A Dilemma

 Ethics is a difficult word to define and an even harder concept to judge. There are many frameworks for determining whether something is ethically or morally sound and no one can agree with all of them in their entirety. Ethics becomes something elusive, especially in the world of nonprofits (O’Neill 2004). Decisions can be difficult to make when no answer to a dilemma keeps entirely with the mission, goals, or values of a nonprofit. In the anonymized case of City A, their Parks and Rec Board announced a few new members to their Culture and Education committee. These new members were going to be passionate and dedicated additions to the team as they worked with places like museums, historical societies, and ballets. Brianna and Sasha were already involved as board members for these institutions and were excited to be able to facilitate communication between their cultural institutions and the Parks and Rec Board to better serve the public (Turque 1983).

            A couple members of the city did take issue with these new appointments. Major contributors to the art community, such as Charlie feared these new appointments represented an unethical usurpation of city power. Charlie sent letters to prominent members of a new nonprofit expressing his concern along with marked newspaper articles (Kelley 1983, Kelley 1983). Additionally, Carter, who frequently criticized City A’s financial decisions remarked, “city employees and members of the municipal boards cannot have any interest in an organization that conducts business with the city” (Tatum 1982).  A few years prior there’d been an instance where a similar situation occurred where a new parks and rec board member had dual membership with a cultural institution. The district attorney at the time ruled the individual had a conflict of interest. This meant they could not vote or discuss matters related to their cultural institution on the parks and rec board(Turque 1983, Maxon 1983). Just as the previous case was an example of a conflict of interest, the members of City A currently felt Brianna and Sasha were two new cases where conflict of interest was concerned. They had even already voted to increase the budget for their respective cultural institutions from the year prior. Brianna and Sasha claimed they didn’t know about the city ruling from year’s prior and did not feel their new appointments constituted a conflict of interest (Turque 1983).

            While it may seem like an open and shut case that Brianna and Sasha accidentally placed themselves in a position where they could manipulate budgetary restrictions to benefit their own institutions, was what they did unethical even if it posed a conflict of interest? While Aristotle and Kant might agree that their membership on both boards was unethical, looking through the lens of libertarianism and utilitarianism Brianna and Sasha possibly made the morally correct decision.

In the Words of Aristotle…

            Aristotle argues that for something to be an ethical decision the actor not only needs to be doing the right thing for the right reasons, they must also be a person qualified to determine that it was the right thing to do (O’Neill 2004). In terms of Brianna and Sasha, they may have made their decision based on creating good for the public through promotion of cultural institutions, but it’s hard to argue they had the expertise to determine this as the right thing to do. Given their lack of knowledge about the prior city council decision (Tatum 1982) they did not have the expertise to determine accepting their parks and rec board nominations was the right thing to do. Thus, Aristotle would argue that there could be no ethical value assigned to this decision.

Of Kant…

            The ethical determination is more difficult to conclude under Kant’s framework. On one hand, Kant believes in intent being the indicator rather than the outcomes as one finds in consequentialism and utilitarianism (Sandel 2010). Kant holds that if the individual is acting out of the sense of duty for humanity than they’re making an ethically good decision (Sandel 2010). Brianna and Sasha would likely argue that they accepted the nominations in order to help the public better access cultural institutions because of what they mean to humanity. Under this definition, Kant would say their decision is in fact ethical.

            However, there is a second part to Kant’s argument. More than just acting out of duty for humanity, humanity needs to be respected as the end not just the means (Sandel 2010). Sasha and Brianna during their brief time in office already increased the budget for their own cultural institutions (Turque 1983). While their motives could be argued out of duty for humanity, they still used the members of both boards to promote their own passions for their respective cultural institutions. Despite what could be seen as noble motives, Kant would still ultimately denounce their decision as without ethical value.

What good can they do?

            While Kant and Aristotle base morality judgments on motives, Libertarianism and Utilitarianism place value on consequences (Sandel 2010). Liberalism places emphasis on self-ownership, as long as the actions an individual takes generates no harm to anyone else then they are free to do anything (Sandel 2010). Since Brianna and Sasha claim they did no harm to anyone with their presence on the board (Turque 1983), Libertarianism dictates they’ve done no moral wrong.

Utilitarianism values morality based on what does the most good for the most people. Mill clarifies further that it’s the most good for people in the long run, not just whatever short-term pleasure is gained (Sandel 2010). In the case of Brianna and Sasha while their motives may be questionable, their increase in budget towards cultural institutions can be seen as a net benefit. Brianna and Sasha argued that they did no harm to other institutions with their presence on the parks and rec board (Turque 1983). Even if they had done some minor amounts of harm to another city department by depriving them of funds, they provided long term utility for their cultural institutions and so to the public as a whole. In this way their presence on the Parks and Recreation board has the moral high ground from a utilitarian framework.

The City Makes a Decision

Four different frameworks argue for or against Brianna and Sasha’s actions being ethical or unethical. Ultimately the city needed to decide on its own which framework to use to judge the morality and then the consequences. In some ways it’s easier for a city to use a utilitarian perspective because it is the framework that is most easily measured (O’Neill 2004, Sandel 2010). While it is impossible to measure long term good in the moment a decision is made, one can look at long-term trends from similar actions and see what effects they had. Even with this difficulty, it is easier to measure population satisfaction than it is to measure one’s sense of duty, their beliefs about humanity, or whether they’re qualified to know whether or not a decision is just.

Yet to ignore the motives of people who serve on boards, especially for those who serve the city, offers an inadequate picture of the human being. In the realm of politics, doing the wrong thing to achieve a favorable outcome is viewed negatively. Utilitarianism might even argue that allowing people who hold offices to act in this way impacts the long-term good negatively as soon all politicians use unjust means to drive their own ends. In the case of Brianna and Sasha, while their motives may appear passion and service driven, in cases involving financial responsibility discerning motives can become much trickier.

City A decided at the time that Brianna and Sasha serving on both the Parks and Rec Board and their cultural institutional boards was an unethical conflict of interest. Brianna and Sasha volunteered to reject their voting memberships for their cultural institutions in order to negate this conflict of interest (Maxon 1983). This way they could still serve on the Parks and Rec board in the Culture and Education Committee and facilitate better discussion between the Committee and their cultural institutions.

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