Institutional Morality Essay

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The concept of institutional morality is applicable to current policy dilemmas in the U.S. criminal justice system, particularly in the area of criminal justice policy. Bernard Gert defined the concept of “morality” as having two facets. Descriptively, morality can be seen as codes of conduct put forward by a society, group, or organization and/or accepted by individuals for their own behavior. Normatively, morality can be viewed as a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons. Institutional morality can be viewed as the code of conduct in regard to right and wrong behavior that characterizes a particular institution. The institution can be an organization, such as the U.S. Department of Defense, or an interconnected system of organizations, such as the U.S. criminal justice system.

Ethical Models of Morality

There are many ethical models or approaches to solving ethical dilemmas. These include deontological, consequentialism, Rawlian justice, and the ethic-of-care models. It seems the two most relevant models to evaluate morality at the institutional level including organizations and public policy are the consequentialism and deontological models.

The consequentialism model, more widely referred to as utilitarianism, evaluates good and bad policies and right or wrong policies based on the consequence or outcomes of these policies. In other words, organizational policies and decisions are not inherently good or bad. It is the outcomes of the policies and decisions of the organizations that are good or bad or right or wrong.

In contrast, the deontological model assumes that good policies and decisions are policies that apply moral laws that are not conditional and are universally applicable. These policies and decisions are not based on meeting individual self-interests, but on carrying out a duty to achieve a higher universal principle. In this model, there may be consequences that are neither pleasant nor desirable, but because the purpose of the ethics of this model is a greater rather than a more immediate good, undesirable consequences are tolerated.

War on Drugs Policy

The War on Drugs is an example of public policy that may be examined using various models of institutional morality. Increase in drug usage and drug-related crimes of violence led to a policy of retribution and mass incarceration that started in the 1980s and continued through the 1990s. This mass incarceration policy has had considerable negative side effects and unintended consequences:

  • African Americans, especially males, as a percentage of the general population were disproportionately incarcerated.
  • Barriers against ex-offender reintegrating back into society were instituted, including taking away their right to vote and denying them public welfare services such as food stamps and educational loans.
  • Families of incarcerated felons experienced financial strains, psychological burdens, and social stigma.
  • Children of incarcerated felons became at increased risk to be placed in foster homes, drop out of school, become delinquent, and become incarcerated themselves.
  • Destabilization of the neighborhoods where convicts lived often led to increases in crime.
  • Substantial disparities in voting eligibility between blacks and Hispanics as compared with whites resulted from ex-convicts losing their voting rights.
  • Development of a caste system of people of color who are or have been incarcerated and who will be relatively powerless for a foreseeable length of time.
  • Ever-increasing incarceration expenditures reduced dollars that could have been spent on other vital public services, such as education, social services, and health services.

The War on Drugs policies originated as an outgrowth of moral panics over illegal drug usage, particularly cocaine and the crack variety of cocaine found predominantly in low-income black and Hispanic neighborhoods. These moral panics were fueled by the media and gamesmanship among political candidates trying to outdo their rivals as to who could be the “toughest” on crime. Although the policies were enacted to reduce drug trafficking, substance abuse, and violent crimes, the very same policies brought about above-listed unintended consequences.

In the drafting of policies to reduce drug addiction and drug-related crime, many stakeholders were left out of the situation-assessment stage and the crafting of strategies to address the problem. Some of the most conspicuous groups seemingly absent from the policy making included members of communities that would be most affected by the policy changes, social service agencies, health and educational service providers, businesses, and researchers—especially researchers in the social sciences that had acquired considerable information on the criminal justice system and the system’s inability to absorb such sudden changes.

Critics charge that inclusion of these groups would have enlightened policy makers about the problems of overincarceration. Supporters of a retributive solution to drug-related crime assert that the collateral negative consequences of the War on Drugs must be likened to the side effects of prescribed medication. Utilitarians, however, might counter that if the harmfulness of the side effects outweighed the good that the medication provided, it would be immoral to continue prescribing such medicine.

The War on Drugs policies of aggressively targeting street-level dealers and users of the crack form of cocaine and arresting, prosecuting, and convicting them for long sentences was done with the intended purpose of reducing violent crime rates, which can be evaluated as being a morally good, morally right strategy. Crime rates did go down by 2000 and stabilized thereafter. It is not clear that this reduction was a result of the War on Drugs; however, even if it were proven that the antidrug policies were effective in reducing crime, the side effects or unintended collateral consequences it wreaked on other dimensions or aspects of American society would warrant a reevaluation of the institutional morality involved in these policies. Are the crime-reducing benefits of these punitive strategies worth the costs and pain inflicted on other sectors of society? Using the utilitarian model of ethics, the answer would more than likely be no. That is because the utilitarian approach to morality, including institutional morality, would be to assess the rightness or wrongness of the consequences of the policies, including direct and collateral consequences, as experienced by all members of American society. Using the deontological model, the answer would be yes, if the reduction of drug abuse and drug-related crime is a moral imperative.


  1. Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press, 2010.
  2. Banks, Cyndi. Criminal Justice Ethics: Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage,
  3. Gert, Bernard. “The Definition of Morality.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta, ed. (Fall 2012) (Accessed July 2013).
  4. Hardin, Russell. “Institutional Morality,” In The Theory of Institutional Design, Robert Goodin, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  5. Mauer, Marc, and Meda Chesney-Lind, eds. Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment, New York: New Press, 2002.
  6. Rachel, James. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 3rd ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill College, 1999.
  7. Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter, “Consequentialism.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta, ed. (Winter 2012) (Accessed July 2013).

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