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Noble cause corruption: Do the ends justify the means?

How you process a tricky ethical challenge says a lot about you, your department, and law enforcement in general


You come across a group of juveniles throwing snowballs at passing cars in the street. What do you do? (AP photo)

What’s ideologically more important to you: the processes used to solve an issue or the end result?

This is an important question. It’s an ethical dilemma that challenges every law enforcement professional because you shape, restrain, and reform the lives of society — both the lawful and lawless. In this way, each officer impacts the lives of every member of our nation.

Whenever an ethical challenge is present, how you process this dilemma says a lot about you, your department, and the profession of law enforcement as a whole.

With the weight of this responsibility in mind, it’s important to define and understand the two basic ethical systems. We use these to process everything from simple, everyday challenges all the way up to those “rock and a hard spot,” potentially career-ending predicaments.

We call these systems the “deontological” and “teleological” points of view, and I will briefly discuss both of them here before looking at their implications for training and day-to-day policies and procedures.

The Deontological Ethical System
The deontological ethical system is grounded in the belief that how and why you do something is more important than the result(s) your behavior produces.

If your actions are inherently good, then it doesn’t matter what the outcome is — your conduct is ethically sound. Likewise, if your actions are inherently bad, then it doesn’t matter what the outcome is — your conduct is ethically wrong.

For example, while on patrol you come across a group of juveniles throwing snowballs at passing cars in the street. Pulling over, you confront the kids and explain to them the dangers of their actions. The juveniles, in turn, are apologetic and promise to never do it again.

Remembering your youth, you decide to use your discretion and let them off with a warning. A few minutes after you leave, however, this same group of juveniles continues to throw snowballs at passing cars, but this time one of the drivers is startled, veers off the road and runs into a group of young children building a snowman in their front yard. Were you wrong to let the juveniles off with a warning?

Under the deontological ethical system the answer would be no. Your actions would be vindicated because your motivations were just, regardless of the fact that the results of those actions produced negative consequences. This is a process-oriented approach.

The Teleological Ethical System
The teleological ethical system takes the opposite perspective. Under this belief system, the consequences of your behavior are the most important concern, not whether your actions were inherently positive or negative. If your actions were good, but produced negative results, the teleological system would find your actions unethical. Likewise, if your actions were inappropriate (or even illegal), but produced positive results, this ideological perspective believes you acted in an ethical a manner.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how you produce the results as long as the desired outcome occurs.

Going back to the same scenario given above where juveniles were throwing snowballs at passing cars, the teleological viewpoint would find your behavior (using your discretion to let them off with a warning) unethical because even thought you had good intentions, the end result was negative. This is an ends-oriented approach.

So, which is better?

Each viewpoint has obvious advantages and disadvantages. Some argue that those using a deontological perspective lack a sense of individual accountability because, for them, people are not responsible for the results of their behavior. In addition, they will highlight the subjective nature of what are (and are not) inherently good or bad uses of discretion or the proper methods of influencing others.

For instance: Does it really matter if you give kids a juvenile record as long as doing so possibly prevents them from hurting others?

In response, those opposed to the teleological framework will highlight that we can’t possibly direct what people do after they leave our control, but we can focus on making sure we do our jobs in a just manner. More importantly, they’ll emphasize the negative effects of the “do whatever it takes” attitude.

It seems like there is no simple, or universal, answer, especially considering the variety of variables. However, there is one extremely significant external factor that shuts down the teleological perspective. We call it “noble cause corruption.”

Noble Cause Corruption and Training
Noble cause corruption is a teleological (ends-oriented) approach to an ethical dilemma that says law enforcement professionals will utilize unethical, and sometimes illegal, means to obtain a desired result.

Remember, we are talking about good officers trying to do the right thing (noble cause), but due to bureaucratic red tape, a lack of evidence, or any other roadblock to “getting the job done,” they feel forced to bend or even break the rules to catch the bad guy (corruption).

