The NCSL Blog


By Katie Ziegler

Some of the great certainties in life are death, taxes and ethics in the news. Headline-making stories involving public officials embroiled in scandals often have ethical violations at their cores.

ethics road signIn the NCSL Capitol Forum session, “What’s Wrong with Being Right?” NCSL’s Center for Ethics in Government staff Mark Quiner and Ethan Wilson led participants through exercises to clarify their personal values and discuss how those values relate to their roles as public servants.

Quiner and Wilson noted an important distinction between law-based “little e” ethics, guided by standards and rules and often involving a clear choice between right and wrong, and value-based “big E” Ethics. This is the ethical zone with difficult-to-navigate gray areas, where choices often come down to right vs. right.

Having a strong understanding of your personal values can offer clarity when faced with those tough decisions.

Tension points in decision making can arise when you have a loyalty to both sides of a question, when two or more priorities are in direct conflict with each other, or when your personal preference is in conflict with the wishes of your constituents.

Audience members agreed that how your values are aligned may change depending on where you sit. One member commented, “As an individual, I don’t want to be impartial, I have positions. But as a committee chair or leader there are times when I need to be impartial and it is very important.”

A series of thought-provoking case studies drawn from the legislative world prompted the participants to clarify how their values help them to make choices. What is a “right” decision to one person may not feel right to another, and there are several pathways leading to the ethical choice. For example, to make a decision, consider:

  • Do you do what is best for the greatest number of people?
  • Do you follow your highest senses of principle?
  • Do you do what you want others to do to you?
  • Or, do you follow that feeling in the pit of your stomach?

Any of these can lead to the right decision in a given situation, and it is up to you to decide. Mark and Ethan closed the session with this quote from Maya Angelou: “Courage is the most important of all virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but not consistently without courage.”

Katie Ziegler is the program manager for NCSL's Women's Legislative Network.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.