The efficient and effective functioning of government is dependent upon the public's trust that officials will act in the citizenry's best interest. Ethical misconduct by public officials calls into question their motivations and can quickly erode public trust. Recognizing the importance of ethical behavior in public organizations, this dissertation has combined recent findings in neuroscience with what is known in cognitive psychology, social psychology, behavioral science, as well as evolutionary psychology in an attempt to understand the true nature of ethical judgment and decision making.
Researchers are discovering that one's ability to make ethical judgments and act based upon those judgments is not, as previously believed, necessarily dependent upon one's ability to carry out deliberate, cognitive, rational thought processes. Instead, findings in the field of cognitive neuroscience are leading us to believe that ethical judgment, decision making, and ultimately behavior, are more dependent upon the complex biological neural network operating within one's brain, a network involving emotions and implicit processes shaped by evolution, genes, culture, and life experiences, all working to influence judgment and behavior at a non-conscious level. If this is true, public administrators are failing to address this part of the equation in their quest to develop ethical employees. The potential, therefore, exists to bring about a new era in which public administrators use this new knowledge in the development of new policies that address ethics in government agencies, specifically, new training programs that directly deal with the non-conscious components of ethical decision making.
Based on the research, an experiment was conducted with City of Plano employees to investigate whether a self-awareness ethics training module, one that addresses the non-conscious, automatic processes associated with judgments and decision making during ethics training, positively influences employee attitudes toward ethics and ethical behavior. The results were positive, indicating that employee ability to resolve ethical dilemmas, as well as their ethical behavior, are enhanced among some employee groups, with the use of the self-awareness ethics training module.