Given the actual prospect of exceeding legal authority, budget, energy, credibility, and more, what do you do when you can’t do it all? When avoiding harm is at issue, a use- ful approach to setting priorities and making trade-offs draws on (1) the type of ethi- cal claim and (2) taking responsibility for one’s actions. The lower the claim on the list, the more appropriate is a principled no. Ranked in order of diminishing strictness,
Public service’s posture of avoiding harm begets an obligation to correct direct or indirect problems we create. In thinking about the effects of actions or decisions, the ethical manager applies the rule of reason rather than conjecture but is obligated to examine reasonably foreseeable consequences and disclose analytic and informational limitations undermining certainty.
A third and less rigorous claim moves the decision maker from the realm of oblig- ation to responsibility and states it positively: to help. This line of reasoning is by no means unique to public service; many religions teach, first, not to do evil and, second, to cultivate good.
Charity, the fourth ethical claim, is the least stringent. It is voluntary, self-generated, and dictated by time, energy, and personal inclination. Although doing charitable deeds is commendable, it is not necessarily ethical to do them at public expense or through public office.