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Ethical Theories in Law Enforcement Practice

The Ethics of Virtue

History of the Ethics of Virtue

The founders of virtue ethics are Plato and, to a greater extent, Aristotle. It remained the dominant approach in Western moral philosophy until the Enlightenment. It declined in the nineteenth century but revived in the 1950s in Anglo-American philosophy (Alejo et al., 2018). At that time, there was growing dissatisfaction with the dominant forms of deontology and utilitarianism. None of these theories at the time paid attention to some of the themes always discussed in the tradition of virtue ethics: the virtues themselves, motives and moral character, and moral education. The revival of virtue ethics had a healing effect on the other two approaches, many of whose proponents began to address the same themes in the theories they advocated. It also led to readings in the spirit of virtue ethics not only by Plato and Aristotle but also by such philosophers as Martineau, Hume, and Nietzsche, thus developing other forms of virtue ethics.

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Tenets of the Ethics of Virtue

The three central concepts of virtue ethics are virtue, practical wisdom, and eudemonia. Virtue is a character trait, a disposition deeply rooted in its possessor. However, this disposition is far from a unidirectional predisposition to act honestly or even to act honestly on specific grounds. It is also related to many other actions, reactions, choices, values, desires, perceptions, attitudes, interests, expectations, and feelings. To possess a virtue is to be a person of a particular type with a certain complex mindset. Practical wisdom is that knowledge or understanding which enables its possessor to do well in any situation. For example, those who possess practical wisdom will not hide bitter truths from a person who needs to know them, believing that they will do him good. Eudemonia is a moralized or value-laden concept of happiness. It is, therefore, a concept about which people with different views of life may have a considerable disagreement.

A “real-world” example of the ethics of virtue

Many everyday situations can serve as examples of virtue ethics. For example, an individual walks down the street and drops a bundle of money. A person who has developed a virtue ethic will immediately point out to the absent-minded passerby its loss. A person lacking it will try to take the money for himself stealthily.

Ethical Formalism (Deontological Ethics)

History of Ethical Formalism

Deontology comes from the Greek word deon, meaning “obligation” or “duty.” It is an ethical system primarily concerned with one’s duty. It is also known as ethical formalism or absolutism. Immanuel Kant formulated deontology (Love et al., 2020). Kant believed that the result was not of paramount importance; instead, the fundamental importance lay in determining the moral intent of the decision or action itself. He also believed that we have obligatory duties and that these duties should never be abandoned, regardless of the expected outcome.

Model of Ethical Formalism

The model of ethical formalism assumes two types of duties: hypothetical and categorical imperatives. A hypothetical imperative is an obligation necessary to achieve a specific goal. For example, a student’s obligation to study hard to get good grades. A categorical imperative is an unconditional rule or obligation. Regardless of the decision’s effect on the individual, the obligation remains the same and must be fulfilled.

A “real-world” example of ethical formalism

A demonstration of the application of deontological ethics in everyday life can be found in police work. One example in law enforcement is the internal assault policy, which imposes a duty on an officer to charge a spouse with assault if there is evidence. It is a duty regardless of the outcome or the officer’s wishes.


History of Consequentialism

Consequentialism is a moral theory and belief that what ultimately matters is the morality of creating the proper overall consequences. Thus, according to consequentialism, the morally correct action is an action that produces good consequences. The term “consequentialism” was introduced in 1958 by G. E. M. Anscombe in her essay “Moral Modern Philosophy” (Love et al., 2020). The roots of this theory lie in utilitarianism. Since the 1960s, many writers have used the term “consequentialism” instead of “utilitarianism” for the notion that the degree of the rightness of an action depends on the value of its consequences.

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Model of Consequentialism

The consequentialist model provides a clear and practical guide-at least in situations where the results are easy to predict. It prescribes that people maximize the benefits to the most significant number of people while giving up personal biases and self-interest to benefit others. One problem with the model is that it can be challenging to measure different benefits to decide which one is morally preferable. For example, is it better to give your money to charity or spend it on studying medicine to save lives.

A “real-world” example of utilitarianism

The central tenet of following consequentialist ethics is to think about the consequences of one’s actions for society. An example of the application of this postulate is not speeding on the road where there is no law enforcement. A person does not break the rules not because he will be fined but to avoid harming society.

Ethics of Care

History of the Ethics of Care

Although early strains of the ethics of care can be found in the writings of feminist philosophers, it was first most clearly articulated by Carol Gilligan in the early 1980s (Wolcher, 2020). As a graduate student at Harvard, Gilligan wrote her dissertation describing a different path of moral development than the one described by Lawrence Kohlberg, her mentor. Kohlberg argued that moral development gradually moved toward a more universal and principled way of thinking. Gilligan argued that both men and women articulate the voice of care at different times but noted that care without women would almost fall out of the studies.

Tenets of the Ethics of Care

There are three levels of ethics of care: self-care to the exclusion of the other, other-care to the exclusion of the self, and moral maturity to understand the needs of self and others. The central tenets of the ethics of care are caring, understanding, acceptance, and selflessness to benefit people.

A “real-world” example of the ethics of care

A real example of the application of the ethics of care is the treatment of prisoners in prison medical centers. Despite their atrocities, they can receive decent care and assistance with health problems if needed. Physicians in prisons treat inmates as regular patients and provide them with treatment.

The noble cause corruption

The noble cause corruption is corruption or wrongdoing done for a good purpose. People who justify corruption with noble causes believe that the result of their wrongdoing will be of the highest benefit to the common good (Wolcher, 2020). An example of noble corruption is police misconduct or disregard for due process through a good cause. Such corruption usually arises when people lack a sense of administrative responsibility, lack morale and leadership, and lose faith in the criminal justice system. Noble corruption fits into the consequentialist ethical theory because people justify it by benefiting society.


To summarize, there are many ethical theories that can be applied to a person’s domestic life. This presentation provided an overview of four of them – the Ethics of Virtue, Ethical Formalism, Consequentialism, and Ethics of Care. Each of these approaches has its formative history and fundamental tenets. The central tenets of virtue ethics are virtue, practical wisdom, and eudemonia. Ethical formalism entails adherence to hypothetical and categorical imperatives. The former refers to optional actions prompted by one’s desire to achieve one’s goal, while the latter refers to obligatory steps to be taken. Consequentialism provides a clear guide to action to make one’s actions as beneficial to society as possible. This approach disregards the individual’s personal gain for the good of society. Finally, the ethics of care says that a person needs to be caring, understanding, accepting. Each of these ethical approaches finds application in daily police practice and is a guide for behavior in various ethical situations.

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Alejo, J., Ferrero, I., & Guitián, G. (2018). Business ethics: A virtue ethics and common good approach. Routledge.

Love, E., Salinas, T. C. & Rotman, J. D. (2020). The ethical standards of judgment questionnaire: Development and validation of independent measures of formalism and consequentialism. Journal of Business Ethics, 161(1), 115–132. Web.

Wolcher, L.E. (2020). Ethics: New trajectories in law. Routledge. Web.

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