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Are ethical dilemmas in public service unique? A study in experimental decision-making

EasyChair Preprint no. 1130

13 pagesDate: June 9, 2019


The purpose of this paper is to describe a broader theoretical argument to suggest that public service oriented employees may uniquely recognize and process ethical dilemmas. The theory further suggests that public service dilemmas may be more complicated and cognitively difficult. We then empirically test our theory using an experimental design.

The essence of our theoretical argument is that most employees recognize dilemmas as conflicts between personal and organizational interests. Public service oriented employees, on the other hand, often contemplate a third set of interests that are neither personal nor organizational but that accrue to the general public’s benefit. The tension between personal, organization, and public interests uniquely describe public service dilemmas.

We test the veracity of this theory by presenting real-world ethical dilemmas gathered from executive MPA students and alumni. After reading a short dilemma we ask respondents to the identify parties and interests that they see as important in the dilemma. We then ask respondents to distribute 1,000 “points” across the interests that they’ve identified – assigning more points to the interests that they perceive as most important. Finally, we ask respondents to respond to several personality and demographic questions, including public service motivation (PSM) and prosocial motivation questions.

We hypothesize that respondents with higher levels of PSM, or respondents employed in public sector, will be more likely to recognize parties and interests that would be considered “general public benefit” and that they will also assign these parties and interests higher relative importance. We propose that one mechanism by which this might happen is moral intensity’s proximity dimension, such that public service oriented decision makers will consider public interests to be more proximate.

Keyphrases: dilemmas, ethics, sector

BibTeX entry
BibTeX does not have the right entry for preprints. This is a hack for producing the correct reference:
  author = {Aaron Miller and Robert K. Christensen and Eva M. Witesman and Brad Agle},
  title = {Are ethical dilemmas in public service unique? A study in experimental decision-making},
  howpublished = {EasyChair Preprint no. 1130},

  year = {EasyChair, 2019}}
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