My planning ethics syllabus

PPD 599
Professional Planning Ethics
Instructor: Lisa Schweitzer
Office hours: 1- 3 Tuesday or by appointment

Planning is a normative profession, and its practitioners seek to explore, define, and implement change in urban settings based, at least in part, on values and preferences. But to affect change in the city, you have to have some idea what is good change, what is not, what kind of conduct towards achieving those outcomes is acceptable. The assessments of what is good or bad in cities, as you can imagine, is political at every level that planners encounter.

Being a professional in that political context presents individuals with some tough choices about their own conduct as they work within and outside planning institutions. What types of moral discretion do planners have in practice, and what type should they have, if they work with a public agency? A nonprofit? What is the difference between professional discretion and cutting corners? What is the line between effective advocacy—the noble argument for desired ends—and straight-up lying for self-interested gain? These questions appear everywhere in planning and public life. Along with this responsibility go the questions: when you have reached your limit, when should you blow the whistle, exit the organization quietly, or go along with your peers and the institution on the chance they are right and you are wrong?

Feminist scholars often criticize standard ethical approaches for putting job-related concerns over family and other important relationships. If a person is the only source of income for a dependent family, flouncing out of a job simply because you do not agree with an agency’s action may not be any more ethical than tolerating it, when viewed through this ethical lens.

This class will focus on professional ethics in planning. Our major goals for the class are to

1. Understand the models, frameworks, and theoretical perspectives under which professionals can assess ethical problems in planning;
2. Evaluate the most important emerging ethical trends and controversies in planning, such as ethical uses of the conventional and new media to market projects and ideas;

3. Identify the scope and power of professional roles within various institutions;

4. Track the interdependence between political, social, economic, and technological variables in planning ethics; and

5. Gain skills in reasoning through, resolving, and explaining ethical problems both verbally and in writing.

Class 1: January 16: What is moral reasoning in professional life?
This week’s concepts: normative ethics, metaethics, duty ethics, egoism, virtue ethics, deontology, social contract theory, teleology, consequentialism, obligations, virtues, natural law and divine command, relativism, intuition, emotivism, hedonism, narrative and situational ethics.

Frankena, W. 1988. Ethics. Second Edition. “Introduction” New York: Pearson.
(Available via BBoard.) pp. 1-17. (On BBoard)

Thacher, David. 2004. “The Casuistical Turn in Planning Ethics”, The Journal of Planning Education and Research. (On BBoard)

American Institute of Planners Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct
(Keep this website bookmarked: we’ll go back to it again and again.)

Class 2: January 23: Role Ethics I
What are roles? Why are they so important? What are the duties and protections that a professional role conveys?

Sanson, Charles-Henri. “The Executioner of Paris.” (On BBoard)

Quinlan, M. “Ethics in the Public Service,” Governance 6, No. 4 (October 1993): 538-544. (BBoard.)

Arthur Applbaum,“Professional Detachment: The Executioner of Paris,” 15-42;
in Ethics for Adversaries. (On BBoard)

“Ex-Virginia Executioner opposes the death penalty.” In the Washington Post (

Case 1: The Expo Line and the art of the deal
Expo Line Exec Rick Thorpe has been, throughout his career, a bit of darling in transit circles, branding himself as the go-to guy for managing transit projects and commanding a very high salary as he does so. His strategies for the Expo Line have drawn public criticism for conflict of interests among his various hats and roles. You are a consultant to AICP and APTA, and your job is to see whether the material uncovered in the LA Weekly story comprises something that requires further investigation—or simple management mistakes that could happen to anybody heading up such a large project.

LA Weekly:

My fast-and-dirty starting point: (

Movies, Media (optional): The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Isuguro’s novel is a truly amazing book. The movie is also well worth watching.

Class 3: January 30: Role Ethics II
Democratic facilitation versus winning? What is the planner’s role in public conflicts over space?

