Chapter VI: Wisdom

by Adam J. McKee

Wisdom is often misunderstood.  It is different than intelligence.  Intelligence is knowing something and understanding it, and wisdom is doing the right thing in light of that knowledge.  There are many privileges in this world that some do not have the capacity to attain, but many do not take advantage of the abilities and opportunities that they have.  In this world, hard work and great talent don’t always guarantee success.  We should be diligent in seeking True Wisdom because it is the only thing that will bring lasting happiness.

Barriers to Ethical Conduct

One of the most important aspects of preventing unethical conduct is having the wisdom to know our own limitations.  We are all human, and as humans, we are subject to temptation and other powerful social forces.  We must understand that because we are human, the power that comes with the badge constantly threatens to corrupt us.  If we are naive enough to think that we are immune to the lure of power, then we are all the more susceptible to it.

Of course, respect for the limits of our authority does not justify being timid or indifferent in the execution of our duty.  Here a balance must be struck between our lawful duty and the abusive exercise of power.  When our duty is clear, to be fearful of confrontation and controversy is cowardice.  Law officers are often warned of doing too much.  It must be understood that doing too little is a similar evil.

Self Interest

When ethical decision-making is reduced to only considering self-interest, the result is a simple risk-reward calculation very similar to that utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham referred to as the “criminal calculus.”  The risk is that when the risk of negative outcomes is low, and the potential personal benefit of an act is high, then ethical considerations are put aside in the name of expediency.  This unethical mindset is an immense problem in our society: lying, cheating, and distorting facts are all too common occurrences.  The real test of our moral resolve is whether or not we will act ethically and do the right thing even when it does not promote our own self-interest.

Society’s Changing Moral Standards

According to ethics training material developed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP, 2013), “Most observers agree that the moral standards of contemporary society have fallen far below the norms of the past.  This is not just a nostalgic longing for imaginary good old days.”  Young officers just starting the job grew up in a social environment that reflects a significant and continuing decline in moral and ethical standards in many areas of life when compared to the recent past.  Behaviors that are acceptable in the youth culture of today are not acceptable to older Americans.

The IACP also cites “the increasing number of individuals who reject responsibility for their own actions” as another barrier to ethical conduct.  We live in a society where criminals are outraged when they are called upon to accept the consequences of their acts.  Typically, they blame their actions upon other people and other things.  They almost never take personal responsibility.  Lacking any feeling of personal responsibility, they proceed to duplicate the criminal behavior repeatedly, each time denying personal accountability.  The IACP (IACP, 2013) regards the environment as follows:

Unfortunately, this atmosphere is perpetuated by many of our political and social institutions, including the legal system, which often fails to assign guilt or impose punishment upon the perpetrator, instead blaming the perpetrator’s upbringing or environment or a host of other alleged causes of, and purported excuses for, the misconduct.  Without a society that sets defined boundaries on behavior and calls wrongdoers to task for their bad or illegal acts, many Americans today feel little inclination to avoid unethical or immoral behavior.  They are not required to accept the consequences of their unethical or immoral acts, and thus do not see themselves as bearing any responsibility for them.

Ethical training, then, must include the fact that officers are responsible for their actions, and the point must be hammered home.  In addition, officers must be made aware of the broader society that they serve and the conservative values of different constituents within that community.  Some behaviors may be perfectly acceptable within an officer’s peer group but may be patently offensive to other members of the community.  Senior officers must make new officers aware of these potentially unseen pitfalls.

Work Conditions

Another of the major factors identified by the IACP (2013) that negatively affect the ethical misconduct of police officers “is the very high degree of frustration being experienced by today’s police officers.  Frustration often leads to disillusionment, cynicism, frustration and anger, and these in turn can result in reduced performance, corruption, and, all too often, brutality.”

