PSY533 L03: Unethical Leadership – Flint, Michigan

PSY 533_ L03: Unethical Leadership- Flint, Michigan

David Mallen

Flint, Michigan- The fallout from what is arguably one of the most devastating crises surrounding the mismanagement of natural resources continues to take form. Tens of thousands of residents, including upwards of 12,000 children, have been gradually exposed to water supplies that contain extremely high and toxic levels of lead due to the deterioration of metal pipes that channel water from state water supplies to local communities. While acceptable safe levels for plumbing fixtures is defined at .25% as of 2014[1], lead levels which have been tested to reach 10.6% have been reported to contribute to health concerns including Legionnaires’ disease, neurological damage, organ failure, coma, and ultimately death[2].

Public uproar has intensified as recent findings disclose that public officials, including those holding the highest offices within environmental protection agencies, were aware of the impending failure of the water delivery infrastructure as well as potential consequences years before the crisis came to public light, and now it has become a blame-game amongst government officials to fix the problem. This submission will examine the actions (or inactions) of those possibly responsible for the situation and connect those decisions to various ethical theories to better understand why this situation is viewed by so many as an unethical abuse of power.


In 2013, the decision was made by Flint city council to switch their water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to a new $233 million facility called Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA). The move was opposed by the DWSD because it would undermine the financial security of the company and it argued that capitol had already been expended in order to ensure the future infrastructure of the facility would meet potential demands. After several months of deliberation, the decision was made to move forward with KWA, and as such the DWSD elected to present the city with formal notice that its service to Flint residents would terminate in April 2014 although the construction of KWA was not expected to finish until the end of 2016. As a temporary solution, Flint switched to use the water from its backup supply from the Flint River.

In August 2015, it was discovered that the water being extracted from the Flint River was low in pH and high in salinity, a combination that erodes the protective coatings covering the lead service pipes. The exposed metal began streaming into the water supply that brought water to Flint residents. When complaints were made to the city council about the poor water quality, the water officials submitted documents that falsely showed that tests had been performed according to code, an act that broke federal law and falsely informed city and state officials to adequately investigate the root of the problem. State Governor Snyder formed a Task Force to investigate the issue and found that at several points, officials within the Environmental Protection Agency and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality misled and doctored data that ultimately led to the system failure of the Flint water supply system. Four officials from those agencies have since resigned over the mishandling of the crisis and efforts are currently pouring into the area to mitigate the damage caused to Flint’s citizens by the contaminated water supply.

Applying Ethical Systems

There are three branches of normative ethics that suggest that there is a right way of behaving based on what behavior is best for the majority: teleology/consequentialism, deontology, and virtue (Penn State, 2016). The following sections will offer perspective for how behaviors observed in Flint, Michigan could be deemed as unethical leadership.


This body of research focuses on maximizing the greatest positive end result. Oftentimes, difficult choices need to be made that could impact a large number of people and in most cases there will be collateral damage on some individuals or groups. This theory intimates that the more ethical course of action is the one that eventually results in the least damage and/or most gain for the most people. There may be an acceptable ratio of harm to gain and in order to move forward with an action, the person may assume that the risk and damage is acceptable in order to attain the overall betterment of the masses.

In the case of Flint, it is apparent that more harm than good is the outcome and that the decisions not to act inflicted more irreparable damage on the citizens than if they had been more proactive or forthcoming with their information[3]. Even if the benefit of the doubt is given to the water officials within the EPA, it is uncertain who the beneficiaries would have been by not addressing the contaminated water issue. It can be assumed that in an effort to hide the truth or avoid tremendous costs, the decision was made to benefit the few officials or those who would be responsible for paying for the work by prolonging the issue rather than addressing it straight on. Thus, from the Consequentialist standpoint, leadership acted unethically.


Deontological ethics pertain to situations where people act according to a particular moral code or religion they subscribe to. Various ethical systems help to define what is right and wrong; whether a person follows their system of beliefs when making a decision helps to clarify if they are acting ethically or unethically (Penn State, 2016).

As citizens of Flint, as with any area, people are granted agreed upon rights. Among those is the right that they are to be afforded clean and safe water with which to live. It is also understood that elected city officials or those who hold positions charged with protecting the safety measures within society will carry out their duties in a responsible and ethical manner. In this case, Flint residents were not afforded their rights to clean water and officials failed to perform their duties according to prescribed professional standards[4]. The actions of EPA officials ran counter to societal rules and did not respect the moral code maintained by members of the society they belong to. Thus, according to Deontological theories, leadership acted unethically.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics pertain less to the actions of individuals and are more about the characteristics of the leaders. It is the idea that we want our leaders to possess certain traits that we would consider synonymous with ethical leadership. We want our government officials to be honest, and have good character, and be generous and stand strong in the face of greed or selfishness (Penn State, 2016). Those who lack these qualities or who do not convey the image of honesty consistently would not readily be considered an ideal candidate for a leadership position. People often judge candidates based on whom they can trust and who will support them and have their best interests in mind at all times. If the trust element is missing, it will be hard to consider the person a leader.

According to documents released to the Task Force[5], EPA officials on many occasions lied about quality testing and misled state and federal government officials who were responsible for making informed decisions. Their decisions demonstrated a selfishness to cover their own tracks so that they would not be held accountable for their actions and inactions. These individuals chose to resign once the truth was discovered, which proved they did not act with integrity when carrying out their professional duties. Therefore, according to Virtue theories, the leadership acted unethically.


The unfortunate events that continue to unfold in Flint, Michigan serve as an illustration of the worst case scenario when leaders act unethically. As this paper outlines, if leaders are compared to many normative ethical systems such as Consequentialist, Deontological, and Virtue Theories, each demonstrates how leaders failed to act and fulfill their duties in an ethical manner. Regardless of religion, race, or other belief system, the situation in Flint is overwhelmingly considered a crime against humanity because of the potential long-term health and mental wellness impact on future generations. It is the societal moral code that we all subscribe to as citizens of this land and it is a sad reminder of the harm that can occur when leaders are not committed to upholding those codes ethically.


– Penn State University (2016). PSY 533 Lesson 03. Ethical Theories. Retrieved on 2016, February 02 from:



[2] Hanna-Attisha, Mona; LaChance, Jenny; Sadler, Richard Casey; Champney Schnepp, Allison (2015-12-21). “Elevated Blood Lead Levels in Children Associated With the Flint Drinking Water Crisis: A Spatial Analysis of Risk and Public Health Response”American Journal of Public Health 106(2): 283–290. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2015.303003ISSN 0090-0036.

[3] Gov. Rick Snyder announces Flint Water Task Force to review state, federal and municipal actions, offer recommendations, Office of the Governor (press release) (October 21, 2015).

[4] Jiquanda Johnson, Four takeaways from the Flint Water Advisory Task Force preliminary report, MLive (December 30, 2015).

[5]  Vincent Duffy, Task force lays most blame for Flint water crisis on MDEQ, Michigan Radio (December 29, 2015).

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