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Ethics, Responsibility, and Integrity

Secretary Colin Powell's UN Speech on Iraq USAIR Captain Chesley Sullenberger

What is integrity? Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (who safely landed USAIR 1549 in the Hudson River after losing his two engines to bird strikes) defines it simply as "doing the right thing when it is inconvenient." He declares "integrity is the core of my profession. An airline pilot has to do the right thing every time." The same might be said about a visa officer, a military commander, an intelligence analyst, a conflict mediator, a refugee camp administrator, or a UN peacekeeper. Patterson School students are often bound for careers where integrity is fundamental. While Sullenberger's definition makes it sound easy, news headlines suggest otherwise. They illuminate constantly behavior of senior leaders – on Wall Street, in Congress, in government, and in NGOs – that ranges from ill considered and unethical to patently illegal.

What is proper conduct for officials and employees who observe or are drawn into unethical situations? How should they respond to directives that appear to violate the public trust? Be quiet, complain, or impede action? Support the boss, blow the whistle, or quit? To whom are they accountable? In government, is it to the President, the party, or the Constitution? In business, is it to the CEO, shareholders, clients, or society?

These questions do not always have clear answers. People can sharply disagree over what characterizes "doing the right thing." There is an ongoing national debate over the ethics of drone strikes and another on making public classified information. Today, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is holed up in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, Bradley Manning has been convicted of espionage, and NSA leaker Edward Snowden on the run. Some have labeled Manning and Snowden "traitors" for their actions, others "heroes."

MillerCoors Chief Ethics Officer Cornell Boggs speaks with Patterson students.

Examining issues of ethics and responsibility is an integral part of your professional education. This is accomplished through readings, class discussions, scenario exercises, and outside speakers. We will not provide you with the "right" answers to complex ethical situations. What we will do is ensure that you have thought about them and have been exposed to likely options to help you handle moral dilemmas when they inevitably arise.

RAF Reaper, Kandahar Air Base.

Tough Questions

• Was General Colin Powell correct in being "the good soldier" while Secretary of State, or should he have been more public in voicing his differences with the White House over the Iraq War?

• How should managers (or intelligence analysts) react to efforts by senior leaders to selectively use financial data (or intelligence) to bolster the case for a particular course of action?

• What should diplomats or military personnel do if asked to facilitate practices (such as extraordinary renditions or harsh interrogation techniques) which they believe may violate the law or international norms?

• Is it moral to craft a compelling story – that is not completely true – if doing so will generate millions of dollars for a humanitarian need that otherwise would likely be ignored?

• Should HR permit the employment of 13-year olds at an overseas subsidiary, if this accords with local social norms and practices?

No Child Labor

Actions individuals take in such situations are decidedly personal, determined largely by their own character, values, experience, convictions, and courage. It can be hard to move from the perceptions and norms of an immediate group (be it an institution or even a nation) to more universal perspectives and principles. Nevertheless, as H. R. McMaster's seminal book on Vietnam makes clear, lack of dissent and mistakes in determining where the line falls between loyalty and "dereliction of duty" can have deadly consequences.

Vietnam passport stamp

Patterson School | 455 POT, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40506-0027 | 859-257-4666

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