Moral dilemmas in Emergency Management: a reflection on ethical choices

The challenges presented in the management of tragedies – such as environmental disasters – and the way in which they differ from everyday life require preventive reflection that prepares public managers for the moral dilemmas and ethical choices that those situations impose. The importance of connecting ethics in emergency management is advocated by Naomi Zack as she considers that it is primarily government organizations, such as Emergency and Preparedness Departments and Fire Departments, which have the administrative capacity to effectively respond to disasters.

As important as considering aspects that are essentially technical is to understand that emergency management faces conflict and needs deliberations based on human and subjective factors, with pressure in a variety of ways. Valencio (2010, p. 751) describes the work in disaster situations as a “broth in which conflicts arise between regulations, rules and diverse authority structures of the institutions involved, which makes decision-making supported by degrees of subjectivity and tacit knowledge, expanding the uncertainty environment”.

Given this context, managers have to make sudden and effective decisions using limited information and resources where emotions and instincts can easily ignore reasoning and logic, making the decision-making process difficult. Thus, moral dilemmas may arise more explicitly and the decision on which course of action to take may be even more difficult.

Jenson (1997), when studying ethics in emergency management, considers moral dilemmas usually occur when managers face issues such as:

– Who has the authority to make meaningful ethical decisions?

– What principles and values ​​should guide those involved in ethical processes during disasters?

– What is a responsible action in response to human needs? What level should humanitarian assistance be provided in?

– How to deal when a portion of the population don’t have access to vital information and resources, mainly due to issues of social inequality?

Moral dilemmas related to such issues may occur, according to Saban (2016), due to obstacles as lack of collaboration, lack of adequate information about the needs and risks involved, hierarchical power structures, lack of resources and support, and legal boundaries.  Decision making and implementation process could be facilitated if the ethics that guide decisions address the values ​​and concerns of all people involved. However, due to emergency needs, it is often difficult for institutions to identify representatives of different sectors in a chaotic or politically tense situation (Jenson, 1997).

Consequently, for ethics to be seen as a “management mechanism” in tragedies, it is necessary to insert the ethical discussion in a preventive way, through debates and reflections including numerous organizations and actors. In this sense, more than a management process, Stengers (2015, p. 55) call this concern as “the art of being careful”. According to the author, “if there is art, and not just capacity, it is important to learn and cultivate care, in the sense […] that requires imagining, probing, paying attention to the consequences that establish connections between what we’re used to considering separately”.

Works cited:

JENSON E. Disaster Management Ethics. UNDP Disaster Management Training Programme, 1997. Disponível em:

SABAN, L. I. International disaster management Ethics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2016.

STENGERS, I. No tempo das catástrofes: resistir à barbárie que se aproxima. São Paulo: Cosac & Naify, 2015.

VALENCIO, N. Desastres, ordem social e planejamento em Defesa Civil: o contexto brasileiro.Saúde e Sociedade, São Paulo, v. 19, n. 4, p. 748-762, Dez. 2010.

ZACK, N. Ethics for Disaster. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

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