The IACP (2013) identifies several of the cogent factors related to working conditions:  “These frustrations arise from many sources. For example, many (if not most) officers perceive the legal system as being weighted far too heavily against law enforcement and in favor of the criminal.  Further, police officers far too often see other individuals or segments of society—criminals, criminal lawyers, politicians, etc.—flouting the law and getting away or even being rewarded for it, while the honest cop labors year after year in a relatively low-paid and often dangerous and thankless job.”

Unrealistic Expectations

Perhaps the silliest expectation that people have of the police is that they will solve the “crime problem.”  This cannot be accomplished, ever.  If it could be accomplished, this is the duty of the much larger criminal justice system, not merely the police.  The duty of the police is much more narrowly circumscribed.  We must serve the public, keep the peace, and enforce the law to the best of our ability, with little concern for outcomes that are beyond our control.  Guilty suspects will go free, despite our best efforts to build solid cases against them.  Dangerous criminals will be set free to endanger the public once again, despite our best efforts to detain them.  These failures of the system should be completely irrelevant to us.  So long as we do our duty to the best of our ability, then there is no shame on us.

The Police Role

Perhaps the most dangerous character flaw a Guardian can have is becoming cynical.  This means believing the worst about human intention and motives.  Many suggest that cynicism is inevitable in police work.  You deal with the dregs of humanity every day, hearing lie after lie, witnessing horrendous depravity.  This negative view, appropriate to sociopathic criminals, tends to shade an officer’s view of all humanity after a time.

To prevent cynicism, we must keep our purpose in mind at all times.  The role of a modern Guardian is to protect the innocent weak from the evil strong.  The vast majority of Americans are hardworking, decent people trying to pass on decency to a new generation of Americans.  If we lose sight of the basic goodness of humanity, then we fight only for the sake of the fight—we have lost our higher purpose.  This leads us to a weakness of spirit that allows us to rationalize nearly any behavior.  Those infected by cynicism are easy to spot.  They say things like “no one is incorruptible” and “everyone has a price.”

Another form of rationalization stemming from cynicism is self-pity because police officers are held to a “double standard.”  Cynical officers moan that no other profession is held to such a high standard, and so it is unfair to hold law officers to such a high standard.  The simple fact is that modern Guardians are the elite of our society, just as the Samurai were the elite of feudal Japan.  The people are justified in holding the elite to a higher standard.  If you are not willing to accept the added responsibility that comes with being part of the elite, then you should remove yourself from the profession of Guardians.

Drug Enforcement

Drug enforcement presents its own special ethical problems for law enforcement.  There is growing recognition that drug-related police corruption is different from “standard” corruption.  In addition to protecting criminals or ignoring their activities, officers involved in drug-related corruption were more likely to be actively involved in the commission of a variety of crimes, including stealing drugs and money from drug dealers, selling drugs, and lying under oath about illegal searches (GAO, 1998).  Although profit was found to be a motive common to traditional and drug-related police corruption, New York City’s Mollen Commission identified power and vigilante justice as two additional motives for drug-related police corruption.


As your experience in law enforcement increases, so should your wisdom.  If, as a veteran, your peers and command staff regard you as wise, you will inevitably be promoted.  With promotion comes the responsibility of leadership.  Because the essence of leadership is wisdom, it is included in this chapter.  In this new role, ethics becomes more important than ever.  Now, you are an example of all those below you in the chain of command.  Your decisions affect more people and can have a more devastating impact if not made wisely.

Reprimanding Subordinates and giving Advice

One of the most daunting aspects of leadership is offering criticism and reprimands to your staff.  This task is especially daunting if you were raised from their ranks.  You cannot, however, allow your sense of loyalty to friends cause you to shirk your duty in a leadership position.  As Tsunetomo Yamamoto said, “It is of utmost importance to admonish others with the intention of helping them overcome their faults.  It is an act of compassion and the first requirement of your service.  The way of advising others must be carried out with the utmost care and caution.  It is quite easy to see good and evil in others.  It is equally as easy to criticize others” (Stone, 2001, p. 15).  The idea, then, is to give constructive criticism, taking great care not to shame the person.  Merely insulting the person for the sake of the insult is beneath the dignity of a Guardian.

