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Ethics for the Chaplaincy in Prison Environments

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Ethical theories such as Utilitarianism, Kantian Duty-Based Ethics, Virtue Ethics and Deontology can be implemented into prison systems by chaplains. Each theory contains principles that can be applied to the lives of inmates, fellow staff members and even the chaplains themselves.

Utilitarianism is an ethical principle that states that it is best to look at the big picture or what is best for the greatest number of people (Holmes, 1994). Under this principle, in an ideal world, every action would maximize the advantages for the largest number of people. An aspect of this theory that is commonly neglected is that it is based on empirical data and not just emotional responses (Holmes, 1994). This means that to implement this theory in a person’s life, said person must decide that a problem exists, gather and examine relevant evidence and then focus on finding a solution that would benefit the greatest number of people.

When using a utilitarianism theory in a prison, it is important that chaplains decide if the greatest number of people he considers will be the inmates in his country’s prison system or the entire world’s various prison systems. It would be difficult to solve a problem in the chaplain’s prison if they also had to solve that problem in over one hundred other prison systems as well. That being said, the chaplain may help the most inmates by solving the problems in their specific prison system instead of creating a general solution that would work for many prison systems. This is due to the fact that the general solution may apply to many systems, but it does not specifically solve the problem in each prison system, so it cannot be properly applied. Once the chaplain has decided who their target solution is for, they can begin gathering and examining evidence. Just searching a library may not be enough to solve the problem at hand, so the chaplain may need to reach out and interview other prison staff or even have discussions with inmates about their problems to gain their perspective on the subject. Then a decision can be made as to how to best solve the problem.

The Kantian Duty-Based Ethic theory considers what the motivations are behind an action. This theory values people and ultimately regards moral law and duty (Holmes, 1994). Rather than following acts of respect based on feelings, this theory follows acts of respect based on duty. The difficulty with this theory is that it believes in universalized maxims, which are hard to agree on because what is right for one person may not be considered right for another (Holmes, 1994). However, in the simplest terms, a universal maxim can be decided if you believe it would be acceptable daily.

Chaplains can integrate the Kantian Duty-Based Ethic theory into their prisons by encouraging their inmates to act respectfully towards others based on their duty to others rather than treating others based on emotions, which can be negative. Universal maxims can be created based on observing the daily life of the inmates and then concluding what is generally right for the group all together, also. This would not be a completely perfect plan, but it would begin the process of creating the ideal universal maxims for the prison environment.

The Virtue Ethics theory focuses on the motives behind an action and then decides whether that specific action is right or wrong (Holmes, 1994). Regardless of what the action itself is, if the motive is pure and virtuous, then the action is right (Holmes, 1994). For example, if a prison guard beat an inmate because that inmate was attacking and hurting others and beating him was the only way to stop him, the action is right. However, if the guard beat the inmate because the inmate was annoying him then the action would be wrong.

Chaplains can apply the Virtue Ethics theory in a prison by educating inmates and fellow staff members about how to identify their motives and then decide if an action is ethical or not. Learning how to be conscious of one’s actions can be difficult, especially when emotions are involved, but it is a learnable skill.

Lastly, the Deontological theory asserts that an individual should act in accordance with their obligations and duties when they are required to plan when ethics are involved (Husten & Allen, 2000). Since maintaining one’s duty is believed to decide whether an action is right or not, a person will comply with their responsibilities to another individual, corporation or society (Husten & Allen, 2000). Morally, with this theory, it only matters that a person does their duty for duty’s sake. This theory creates very consistent decision makers because the person will always be required to obey their set duties. For example, this means that the person will never break a promise and will always follow the law out of an obligation to their duty.

A chaplain can consider the Deontological theory when they are required to make decisions in their work because this theory would keep them focused on their duty. This theory removes all emotion and intention so that it only produces what the person is obligated to produce. This can help the decision process because a chaplain is only required to think about his duties towards the inmates or staff. This means that they are not considering how they feel towards the specific group of people, which can remove prejudice.

Every ethical theory focuses on different principles that decide whether an action is morally right. This means that it is not possible to follow all of them perfectly at the same time, but the principles can still be applied by chaplains in the prison environment.


Holmes, A.F. (1994). Ethics: Approaching moral decisions. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/lib/liberty/reader.action?docID=3316780&ppg=5

Husted, B. W. & Allen, D. B. (2000). “Is it ethical to use ethics as strategy?” Journal of Business Ethics 27 (1-2). Retrieved from https://link-springer-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/article/10.1023%2FA%3A1006422704548

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