justice (Simpson, online). To exemplify the duty of fidelity, meaning to be loyal, trustworthy and dependable, is mentioned in the code under “Integrity,” “Confidentiality,” and “Private Life” (IACP, Police Code of Conduct). Police officers preserve the integrity of the position by being trustworthy, loyal and dependable to the communities they serve, on and off duty (ibid.).
To exemplify non-maleficence, or to not cause harm, is mentioned in the code under “Use of Force” (ibid.). Police officers have a duty to avoid harm when at all possible (ibid.). However, also in conjunction with the code’s duty of “Discretion,” if force is deemed necessary due to the situation, police officers have a duty to avoid unnecessary force, and to not behave cruelly or inhumanely (ibid.). The duty of “Discretion,” in line with Ross’s theory, recognizes the potential for conflicts to arise from two competing duties, but calls on police officers to be reasonable in examining the situation so that their response best achieves the higher end (ibid.).
To exemplify self-improvement is the duty of “Personal-Professional Capabilities” (ibid.). Police officers are to seek to improve themselves by furthering their knowledge and competence of all aspects of their position in order to efficiently and effectively perform their duties (ibid.). Finally, the duty to observe justice is paramount for police officers. Under the “Primary Responsibilities of a Police Officer” it is emphasized officers are to “ensur[e] the rights of all to liberty, equality and justice” (ibid.). The “Primary Responsibilities of a Police Officer” and “Performance of the Duties of a Police Officer” stress serving and protecting the community by treating all equally and enforcing the laws appropriately, both of which are significant elements of justice (ibid.).
Let’s look at the example of the speeder again. An officer performs a traffic stop and pulls over the speeder. The officer has a duty to apply the law consistently, but the duty to help the injured individual is more paramount. So, the officer leads the vehicle to the hospital or calls an ambulance with performing first aid on the injured person. Regarding the speeder, the officer forgoes the ticket and instructs the person to call an ambulance if they should find themselves in a similar situation in the future.
Ross sees all of the prima facie duties as being self-evident facts of the world, and as such, must be adhered to. Ross recognizes moral agents in a complicated world will find themselves in situations where these duties conflict with one another. However, in any given situation a thoughtful and intelligent moral agent will reasonably use their common sense to recognize the duty which has priority over the others and thus requires acting in accordance with. Perhaps the greatest skill a police officer could cultivate is exactly this sense of reasonable consideration to the performance of their duties.
IACP, “Code of Ethics,” http://www.iacp.org/codeofethics
Skelton, Anthony, “William David Ross”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2012/entries/william-david-ross/>.
Simpson, David L, “William David Ross (1877-1971),” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy<http://www.iep.utm.edu/ross-wd/>.
*I wrote this piece as an undergraduate student. I was invited, as a philosophy student pursuing minors in Ethics and Peace and Justice Studies – thus, with an interest in types of policing and excessive force – to write this piece as part of an Ethics in Emergency Services panel of a Emergency Services conference at UVU.