The bottom line: noble cause corruption — and thus, teleological ideologies in general — dramatically increase the likelihood of a serious situation that could easily turn horribly messy, ending your career in law enforcement and, potentially, scarring or ending the lives of you and/or others.

So what do you do when faced with the temptation of noble cause corruption? The answer is simple: Remember your training!

Today, a large portion of my research agenda is focused on both academy and in-service ethics training for officers.

On average, we’ve found, approximately one third of all incoming academy cadets have a teleological ethical ideology, which puts them at risk for noble cause corruption once they begin their field training.

While on the surface this may seem like bad news, the good news is that academy instructors — if they’re sharp and well-trained — can increase the focus of their instruction on conducting oneself in an honorable and professional manner.

How to Avoid a Crisis
While there are a number of techniques that can modify the ethical orientation of new officers (keeping in mind that many new cadets come into the academy with unrealistic expectations of themselves and the profession), the following two techniques are simple guidelines any officer can use to help direct a rookie through a difficult situation:

1) Follow Policies and Procedures (P&P): Every department has a standard set of P&P. When in doubt, especially if you’re a new, default to these tested and approved guidelines. At the very least, when Internal Affairs comes knocking at your door, you’ll not only be able to articulate how you did what you did, but more importantly why you did it.
2) Always Act Professionally (AAP): Sure, this sounds simple enough, but any seasoned professional knows how quickly rationality can be pushed aside by pride, stubborn goals, or adrenaline.

If you ever struggle with this, try to remember the following: “If you Always Act Professionally you’ll be less AAP to get in trouble.” Yes, I know AAP should be spelled “apt,” but then it wouldn’t help you remember the rule!

I’ll cover this concept in more detail in a later article, but I’m guessing everyone reading this piece has a good idea of what AAP means.

Having worked in the criminal justice field for a number of years, I can certainly sympathize with the temptation to fall into the trap of noble cause corruption.

We all have goals we’re expected to achieve. Officers, for instance, are expected to be vigilant while on patrol, be proactive in catching the bad guys, and effectively use discretion while at the same time being fair and equitable (a challenge in and of itself!).

If you’re not able to achieve these goals — especially when getting pressure from above to “do your job” — the temptation to adopt an ends oriented approach increases dramatically. Never forget, however, that conducting yourself in an honorable and professional manner is always more important than the end result (a deontological perspective).

If you don’t believe me, take a moment and think of the people in your profession that you admire, respect, and someday hope to emulate. Chances are they’re the ones who believe the ends do not justify the means and act accordingly.

What is My Ethical Ideology? Take Would you like to know your ethical ideology? To do so, simply go to this Web site and complete the brief online Individual Ethical Ideology Survey
(enter survey code “policeone”). All information is confidential (you don’t give your name) and once you’ve submitted your survey you’ll be given the results and a brief narrative of what they mean. There is no charge for this service to law enforcement and corrections personnel, but please only take the survey once.

Note: this is for individuals only. For agencies or training officers please contact me directly for an agency review site. And another note to training officers: A number of agencies across the nation are currently using this online survey to assist them in the training of their academy cadets and in-service officers. Trainees receive immediate individual results and training officers receive a class report and training recommendations within 72 hours. If you’d like more information about this free service, how it can be modified to fit your needs and how its use can improve your ethics training, please contact me, Dr. Bruce Bayley, at: or 801-626-8134. If you’ve contacted me before, but never received a response, please try again. Unfortunately my university server had filters that blocked some of those trying to reach me (I found this out through follow-up phone calls), but I’ve been told these issues have been resolved.

Dr. Bruce Bayley is a former Correctional Officer and Deputy Juvenile Probation Officer. After retiring from duty related injuries sustained in corrections, Dr. Bayley currently works as an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Weber State University and adjunct instructor at the Weber State Police Academy. Along with research in ethics and law enforcement, Dr. Bayley teaches courses in Ethics, Theories of Crime and Delinquency, and Criminal Justice.