Ethics is concerned with the issue of what is right and wrong and determines how each individual ought to live his or her life (Shaffer, 2002). Unfortunately, because ethics involves the making of moral judgments such determination can be quite abstract and subject to considerable differences of opinion. Some argue that because ethical decisions are so abstract they have no application to the real world but, in reality, without ethics mankind would have to rely upon emotion, instinct, and personal values, and the result would be a highly inconsistent system of justice.
Ethics in the field of criminal justice is a particularly sensitive but vital issue. Because of the nature of the field of criminal justice, the lack of ethical behavior can spell the ruin of such field and result in the arbitrary application of the law. Ethics provide the framework from which appropriate decision making can be made.
Without ethics societies could be run simply upon a set of rules. If a rule is violated, then a punishment is imposed. In theory, such a situation seems ideal but, in practice, strict rule application often results in injustice. Innocent individuals are convicted and it is ethics that allow rules to be set aside and decisions to be made that are in accordance with what is right. Without ethics, rules would be rules and it would be the rules that determined what is right. Fortunately, in application, rules do not provide all the answers. It is ethics that guide police officers in applying the appropriate force when executing an arrest. It is ethics that place restraints on how prosecutors conduct their cases against defendants, and it is ethics that allow wrongfully convicted defendants to be released from prison (Pollock, 1994).
As pointed out earlier, however, ethics is an abstract concept. In actuality, ethics is divided into three separate approaches, deontology, consequentialism, and virtue (Cederblom, 1991). Each can be applied in nearly every ethical situation and each may result in a different decision being made as to what is right and wrong. What is important is that ethics provides one with options and a system of guidance in determining what is right and wrong.
Cederblom, J. (1991). A model for teaching criminal justice ethics. Journal of Criminal Justice Education , 201-217.
Pollock, J. (1994). Ethics in Crme and Justice: Dilemmas and Decisions. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.
Shaffer, T. L. (2002). American Legal Ethics. Theology Today , 369-383.