To effectively give constructive criticism, you need to make sure that the person criticized is of a mind to hear and heed your comments.  Among peers especially, it is important to build rapport and be ever mindful of the person’s dignity.  As Tsunetomo Yamamoto saw it:

In giving advice, you must recognize whether the other person is inclined to accept or not.  You must begin by getting on intimate terms with him; you must do this to the extent that he places confidence in you, and you in him.  Then he can put his trust in your words.  Attract his attention by way of common interests.  Devise appropriate ways of speaking and know the right season (time) to speak.  Make the most of personal correspondence.  Insinuate your point to the words you deliver at the time of farewell.  Refer to your own weakness and failures.  You would do well to let him discover your point without directly mentioning his weakness.  First, praise his merits or strong points, and cheer up his mood.  Devise means to bring about the circumstances in which he will accept your implied or intended advice.  …  This way of admonition is advice in the true sense of the word.  It is exceptionally difficult to practice (Stone, 2001, pp. 15-16).

Yamamoto also says that this should be done in private, echoing the western adage, “praise in public, rebuke in private.”  He asks his reader, “how can you reform others if you disgrace them?” (Stone, 2001, p. 16).

It is also part of your duty to give advice to your superior officers.  No one person can see or think of everything.  When giving advice to superiors, however, you must be tactful.  Yamamoto said:

And if you should be hated by your Lord for giving him excessive advice, then you cannot fulfill your loyalty.  This is the most important point that everyone misses.  You proceed to let your Lord learn little by little (Stone, 2001, p. 45).

Seeking Advice

It is important to remember that a leader is only as good as his advisors.  In police leadership, advice can come from below, it can come from above, and it can come from outside the agency, such as from citizens, judges, prosecutors, and other criminal justice professionals such as probation officers.  Tsunetomo Yamamoto had this sage advice:

…There is a method of obtaining higher wisdom: to consult with others.  Even those who themselves have not achieved this way [of higher wisdom] can still look at others’ affairs from the side, objectively.  This people say, “Onlookers can see more than players.”  They say you must find your own fault from speculation.  But the best way, of course, is to consult others.  To listen to others talk and to read books is necessary in order to keep close to the learning of the previous generation.  You must throw away your own judgment (Stone, 2001, p. 20).

It is also wise to take advice from outside of your inner circle of associates.  Many officers recoil at the thought of allowing civilians to comment on “police business.”  This wariness is not necessary if affairs are conducted in an ethical manner.  Tsunetomo Yamamoto points out the simple logic of this as follows:

As for important matters: Let outsiders and laymen comment in confidence.  Since they will be disinterested [neutral and detached], they will be able to see things objectively and with more reason.  If you confer only with people in your own circle, their opinions will naturally favor you, rendering them useless (Stone, 2001, p. 49).

Being Liked

Tsunetomo Yamamoto said, “However competent they may be, they are of no use if their colleagues do not like them and they cannot cooperate” (Stone, 2001, p. 33).  Being liked by your peers and subordinates is a very useful, perhaps necessary, management strategy.  It must be remembered, however, that being liked at the cost of your personal honor is foolish.  You can maintain firm discipline and integrity and still be liked.  An important virtue that will aid you in being liked is humility.  As Yamamoto said, “Those who like to be of help to others who even take delight in humbling themselves to work under the authority of their own colleagues—surely they are liked”  (Stone, 2001, p. 33).

The Ethical Burden of Leadership

Even when line officers are individually virtuous, they will benefit greatly from responsible leadership and instruction designed to make them better.  Good officers deserve leadership that they can trust to make ethical decisions and help them in their day-to-day work by removing ethical ambiguity through the development of ethically sound policies and procedures.  If you as a leader do not take a stand against unethical conduct, then even ethical officers may eventually come to believe that ethics is not valued by the agency.  Few things can erode the confidence of the public, as well as officers, as can officer misconduct and blindness to misconduct by command.

