Dissenting as a Citizen

May a public servant ethically engage in conscientious dissent outside his or her office? This question accents professional and organizational roles, but these are not the only roles, which is the point of Figure 2.1. How should a city manager respond to an urban planner who takes part in a peaceful demonstration opposing abortion? How should a state finance analyst decide to participate in an antiwar protest? There are two is- sues when the action is not related to official duties: (1) responsible citizenship and the (2) legality of the mode of dissent.

When the actions are legal, a yes underwrites important citizenship obligations and reserves rights already limited by ethical standards, laws, and regulations discussed throughout this book. In practice, the answer is often modified by the appearance standard discussed in the next chapter. Unwelcome professional consequences will likely vary according to the visibility of the administrator and the action. Part of ethical action is a willingness to take responsibility for it.

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Not all modes of dissent are legal. Respect for democratic processes, public trust, and the promise of legal compliance ethically constrain the public servant. As a result, the ethicality of dissent outside of office turns on the action’s legality. A county hospital administrator who challenges nuclear weapons by refusing to pay personal in- come taxes is breaking the law and shrugging off the ethical value of promise keeping. Bear in mind that a sincere ethical argument can be made; the dissenter may believe that public interest is paramount in this instance.

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