Ethical Dilemma in Public Services

An ethical dilemma is a decision that needs a choice among various principles, mostly in difficult and importance contexts. Personal self-interest should be secondary to the common good in all situations, especially when such circumstances give rise to conflict of interest. It can lead to ethical dilemma.

Types of Ethical Dilemmas

An ethical dilemma arises when one has to choose between ethical values and rules in order to determine the right-thing-to-do. These dilemmas are in three broad categories:

  1. Personal Cost Ethical Dilemmas arises from situations in which compliance with ethical conduct results in a significant personal cost to the decision maker in an difficult situation.
  2. Right-versus-Right Ethical Dilemmas, arises from situations of two or more conflicting sets of bonafide ethical values.
  3. Conjoint Ethical Dilemmas, arises when a careful decision-maker is exposed to a combination of the above-indicated ethical dilemmas in searching for the “right-thing-to do”.

Ethical dilemmas also arise in the following situation for an individual.

  • When his professional directives are in contrast with his own personal values
  • Working towards the best interest of the community versus being responsive to the government.
  • In his desire to hold onto a job versus the professional ethics.
  • Ethical dilemmas can arise, when two equally striking options are justified as `right’ in certain situations.
  • It also occurs when recognition is conflicted. It arises in an individual when he tries to establish a human connection that tilts view of his professional identity, duty, and objectivity.
  • For a public servant attempting to function as a professional, the demands of law, his duty, fairness, due process, provides a productive ground in which ethical dilemmas arises. Whistle blowers face this problem because their disclosure may institute a crime when the on-going misconduct is severe.
  • Ethical dilemmas mostly arise when specific instructions conflict, or produce adverse unplanned consequences in a given situation.
  • New situations emerge and ethical dilemmas are likely to occur as an individual endeavour to choose options among defined sets of principles, moral values and beliefs.
  • Ethical standards are not codified, so there are always chances that dilemma arises and disagreements always occur about proper behaviour.
  • An ethical dilemma arises in a situation when the choices or behaviour is undesirable and presents harmful ethical consequences. Right or wrong is not clearly identifiable.

Process of resolving an ethical dilemma in administration

An ethical dilemma is more complex and demanding than a problem of what it appears to be. These dilemmas cannot be solved based on its initial status of presentation. The decision maker faces a difficult situation in which he faces mutually exclusive alternatives that choosing one option means negating the other that is equally important. However a dilemma is also dealt appropriately by altering and reformulating all the options in a systematic and coherent manner. The Government fails in such difficult situations and they degenerate to the state of confusion and indeterminacy. To resolve such ethical dilemmas, a lexical order or a sequence of logical reasoning sets is proposed to integrate and rearrange the process of dealing with ethical dilemmas. They are

  1. Democratic accountability of administration,
  2. The rule of law and the principle of legality,
  3. Professional integrity
  4. Responsiveness to civil society.


In this regard, ‘speaking truth to power’ is vital of professional ethics and integrity of civil servants and the administrative machinery of the state. The distinction between politics and administration lies in the fact not only in the division of function but also in the hierarchy. The administration is always subordinate to the politics. The loyalty of the bureaucracy to the ministers is grounded on their obligation to be answerable and responsible to the legislature who is accountable to the will of the people and their general interest.It is then a fundamental ethical duty bearing on civil servants to show a spirit of neutrality and discretion and keep their own personal preferences out in the performance of their duties and responsibilities.


The rule of law is fundamental and universal to politics and society. Respect and adherence to the principle of legality is an important requirement to exercise authority. Law establishes the minimum standard for morality. Unethical conduct means violation of law. Thus far enforcement of law can be first priority of an ethics reform strategy.


Public administration is inclusive of all public services exercising authority in accordance with public law and under the direction of ministers or other officials, with professional integrity and autonomy. Administration is a profession with an essential precondition of practicing legitimacy, therefore knowledge and expertise should be used with certain standards defining professional ethics such as, avoiding corruption in the delivery of services.


The government responsiveness to its citizens is a key issue in political economy. In this respect, ethical reasoning in state action entails that public institutions be responsive to society and pay attention to the needs and demands of the people, facilitating access to services and creating an enabling environment for sustainable human and social development. In this regard, the government is known as the unity of the universal and particular because it provides law and governance for people certain conditions by which individuals find their fullest fulfilment.

Common ethical dilemmas in Public Services

common ethical dillemas

An ethical dilemma arises from a situation that requires a choice between opposing sets of principles. Conflict of interest is one such example. Other types of ethical dilemmas in which public servants may find themselves include conflict between: the values of public administration; unclear or opposing answer-abilities; personal morals and work ethics versus administrative directive; validations for the institutions; professional ethics and director or executive directive; features of the code of conduct; and the other dimensions of ethical manner.

The new developments in administration and governance led to downsizing, privatisations, public-private partnerships, and restructuring, these phenomena gave rise to countless and complex ethical doubts. The underlying factors that gives rise to more ethical dilemmas are

  • Material and resource difficulties
  • Needs of a growing and multifaceted society
  • Critical and attentive perspective implied in citizenship
  • Restructuring subjects and change of the administration
  • Constant demand that decision processes become more thoroughly participated.