Arthur Applbaum,
“The Remains of the Role,” in Ethics for Adversaries, 61-75.
“Professional Detachment: The Executioner of Paris,” 15-42; “Montaigne’s Mistake,” 240-259
in Ethics for Adversaries. (On BBoard)

Quinlan, “Response” [To Applbaum]: Governance 6, No. 4 (October 1993): 558. (On BBoard)

Case 2: A Town for White Supremacy? In general, people associate suburbs with white supremacy, but the cosmopolitan nature of many of our major cities suggests that suburban demographics are changing. But beyond that, Craig Cobb, an entrepreneur, recently proposed in Leith, North Dakota a town specifically designed to serve the consumer preference for whiteness. Should planners enable this proposal through the approvals process, or fight it? Pick a position and defend it.

A place to start:

Trying to make a town the capital of white supremacy (

Sewer and water issues and state permitting: (

Class 4: February 6: Role Ethics III: The Ethics of Identity and Difference Planners tend to come from fairly privileged backgrounds. In addition, they often represent democratic majorities, powerful state institutions, or developers. The profession itself is not as inclusive as it should be: many factors of white supremacy, patriarchy, and class interlock to push people out of the profession and out of engaging with the planning process. The topic of how to engage productively across difference is too large to handle in one week. Nonetheless, possession of social and economic privilege means that we have an obligation to be aware of it and to alter our conduct accordingly. This week gives us a place to start.

Code of ethics for antiracist allies by J.L. Calderon.

Class 5: February 13: Discretion versus democratic representation
How can we simultaneously satisfy the public’s desire to have decisions made by qualified professionals and their desire that decisions be responsive to public demands? What should planners do when people have strong opinions founded on bad information or demonstrably sloppy reasoning?

Burke, Edmund. Speech at Bristol, in The Works of Edmund Burke (New
York: Harper and Brothers, 1860), 218-222. (On BBoard)

Hannah Pitkin, “Representing Unattached Interests: Burke,” in Concept
of Representation, Chapter 8. (On BBoard)

Pitkin: “Representing People who Have Interests: Liberalism,” in Concept of
Representation, Chapter 9. (On BBoard)

Case 3: Campaigning—or planning—for Measure R?
In 2008 with Measure R, a local option sales tax measure, Valley area council member Mike Antonovich called out LA Metro for their choices with regard to “informational” documents sent in support of a ballot box measure.

You work for Metro, and based on this case, you have been asked to draft a policy regarding agency communications about ballot box initiatives like Measure R in the future. (Case materials on Blackboard).

Class 6: February 20: Ethics of Planning Rhetoric
Is planners’ use of political rhetoric praise-worthy for enabling democratic action, or is it a form of manipulation, or does it depend on circumstances? How do we draw the line between rhetoric and reasoning? How much information should planners be expected to reveal about their projects and services when they are in the middle of a political fight?

Plato, Gorgias (Hackett), 1-26, 447a-466a. (On BBoard)

Robert E. Goodin, “Rhetorical Trickery,” in Manipulatory Politics (Yale, 1980), 93-122. (On BBoard)

Galston, William. “The Obligation to Play Political Hardball,” in Claudia Mills (Ed.), Values and Public Policy* (On BBoard)

Case 4: The social marketing of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Eagles
In the late 1990s, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Authority staffers began to use a nesting pair of bald eagles as a means for education surrounding the Bridges’ ecology restoration programs. As time wore on, the educational component surrounding the eagles fell away, as the animals became symbols for the project. What did planners around the project gain and lose as the eagles became media celebrities? Was the social marketing ethical? You are a mentor to a young environmental planner at the WWB authority who has become concerned that the way the Authority is using the eagles in the media has misrepresented the project’s environmental impact. What do you advise the young planner to do and why?