Often, command staff demonstrates a shocking lack of courage when formulating departmental policy.  Policy should not be a place to put on display your best guesses as to what courts and the public would like to hear.  Policies should be realistic and take into account the realities of police work.

The Confucian Analects suggests that rule by moral example is far more effective than rule by law and the threat of punishment (Tucker, 2013).  Fear of punishment might prompt compliance but not a sense of moral conscience.  Leadership by virtue, on the other hand, not only elicits compliance when the coercive power of the leader is visible but also when it is not.  A “do what I say, not what I do” style of leadership simply will not work well.

As we have previously discussed, loyalty to leaders is a critical element of bushido.  This loyalty comes at a price.  Gi, or justice, is critical to effective, ethical leadership.  In westernized Japanese writings, gi is often translated as “righteousness” and “rightness.”  However, it is something more complex that defies easy translation:  gi also conveys a sense of duty, responsibility, and obligation.  To affirm that something or someone is gi amounts to ethical praise of the highest order.  Gi was often combined with humaneness to form the compound, jingi, indicating humaneness and justice.  These are the virtues that warriors require of their leaders to swear loyalty.  Leaders that are not fair and humane in dealing with their Guardian subordinates will not be leaders long.

Street Ethics

This section ends our journey together along the path of the Guardian.  It consists of considering a few hypothetical ethical questions related to the work of law officers and deciding on an ethically sound course of action.  For many, there will be no “correct” answer.  Recall from the discussion of ethical dilemmas that when a choice between two good things must be made, someone may suffer.  Yet, choose we must.  Remember, choosing inaction in the face of two good actions is cowardice.

Duty v. Benevolence.  You make a routine traffic stop of an elderly woman who is driving erratically, and you suspect that she is DUI.  After talking to the woman, you discover that she is under the influence of a powerful narcotic painkiller she takes for a degenerative joint condition.  She states that she really did not want to be driving, but she had to go to the store for food and other necessities, and there was no one to help her.  Duty dictates that you uphold the law and cite the woman for operating a vehicle under the influence.  You can plainly see that the woman is in no condition to be driving, and by doing so, she is a danger to herself and others.  Benevolence dictates that you sympathize with her plight and help her out.  What would you do?

Duty v. Duty.  You come upon the scene of a single car accident and find a couple, both the man and woman are badly injured and are losing a lot of blood.  Your emergency medical training tells you that both will die without immediate first aid.  The problem is you are alone and can only help one of them.  It is likely that the one you do not help will die.  Which do you choose to aid?  Would your decision be any different if you noticed that the woman was pregnant?  What about if you discovered the woman had terminal cancer?

Obligation v. Obligation.  You receive a call that a student at the local high school is holding a large group of students hostage in the cafeteria, and shots are being fired.  Recognizing this as an “active shooter incident,” you arrive at the scene knowing that departmental policy dictates that you wait for three more officers to arrive before entering the building.  You know that only one other officer is on duty, and he is ten minutes away.  Your active shooter training indicates to you that many students will die if you wait for the requisite four officers.  If you enter the building alone, you will likely be labeled a “cowboy” and fired, and you may well be shot.  What do you do?


Ultimately, ethics is the study of good and evil.  Studying ethics cannot make an evil person good, but it can make a good person better.  Much of the value of ethical training comes from consideration of likely ethical situations in advance and developing a solution outside of the pressures of the moment when the need arises.

Living an ethical life is an ongoing process.  Ethics is not something that can be mastered over the course of a few days of training.  It is a lifelong endeavor.  As Tsunetomo Yamamoto explains:

You must go on with your mastery; you must seek, as long as you live, to attain the right way.  You must keep your mind from resting easy.  Within such effort is hidden the right way itself (Stone, 2001, p. 23).

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