The Ethics of Resigning – J Patrick Dobel

Resigning from office is a critical ethical decision for individuals. Resignation also remains one of the basic moral resources for individuals of integrity. The option to resign reinforces integrity, buttresses responsibility, supports accountability, and can provide leverage and boundary drawing. I argue that the moral reasons to resign flow from three related moral dimensions of integrity. Individuals in office promise to live up to the obligation of the office. This promise presumes that individuals have the capacity to make and keep promises, the competence to do the tasks of office, and the ability to be effective. This article examines how failure in each of these areas generates strong moral reasons to resign. ©1999 by the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management.

Getting out or staying in marks a defining moment for a person in public life. Most
decisions in office are woven into a fabric of habit, experience, and professional
judgments. Only a few decisions threaten the fabric of integrity and can unravel a life or office. At these frayed edges of selfhood where people decide to stay or resign, persons define their integrity

This article presents a moral theory of resignation that accounts for the moral complexity of life in office and can help guide individuals in their deliberations. Unlike the accounts that focus upon the obligations either to oppose or leave when individuals disagree on principle, I argue that moral integrity in office has three separate components. Each component might be thought of as a support for the tripod of integrity or as one of a triad of concerns among which individuals triangulate their judgments. This analysis of moral resignation begins with the assumption that the moral status of holding office can best be conceptualized as a promise by an individual to live up to the obligations of office. This promise presumes three supports for moral obligation in office:
(a) the moral capacity to make and keep promises,
(b) the competence to perform duties, and
(c) effectiveness in actions. This article explores how each support can generate a range of moral reasons to resign through examples drawn from case studies, biographies, memoirs, and interviews. Individuals have many reasons to leave office and not all are ethically based, but I will focus upon those that flow from moral obligations in office.

Resigning has a profound role in the moral ecology of the self. First, resignation supports personal integrity. Personal integrity matters because it enables persons to claim life as their own and enables society to allocate responsibility on the assumption that individuals can act with consistency and discipline on behalf of promises. Personal integrity involves the capacity to take a reflective stance toward roles and actions, and make sense of how they cohere. It resembles what the moral philosopher John Rawls calls “reflective equilibrium,” a state in which an individual reflects across roles and actions, and assesses their compatibility or consistency with each other and with an individual’s commitments [Rawls, 1971, pp.48-51]. This reflective movement spins the threads that stitch together selfhood and creates a wholeness, durability, even beauty, across the quilted fabric of a person’s life [Carter, 1996, pp. 3- 14; Dobel, 1990, pp. 354-366]. Personal integrity also means that persons can act on the basis of belief and commitment. Persons of integrity can keep promises and play by the rules because they have the self-discipline and character to overcome temptations, opposition, and problems.3 Integrity enables individuals to seek greater compatibility with commitments by revising actions or roles to restore moral coherence. If all else fails and a role threatens the fabric of life, then people can sever a role and resign. Second, resigning buttresses moral responsibility. Individuals in public office possess responsibility for their actions, and resigning is a basic moral resource of responsible persons. Although the level of personal responsibility may vary, individuals above the ministerial levels possess some coresponsibility for institutional actions because they materially contribute their competence to the outcomes. Too often individuals respond to moral conflict by denying responsibility with excuses such as “following orders,” “no choice,” or “not my job.” The existence of the option to resign prevents them from exculpating themselves with such excuses.4 The option to resign means that the theoretical linkage of personal responsibility and position is real.

The resignation option complicates the moral and psychological temptations to save integrity yet deny responsibility. The knowledge of this option means that a person cannot escape knowledge of his or her responsibility by pretending that he or she had no choice. Resignation defines the field of his or her integrity because participation becomes a matter of choice, not force or inertia. It means individuals know that they contribute in a substantial way to the realization of goals. This matters because the social and psychological pressures of office push individuals to live by group norms. Everyday organizational life pressures people to stay and blinds people to the resignation option.5 I want to make clear that I am referring to a robust notion of integrity and responsibility. This is not a call for hair-trigger resigning.


I believe the moral relationship between a person and an office is best understood as a promise to live up to the office’s responsibilities.9 This promise implicates an individuals integrity and responsibility with the obligations of office. The responsibilities include acting with competence, obeying the law, framing actions in light of legal and institutional norms, agreeing to accountability, and respecting due process. Although the range of discretion varies for appointed, career, and elected officials, the moral structure of the promise and its base conditions remain the same. This promise requires key assumptions about the individual and his or her relationship to the position. For persons in office, the violation of these assumptions provides very strong reasons to resign.


