By David Etkin
A number of years ago when I first began to get really interested in ethics, I thought back to my time as a federal civil servant and wondered if we had a code of ethics to guide our behavior and decision making. I didn’t even know! With a little research, I found it, and after looking it over did recall having to read it (or something like it) when I first entered public service. It was not a topic that came up again in my next 28 years of service, though I must say that, in general, the public servants I worked with do have a strong social conscience and paid attention to issues of right and wrong in their work and dealings with the public.
There is a massive literature on ethics, and over a period of several years I explored some of the ethical issues related to emergency management, published a few papers on that topic (see bibliography below), wrote a chapter on it in my textbook on disaster theory, and gave a few presentations on the topic, at the FEMA Higher Education Conference, the Canadian Risk and Hazards Network, and elsewhere. At this point, I consider myself to be an informed amateur on the topic. One of the interesting aspects about this issue, to me, was the relative lack of research or reports dealing with ethics in emergency management, compared to other fields. Why did it not garner more attention? Was it not perceived to be important enough? In our graduate program in disaster and emergency management at York University, we have offered a course on disaster ethics twice so far, but did not offer it again this year because enrollments were so low. The students who do take it, however, generally love it and often suggest that it should be a required course. We will probably try offering it again next fall, and see what enrollment is like.
At this point I should note that the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) does have a code of ethics published on their web site. It was a good exercise for the IAEM to develop this code and an important first step. Compared to the codes of many other professions, however, it is not well developed. But to put this in context, I would argue that most of the more developed codes seen elsewhere would greatly benefit from more depth of analysis. More is needed.
A great deal of background thought needs to go into the development of a code of ethics, and there are traps that need to be avoided. The process to create a code should be inclusive and comprehensive, and involve professional ethicists as well as the emergency management community. Below is a straw (wo)man proposal for a Code of Ethics – for the purpose of generating discussion, and new and better proposals. The principles are based upon material in the papers listed in the bibliography. This proposal reflects my thoughts only, and is not the outcome of a consultation process.
Suggested Principles for a Code of Ethics for Emergency Management
- Two Codes are Needed: One for emergency managers and another for emergency management organizations: The first and perhaps most important principle is that a Code of Ethics for emergency managers must be accompanied by a Code of Ethics for emergency management organizations. They need to be mutually supportive. Without this interplay between individuals and the organizations that they work for, it is extremely challenging for emergency managers to act in ways they consider to be ethical, but that might conflict with competing organizational goals or priorities.
- Ethical Plurality. More than one ethical theory is relevant to determining ethical decision making and behavior.
- Cultural Relevance: The application of ethical theory varies according to cultural norms, in order to reflect variations in values between different cultures. This does not mean that some values may not be considered absolute, such as prohibitions against murder.
- Moral Being & Moral Community:
- Emergency managers are moral beings who shall endeavor to act in ways that reflect ethical reasoning. Emergency management organizations shall endeavor to be moral organizations that incorporate ethical reasoning in the development and application of policies and procedures in a continuing and ongoing process; these policies and procedures are an inherent part of organizational culture, and encourage employees to act in moral ways.
- The moral community served by emergency managers and emergency management organizations must, at a minimum, include all citizens. People, particularly the victims of disaster, shall not be placed in the category of things, but must be considered as beings imbued with rights and duties.
- Utilitarian Ethics:
- Where utilitarian ethics are used, careful consideration must be given to whose good is being evaluated and how it is measured. The good of victims will generally have priority over the good of non-victims.
- Where utilitarian ethics are used, disadvantaged individuals and groups who sacrifice for the greater good are entitled to reasonable compensation.
- Deontological Ethics:
- Where deontological ethics are used, they shall reflect the normative values of society. This can be challenging in a multicultural society, and will require a broad social discourse.
- Duty of Care: Governments owe a special duty of care to some vulnerable populations.
- This is particularly true for wards of the state, such as hospital patients and retirement home residents.
- A greater duty of care exists for especially vulnerable people, which justifies some level of paternalism.
- Governments have a duty of care to their employees.
- A duty of care exists for disaster victims that is greater than for citizens who have not suffered in a disaster, all other things being equal. This justifies the allocation of resources to victims as compared to non-victims who may be in greater need.
- This duty is diminished when victims knowingly engaged in risky actions, where they had the choice of less risky options. Care must be taken to avoid the trap of ‘blaming the victim’.
- This duty may also be diminished where relief may result in the creation of a culture of dependency. This risk must be balanced against the urgent needs of victims who are in need of help for recovery.
- Dilemmas: Where ethical dilemmas exists an open, transparent, and fair system will be used to resolve differences (procedural justice), based upon ethical reasoning.
