Uncovering JAPA

Coping With Ethical Dissonance in Planning

Each of us experiences ethical dilemmas in our day to day lives, and they vary in severity and frequency.

Do we take a paper or plastic bag at the grocery store because we forgot to bring a reusable one this time? Do we give up on using straws to save the sea turtles? Do we speak up when we hear a derogatory comment made in public, in the classroom, or in the office?

When we make a decision on how to act, we often create tensions between our personal ethics and the social/cultural norms we’re witnessing. This phenomenon is referred to as ethical dissonance, and it is at the root of Mickey Lauria and Mellone F. Long’s research, described in their recent article "Ethical Dilemmas in Professional Planning Practice in the United States" in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 85, No. 4).

Lauria and Long conducted a series of semi-structured interviews with 61 practicing planners to learn about the ethical pressures they face in real-world situations, how they resolve tensions created by ethical dissonance, and what frameworks, codes, or beliefs motivate their decisions.

The authors found an apparent value gap between planning education and professional practice — particularly between the realms of public- and private-sector planners.

They also found differences in stated or espoused ethical frameworks and those inferred from previous surveys with the same participants, as well as between their individual/professional ethics and those apparent in their workplace.

Lauria and Long’s study builds on a previous survey analysis done on ethical framing in the planning profession. They find that planners operate from a multitude of ethical frameworks, depending on the context of the problem as well as the setting (personal vs. professional).

Conflicts between ethical frameworks led to both cognitive and emotional dissonance in planners, from mild discomfort to an inability to remain in a position or workplace.

They recommend a series of amendments to the AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct and AICP Certification to minimize this dissonance across employment sectors and jurisdictional contexts. With these changes, they hope planners will be better prepared and equipped to resolve any ethical dilemma they encounter.

The Journal of the American Planning Association is the quarterly journal of record for the planning profession. For full access to the JAPA archive, APA members may purchase a discounted subscription for $48/year, or a digital-only subscription for $36/year.

Top image: Getty Images illustration.


About the Author
Antonio Castañeda is a Master in Urban Planning candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

April 30, 2020

By Antonio Castaneda