February 26: Planners as Liars (Part 1)
Walzer, Michael. 1973. “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands,”
Philosophy and Public Affairs 2, No. 2 (1973): 160-180 (On BBoard)

Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, pp. 15-22 (Ak. 399-405); Metaphysical Elements of Virtue (2 page excerpt on lying: 90-93, Ak. 429-432) and “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives,” 346-350.
(On BBoard)

Class 7: March 6: Planners as liars ( Part 2)
Last week we were pretty abstract. This week, we’re going to get our hands dirty with some cases.

Korsgaard, Christine M. “The Right to Lie: Kant on Dealing with Evil,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 15, No. 4 (Fall 1986): 325-349. (On BBoard)

Sidgwick, Henry. The Methods of Ethics (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981): Book III, Chap. VII, §2 (on Kant and lying); Book IV, Chap. 5, §3, 485-492 (on cases in which utilitarians should not make their principles public). (On BBoard)

Use Sidgwick’s cases to think about your reflections this week.

Wachs, M. 1996. “Ethics and Advocacy in Forecasting.” (

Flyvbjerg, B. 2001. “When Planners Lie With Numbers.” (

Case 5: California High Speed Rail Ballot Box Initiative
In 2008 as part of a ballot box initiative called Prop 1A meant to raise $10 billion for high speed rail, the California High Speed Rail Authority issued cost estimates for the entire, 520 km system at a little over $32 billion despite extensive criticism from infrastructure experts that the promised project was likely to cost nearly $80b to $120b. Throughout the election, rail advocates, encouraged by the CHSRA, shouted down such criticisms whenever possible. Then, two weeks after the ballot box measure passed, the CHSRA issued new cost estimates of $42 billion. Facing yet more criticism and the state’s comptroller who was unwilling to issue bonds with such incorrect estimates, the CHSRA issued a new business with cost estimates ranging from $75b to $100b. Outraged, Governor Jerry Brown demanded a re-envisioning of the estimates which came in at $72b with project modifications. Still, many feel that the original estimates come close to (if not amount to) ballot fraud and there should be a re-vote on the measure. Advocates of the project claim that voters already approved the project with the 2008 and that the cost estimates are irrelevant.

You have been appointed to chair the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Governance and Accountability. Your job is to review the case and conclude about whether the problems with forecasting and democratic accountability constitute unethical practice and whether the state should be required to go back to the voters to re-approve California’s High Speed Rail Project. Keep in mind, the Governor very much wants this project to go forward. But is it more likely to go forward if the house gets cleaned, or if you do damage control? Perhaps the project should die, after all, if it can’t clear the vote?

Class 8: March 13: Set aside for one of your topics!

March 20: Spring Break! Please enjoy, be ethical, and have a good time!

Class 9: The Ethics of Changes, Demolition, and Takings
One thing I wish every planner or developer would learn: blowing into a community and describing a place or a community as “ghetto”or “blighted” is both unprofessional and bad manners. Describing a person’s neighborhood in negative terms is a lot like walking into their home and calling it a dump. Even if there might be good reasons for championing change, like community members seeking change themselves, planners have a duty (or do they?) to demonstrate empathy towards the process of change.

Marris, P. 1986. Loss and Change. Routledge. (On BBoard)

Leigh, R. 23 (1996) Ethics of Compensation: Takings, Utility, and Justice, The Ecological Law Quarterly. (On BBoard)

Class 10: April 3: Whistleblowing
From Edward Snowden to Sherron Watkins, whistleblowers are both celebrated and reviled among their peers and the colleagues. What is the right way to stop your employer from doing wrong?

Jensen, J Vernon. “Ethical Tension Points in Whistleblowing.” J Bus Ethics 6, no. 4 (1987): doi:10.1007/BF00382941. (On BBoard)

Milbank, D. “Putting her foot down and getting the boot.” Washington Post. July 10, 2008. (

Milbank, D. 2013. “The Price Gina Gray paid for whistleblowing.” Washington Post. (

Ravishankar, Lilanthi. 2003. “Encouraging Internal Whistleblowing.” UC Santa Clara Working paper on Ethics, Center for Applied Ethics, UC Santa Clara.