- Socialization of Risk: Various ethical theories can support the socialization of risk (e.g. Medicare), but this can result in increased moral hazard. Moral hazard can be justified on the basis of ethical reasoning where the greater good is served or rights are maintained. An example is Disaster Financial Assistance. Such programs should be used with care to avoid, as much as possible, social traps such as the creation of cultures of dependency.
- Good Samaritan Behavior. No bureaucracy can anticipate all possible situations. A result of this is that the applications of policies will, in some cases, be perceived as being unfair.
- Emergency managers shall use moral reasoning to resolve such situations, in favor of ethical behavior over rigidly following rules.
- As a corollary, emergency management organizations shall have a Good Samaritan Policy, recognizing the overarching duty of their employees to act in ethical ways.
- It is recognized that the rejection of rules should be exceptional events.
- Virtues: The behavior of emergency managers and emergency management organizations shall reflect the following virtues: honesty, caring, compassion, generosity, empathy, impartiality, integrity (which refers to acting consistently according to one’s stated values or principles), diligence, kindness, openness, reliability, resoluteness, respectfulness, sensitivity, tolerance, toughness, trustworthiness, and truthfulness.
- Social Contract Ethics: The policies and procedures of emergency management organizations shall reflect the social contract that exists between government and its citizens.
- Crisis situations shall not be used as opportunities to further special interests that are not supported by the normative values of society.
- Environmental Ethics: Citizens have a right to a healthy natural environment, which also enhances sustainability and disaster resilience.
- Emergency management organizations shall endeavor to protect and nurture the natural environment, particularly where it mitigates disaster risk.
What should a code of ethics look like? There are many examples from other professions, and a perusal of them suggests the following sections:
Possible Table of Contents:
- Mandate & limitations
- Summary of ethical theories
- Relevance of theory to emergency management
- Core Values
- Critical ethical issues
- Special obligations in emergency management
- Ethics of Competence
- The process of ethical decision making
- How to resolve ethical dilemmas
- Case studies
Comment: Many of the codes from other professions simply include lists of values, principles, etc., which sound lofty but lack depth. For example, core values typically include:
- Social justice
- Honor diversity
- Competence & excellence
- Do no harm
Such a list, by itself, is of limited usefulness. For example, the first category of social justice is subject to a variety of interpretations, from both a theoretical and cultural perspective. There are several categories of social justice including distributive justice, corrective justice, and procedural justice, and different cultures and legal systems can approach them quite differently depending upon the social contract that exists. In a multicultural society, such complexities are far from trivial and should be discussed in a code.
Case studies are particularly important. A Code of Ethics needs to go beyond broad statements. It should also include a set of scenarios with examples of applied ethical reasoning, and the identification and analysis of ethical dilemmas specific to emergency management. Such case studies can provide a template for ethical reasoning that professional emergency managers could use in their practice.
- Feldmann-Jensen, S., Smith, S., Etkin, D., and Jensen, S. (2016). Toward a Substantive Dialogue: The Case for an Ethical Framework in Emergency Management, Part 1. The Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies, Vol 20(1), 45-47. (http://www.massey.ac.nz/~trauma/issues/2016-1/AJDTS_20_1_Feldmann-Jensen.pdf)
- Etkin, D., Feldmann-Jensen, S., Smith, S., and Jensen, S. (2016). Toward A Substantive Dialogue: The Case For An Ethical Framework In Emergency Management, Part 2. The Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies, Vol 20(1), 49-53. (http://www.massey.ac.nz/~trauma/issues/2016-1/AJDTS_20_1_Etkin.pdf)
- Etkin, D. (2015). Disaster Theory: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Concepts and Causes. Butterworth- Heineman. 387 pp. (http://store.elsevier.com/Disaster-Theory/David-Etkin/isbn-9780128002278/)
- Etkin, D. and Timmerman, P. (2013). Emergency Management and Ethics. International Journal of Emergency Management, 9(4), 277- (https://www.researchgate.net/profile/David_Etkin/publication/264812137_Emergency_management_and_ethics/links/569cf37008ae8f8ddc711cdf.pdf)
- Etkin, D. and Stefanovic, L. (2005). Mitigating Natural Disasters: The Role of Eco- Ethics. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change. Vol. 10, pp. 469-490.
 Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector (https://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/pol/doc-eng.aspx?id=25049)
 IAEM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct (http://www.iaem.com/page.cfm?p=about/code-of-ethics)
 Obligations exist to self, employers, clients, institutions, partners and the moral community. Special obligations may exist to wards of the state, disabled or especially vulnerable people, volunteers and employees.