A case Study Illustrating the Way in Which Contemporary Public Administrators Handle Ethical Dilemmas


A public administrator enters into the world of ethical dilemmas when faced with the key question of what to do and the appropriate way to deal with complex situations. A dilemma is different from a problem in that, it is more demanding and wider. Unlike problems, dilemmas are not solved on the grounds in which they are at first presented to the decision-makers. Decision makers are often faced with unwelcome and perhaps opposed options. The incompatible juxtaposition of such alternatives is an implication pf them being mutually exclusive in that, the satisfaction of one alternative can only be achieved by sacrificing the other alternative.

The recommendable criteria that should be followed when handling ethical dilemmas in the public administration entail four aspects. The first one is public administration’s democratic accountability. The second is the principle of legality and the rule of law while the third aspect is professional integrity. The last aspect is responsiveness to civil society. A case study illustrating the way in which contemporary public administrators handle ethical dilemmas will be presented (Denhardt and Denhardt, 2008).



The Case

The problem of the case study that will be presented is whether leaky condoms are better than none. One of the main players is Dr. Joycelyn who was the director of the Department of Public Health in Arkansas. The doctor strongly supported the distribution of condoms to high school students as a way of preventing unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. The distribution plan seemed to be working well till the year 1990 when the clinic of Arkansas high school informed Dr. Joycelyn that the rate of condom breakage was extremely high. Despite the fact that a small failure rate among condoms was considered unavoidable and acceptable, the rate seemed to be higher than anticipated. Further evidence amassed for the following year and a half. By the month of June, 1992, many complaints emerged, including a report of three people infected with HIV, who claimed that their condoms had failed on several repeated occasions.


Throughout that period, Dr. Joycelyn neither issues any public warnings nor recalled any condoms. She held an extremely strong belief in the distribution program that she was reluctant to take any action that could undermine confidence in either the program or the condoms in general. As an explanation to her inaction, Dr. Joycelyn maintained that it was preferable to use defective condoms than to let young people lose their trust in condoms, and maybe choose not to make sue of them at all.


A few months later, Dr, Joycelyn sent a sample of condoms in the distribution program to the United States Food and Drug Administration so that the validity of the complaints could be tested. Following conducting of tests, the Food and Drug Administration came to the conclusion that the failure rate exceeded the standard limit by ten times, and that all condoms that the manufacturer made had to be seized. About one month later, the manufacturer willingly recalled the condoms.


Analysis of the Case

There are several questions that are presented by this case. The first question that might be considered is whether it was appropriate to distribute condoms at all, even if the rate of failure had been within the limits set by the Food and Drug Administration. In defending the distribution program, one might argue that there was a positive net effect of the distribution because eventually, more good than harm would result. While some unwanted pregnancies and some venereal diseases would result, more infections and pregnancies would result by failure to distribute condoms. This type of argument is called the net benefit argument (Geuras and Garofalo, 2011).


There is another moral issue that is introduced through the use of net benefit argument. Despite the fact that the argument is ethically plausible, Arkansas people might not find it convincing enough. Some people might argue that it would be inappropriate for the state to distribute condoms unless there was no chance of failure because using defective condoms might encourage insecurity in a student regarding having sex, which the student might decide not to have had, to their own peril. Even if Dr. Joycelyn considered the net benefit argument to be ethically right, one might still question whether the state has the moral justification to impose its own ethical reasoning on the society or on a specific student (Lewis and Gilman, 2005).


The most noteworthy ethical issue is Dr. Jocelyn’s response to the realization that there were unanticipated condom failures. She did not disclose the information because she strongly believed that doing so would discourage people from using condoms, and the use of potentially defective condoms would have better outcomes than unprotected sex. In the effect, she made a choice for the general population and individual condom users, who are students.


There are several ethical issues that arise from Dr. Jocelyn’s decision. One of the issues is that of paternalism. By considering her decision to be in the best interest of Arkansas people, Dr, Joycelyn denied them information that was needed to help them come up with their own informed decisions. Rather than giving them that opportunity, she opted to decide for them. Despite the fact that she may have been right in her assumption that her decision was better then theirs, it is important to consider whether she had the moral justification to take the decision out of the hands of the people of Arkansas.


The second is issue is that in making her decision, Dr. Joycelyn individuals who may have chosen to buy condoms from a different manufacturer or abstain from risky behavior entirely, if properly informed. She may have been right in her belief that a small number of people would have made such choices, but those who would have may have been extremely damaged by the decision that she, in effect, made for them.


A third issue that emerges from Dr. Joycelyn’s decision is that of secrecy. Even if she was right in her assumption that Arkansas people benefited from her decision, its effectiveness relied upon secrecy. As a government officer, Dr. Joycelyn has the responsibility to undertake her roles and duties openly and honestly. But openness and honesty in making this choice would have defeated the decision itself. An essential part of the decision was deception (Milakovich and Gordon, 2008).


