Can a City Be Ethical?

The following is an excerpt from The Ethics of Cities: Shaping Policy for a Sustainable and Just Future by Timothy Beatley which is available wherever books are sold.

Beatley deftly tackles a wide range of contemporary issues, like privacy and technology, and perennial issues, such as equity and democratic processes, with compelling detail. In this timely and impressive book, he goes a long way toward rectifying the short supply of scholarship on the topic of ethics and cities.

Nikhil Kaza, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

It is the premise of this book that it is in fact possible and sensical to describe a city as ethical (or unethical). There are many objections to this position, I know. Some will say that a city is not, at least technically, a being with any form of agency or ability to act ethically (or not). To be sure, there are countless actors, countless people, who live and work in a city who do have the ability to act ethically and make decisions large and small. Mayors, city councillors, and other elected officials can and do act in principled ways and do indeed exercise personal judgments and make ethical choices. In their official capacities, they are making ethical judgments that represent the city.

Book cover for The Ethics of Cities

Is an ethical city a place where most of the official policies and city decisions are deemed to be (on balance) ethical (or responsible or equitable or just)? Does a city treat its inhabitants, human and otherwise, with compassion and care? Does it seek to create conditions where every child begins a flourishing life and where the basics of health care, food, and housing are ensured? Does it forthrightly and honestly confront racial inequities and social inequality and work to rectify harm done in the past? Does a city take the long view, taking into account the needs and interests of future residents, many of whom may not even exist yet?

These are some of the questions we might use to determine whether a city can be described as ethical (or not). One problem, of course, is that there is not likely to be agreement on what constitutes “ethical” policy or actions. For example, San Francisco established a policy forbidding city employees to travel to or contract with companies based in states that restrict a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. I believe the right to choose is a human right and one that every city should acknowledge and protect. But someone with a right-to-life view will see this policy differently, of course, and may conclude that San Francisco is an unethical city. The city voted to repeal the policy in 2023,  citing doubts about its effectiveness and worries that it was adding to the costs of contracts.

Some will say that a city is not, at least technically, a being with any form of agency or ability to act ethically (or not).

A related problem is that a city makes thousands of decisions and policies, spread out over scores of years. Which city is the ethical city: the one that decided 100 years ago to erect a racist statue, or the city today that seeks to bring it down and works in small and large ways to compensate for and repay past injustices? And even in a single small span of time—say, the decisions of a city council over a two-or three-month period—there will be a mix of exemplary and not-so-exemplary decisions made. No city is perfect or devoid of politics and actors who exhibit more self-interest than interest in the larger public good.

In some clear legal ways, it does make sense to speak of the agency of a city. In this book, I define a city in terms of its status as a municipal govern-ment—an incorporated jurisdiction with boundaries, legal duties, and the ability to take legal and other steps. Does it make sense to describe a corporation as ethical? A university? These things make sense intuitively and legally today, so we can also answer in The affirmative for cities. A City can sue and be sued, enter into legal agreements, establish employee pensions, and, in short, function in ways quite like an individual, university, or corporation. Granted, individuals with specific roles are usually required to carry out such agency (e.g., a city council adopting an ordinance, a policewoman enforcing a traffic code, or a city manager establishing a line item in a budget to fund a local improvement of some kind). For me ethical city is short-hand for the totality of ethical actions, behaviors, and policies undertaken on behalf of a city government, in the government officials’ capacity of rep-resenting, articulating, or implementing that city’s positions.

What about the actions of nongovernmental actors: a homeowner who might erect on his lawn an anti-immigrant sign or a shop owner who refuses to serve customers because of the color of their skin? Is a city to be judged by the larger totality of actions of its residents? I am more agnostic on this point, but I will say that the connections between citizen opinions and city government actions are often clear and transparent; a racist and exclusionary zoning code does not simply appear from the ether but is usually a direct reflection of what a number of residents feel the city should do on their behalf.

Is one way, then, to define an ethical city by judging or taking stock of  he many potentially ethical actions of its residents and citizens? How much money do they give to charitable organizations, for example, or what is the rate at which they volunteer for causes in the community?