Personal moral capacity, official responsibilities, and effectiveness represent the three moral reference points of the triad of public integrity [Behn, 1991; Dobel, 1998].11 They determine the moral “fit” between a person and an office. Individuals triangulate within the triad to find the right actions. When the three mesh and reinforce each other, a moral synergy exists that enables individuals to perform official responsibilities with commitment, competence, energy, and style. The web of reliance is fulfilled; the legal and authorizing demands are satisfied; the institutional and political dimensions support the office.

Personal Moral Capacity
The ability to bring critical self-reflection, discipline, energy, focus, and insight to the job depends upon integrity. Integrity links these capacities as it permits persons to embrace their responsibility for actions. Personal capacities enable individuals to endure the humdrum, hassles, and the physical and emotional strain of office as well as provide the moral backstop for periods when legal or institutional directives may be vague or in conflict.I2 They are also the capacities that sustain a person’s ability to judge and act upon moral commitments. When these integrity-related capacities erode, it is time to resign. Such erosion can occur in various ways. At the most prosaic level-usually ignored in moral discussions of office–the daily stresses of official life can undercut a person’s physical or emotional health and endurance. This applies to all offices. When Representative Morris Udall resigned from the House after a 30-year distinguished career, he cited the effects of cumulative illness that prevented him from meeting the “rigorous demands and duties” of his office [Hook, 1991, p. 934]. When individuals exhaust their physical capacity to give the required performance, then they have a moral reason to leave.

Individuals who experience two contradictory moral imperatives experience cognitive dissonance. This dissonance causes emotional and moral pain that pushes for a resolution. Too often individuals reinterpret reality so that they can ignore or no longer be conscious of the moral problems. Continuous dissonance undermines judgment and encourages selfdeception as the person struggles to “live with” the dilemma. Yet, it is one thing to be consciously persuaded to change because of argument and quite another to have one’s position erode over time without self-conscious reflection.

Official Responsibilities
Officials have an obligation to perform the functions of the office. These are warranted by law and process, and can range from clear and exact technical operations to wide ranges of discretion. Success in these involves the perceptions of those in the political environment who oversee and depend upon the office. In office, certain aspects will have a rationalized or routine dimension while others will require more sophisticated judgments and discretion. In this environment, officials must be able to prove to their relevant publics and superiors that their actions satisfy the legal and institutional requirements as well as help those who depend on competent execution. For this reason, many senior managers exert considerable effort to manage the perception of their actions [Lynn, 1987]. Two broad classes of reasons to resign arise from the promise to live up to the responsibilities of office. In the first class, individuals fail in the basic competencies required by the position. In the second, they confront demands to participate in actions that violate legal or professional norms or the basic moral conditions of the office. Persons have a number of options in these cases because living in a world of moral incompleteness is one of the obligations of public managers. Many of the decisions to resign will emerge from the intersection of different promises and from the individuals’ need to sort out their own priorities, especially in regard to their moral capacities and the obligations of the position. Persons can fail in their competence responsibilities in any of several ways. First, an official might be the lead in a failed policy or program. For instance, the policy might fail to meet expected goals or lose its political support due to bad management. English cabinet ministers associated with a failed policy or program often resign.

The last leg of the moral tripod that supports public integrity involves prudential dimensions beyond legal or professional obligations. Effectiveness overlaps with the responsibilities of office and covers the active political skills that transcend the technical, routine, and even managerial skills required to maintain an institutions core competence. One can exercise all these skills and still end up merely “going through the motions” or “serving time.” To implement a new vision, protect an agency in a turbulent environment, fight off power plays, change priorities, or influence policymaking, a public official needs two other sets of skills. These are: (a) the ability to build political support and capital, and (b) the ability to gain access and credibility in order to influence decisions

Resignation is costly not only to the person leaving, but to the people and the organization left behind. When a valued and skilled colleague leaves, implementation or deliberation may be degraded because an important source of talent or insight has been lost. A resignation can be felt as a public repudiation of a policy, and the media may use it as evidence of discord or failure in an office. Consequently, the option to resign creates potential leverage. The leverage becomes important in a world of contingent power and moral ambiguity. Many persons who consider resigning are struggling to change or resist actions, and they feel beleaguered. When the reasons flow from a disagreement over policy or involve loss of influence, then individuals can sometimes recoup losses with the artful exercise of power. If individuals could regain influence or effect an actual change, they could stay. In these cases, the threat or offer to resign can free the person and sometimes rebuild the tripod. In essence, the threat to resign draws a boundary and defends integrity.

Full essay here ::  The Ethics of Resigning – J Patrick Dobel


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