In analyzing the questions presented by this case, it is essential to first of all consider the teleology. There are three questions that may fall under this aspect. These are, what are the consequences of my actions? What are the long-run consequences of my action? And finally does my action promote the greatest happiness? The three question may be taken as a group, an in an attempt to respond to them, one has to consider many factors. The first factor is whether withholding of information would reduce unwanted pregnancy and venereal diseases as effectively as it was believed by Dr. Joycelyn. The other factor to consider is if the deception set an unfortunate precedent to encourage secrecy in other policies as well. It is also important to consider whether the society would lose faith in the honesty of government if the deception was discovered. Finally, it is essential to consider whether there would be unfortunate consequences of a systematic attempt to hide the deception (Geuras, 2011).


It is clearly not certain whether Dr. Joycelyn’s assumption regarding reduction of unwanted pregnancy and venereal diseases by withholding information was effective. This is just the belief and view of a single person. It is therefore inappropriate to generalize this assumption without considering the views of other people involved. Even if the assumption held by Dr. Joycelyn was true, there is a possibility of setting a trend that encourages secrecy in other policies of public concern. One obvious result of realization about deception and secrecy regarding public policies is the society losing faith in the government’s honesty. It is thus clear that a systematic attempt to hide the deception would be accompanies by negative and unfortunate consequences.


The other aspect that should be considered in analyzing the issues raised is deontology. This tries to consider the principle that applies to the case. Among the principles that should be considered include, whether the government should make secret decisions that do not involve national security. The other principle should attempt to respond to whether the government should deprive citizens of information that is required to make informed decisions. Moreover, it is essential to consider whether the government has a right to make decisions in place of members of the society who are less wise at the expense of those who would make wise decisions when given proper information. Finally, it is essential to consider whether the interests of the whole are superior to the interests of individual societal members (Lewis, 2005).


It is morally inappropriate for the government to make secret decisions involving national security. Citizens have a right to be given information that is required fro making intelligent decisions. Citizens are autonomous individuals who have the power to make sound decisions. With proper information, some citizens have the ability to make sound and wise decisions. It is therefore ethically inappropriate for the government to make decisions on behalf of less wise members of the society at the expense of those capable of making wise decisions when given proper information. It is evident that different individuals have unique interests. Hence, the interest of the whole should not override the interests of individual embers of a society (Milakovich, 2008).


The course of action that promotes the ideal of treating all people as ends in themselves is giving them the entire information that is required for making wise decisions. Dr. Joycelyn’s decision to save people from their own, possibly, irrational judgment did not treat people as ends in themselves. Moreover, it did not treat them as complete human beings and rational beings capable of making their own informed decisions. Providing people with the information needed to make informed decisions would have better expressed the ideal of people as ends in themselves. Additionally, sacrificing the welfare of those individuals who would make proper informed decisions for the sake of the welfare of the majority is a violation of the notion that people are valuable in themselves.


An ideal society should comprise of free, responsible people whose ends promote each other instead of conflicting with each other. Dr. Joycelyn’s decision does not conform to the notion of the ideal society since it emphasizes on the welfare of a whole over the interests of individuals with the ability to make the best informed decisions. The decision made by Dr. Joycelyn conflicts with the notion of an ideal society comprising of free and responsible people.


Rather than expressing benevolence because of Dr. Joycelyn’s concern for the Arkansas people welfare, the action expresses a lack of trust and honesty. Moreover, it expresses a lack of trustworthy in public administration sector. It is appropriate for a public administrator or government official to be entirely honest and trustworthy so that he or she can win the trust and confidence of the citizens served. If the policy of Dr. Joycelyn succeeded, it would tend to make her a dishonest person. Moreover, it would reinforce a possible disrespect for the common people judgment. If routinely taken, the actions such actions would tend to make people less self-reliant and more dependent upon government experts (Milakovich, 2008)..


The case of Dr. Joycelyn is especially essential for public administrators to consider because the root of the issue is the proper function of government. An individual’s reaction to Dr. Joycelyn’s decision is an expression of the individual’s beliefs concerning the point at which the legitimate actions undertaken by the government turn out to be unwarranted paternalism (Denhardt, 2008).



Citizens have a right to be treated rationally, as whole beings. This implies that they have a right to obtain information that is necessary for informed decision making. It is morally unjustifiable for public administrators and government officials to withhold information concerning national security from the general public. Doing so could result to losing citizen’s trust and confidence. It is also inappropriate to let interests of a whole to override individual interests. One of the fundamental roles of public administration should be to make citizens more self-reliant and independent. Making decisions on behalf of citizens, as is the case with Dr. Joycelyn would result to increase dependency on government experts and decreased self-reliance among citizens.



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(6th Ed). Cengage Learning

Geuras, D., & Garofalo, C. (2011). Practical Ethics in Public Administration (3rd Ed).

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Lewis, C. W., & Gilman, S. (2005). The ethics challenge in public service: a problem-

solving guide (2nd Ed). John Wiley and Sons

Milakovich, M. E., & Gordon, G. J. (2008). Public Administration in America (10th Ed).

Cengage Learning