Case 6 The Housing Authority: You are a financial associate with the Los Angeles Housing Authority. You have been clearing the vouchers for Section 8 housing, when you are abruptly informed that, despite a waiting list of nearly 380 families, that there are no remaining funds for the program. You have been working with families for months, and there has been no indicator—not from your boss or from the people in accounting—that you would not be able to serve a least 200 of the remaining families. When you inquire, you are told that the vouchers cleared so far cost far more than you had projected. Confused, you backcheck your calculations and double-check the payments out for vouchers. You find that, in general, your original projections for the vouchers were very close—certainly not enough to make for the significant funding deficit. When you press your boss, you are told that they were mistaken when they blamed your original projections, but that the authority is entering a fiscal crisis. Again, this is the first you have heard for the fiscal crisis, and when you bring it up with analysts for other programs, they say they have heard nothing of it. When you suggest to your boss that perhaps all the analysts should meet to discuss the fiscal concerns, your boss tells you to ‘drop it’ and begin re-doing next year’s projections. When you approach your boss’s boss, you are told that your original projections for Section 8 spending must have been in error. What should you do?

Class 11: April 10: Planners, harms, and wrongs
Despite the best efforts planners make, planning and development can and do hurt communities. Often, individual planners join agencies that have committed harms and wrongs long before the planner joined. Even if planners are directly involved, democratic decisions, undertaken by public institutions, may reflect the priorities of democratic majorities, and those priorities may not include deferring to the preferences of democratic minorities. Or democratic decisions may be taken by a diffuse group of actors so that assigning blame to planners makes little sense. And yet, communities and individuals experience harms and wrongs nonetheless, and it influences how planners can ethically relate to them. You can’t just act like nothing happened, or that what happened doesn’t matter.

Sklar, J. 1990. “Misfortune and Injustice.” Faces of Injustice. Harvard University Press. (On BBoard)

Schweitzer, L. Forthcoming. ”Restorative Planning Ethics.” Planning Theory.’’ (On BBoard)

Case 7: The Blue Line and Broken Promises
In 1992 in riot-torn South Los Angeles, the LA metro promised a train line that would bring jobs and new opportunities to the area. The train has delivered a lot of mobility but very little in the way of promised growth to South LA. Do those promises reflect simple misfortune in planners and project advocates misjudging the future? Or injustice in making promises planners were in no position to keep to be begin with (reflecting back on rhetoric and Gorgia and ‘winning’? What, if anything, should planners do about the Blue Line, or in future relations with residents of south central?

You work for Legal Defense Fund in Los Angeles, and your job is to recommend a position for LDF to adopt with regard to future rail development in South Central.

(Case materials found on Blackboard)

Class 12: April 17: Whom Do Planners Serve?
We have spent the semester talking about the ‘public’ service and the ‘public’ interest, and we’ve danced around this idea about who planners serve throughout the semester. Local residents? What if their preferences conflict with those of long-term sustainability? Future generations? What about people in need now?

Seyla Benhabib. 2007. “Twilight of Sovereignty or the Emergence of Cosmopolitan Norms? Rethinking Citizenship in Volatile Times.”
Citizenship Studies. 11(1): 19-36 (On BBoard)

Douglas Kellner and Richard Kahn. 2008. “Resisting Globalization.” in
The Blackwell Companion to Globalization. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, Ch. 34 (On BBoard)

Do We Owe a Duty to Future Generations to Preserve the Global Environment?
A d’Amato – The American Journal of International Law, 1990 (On BBoard)

Rolston III, Holmes. 1996. Feeding People Versus Saving Nature. IN William Aiken and Hugh LaFollette, eds., World Hunger and Morality, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1996), pages 248–267 (On BBoard)

Class 13: April 24: Wrapping up
American Institute of Planners Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct
(Keep this website bookmarked: we’ll go back to it again and again.)

Case 8: Rewrite the AICP Code of Ethics for 2014. (knowing what you know now)

(last week of class due to MPL comp)