Steps to Follow
Dealing with ethical issues can be perplexing. How, exactly, should we think through the alternative courses of action? What questions should we ask? What factors should we consider? Classic ethical reasoning methods suggest that once we have ascertained the facts, we should ask ourselves seven questions when trying to resolve an ethical issue:
- What are the ethical issues?
- Who are the stakeholders? What are their interests in this matter? Do those interests conflict?
- What virtues are at play in dealing with the ethical dilemma? (Virtue Ethics)
- What benefits and harms will each course of action produce for the stakeholders?
- Which alternative course of action will lead to the best overall consequences? (Utilitarianism).
- What moral rights do those directly affected have? What are my duties to them? (Kantian Rights).
- Which course of action treats everyone the same, except where there is a morally justifiable reason not to, and does not show favoritism, discrimination, or other biased behaviors? (Justice).
In commenting on ethical decision-making, the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University points out that they do not provide an automatic solution to ethical dilemmas. It is not meant to. Ethical reasoning is merely meant to help identify most of the important ethical considerations. In the end, we must deliberate on these issues for ourselves, keeping a careful eye on both the facts and on the ethical considerations involved. We should draw on the elements from each reasoning method that make the most sense in the each situation. We should not select just one method and ignore the others since there may be more than one right answer. That’s right, ethics is not black or white. There are shades of grey that challenge one’s ability to make decisions that conform to ethical standards and principles.
The ethical decision-making process described below provides a foundation for systematically reasoning through ethical dilemmas and summoning up the courage to act on one’s ethical intentions.
1. Gather the relevant facts.
What are the relevant facts? Be sure to listen to all parties in deciding on a course of action.
2. Recognize an ethical issue (moral awareness).
Generally, ethical issues exist whenever we are dealing with right versus wrong behavior; good versus bad.
3. Who are the stakeholders and what are their interests?
Who will be affected by the decision? What are their concerns? Do their interests conflict?
4. Identify alternative courses of action.
What can and cannot be done?
5. Analyze alternatives using ethical reasoning methods (moral judgment).
Evaluate the ethics of each alternative. Determine which ethical considerations best address the dilemma.
6. Decide on a course of action. What will you do and why?
7. Apply rational tests to the decision as a final step[i] (moral motivation).
Intuition test. If you have an uneasy feeling about the decision or course of action, chances are you are not 100 percent convinced it’s the proper course of action.
Front-page test. Ask how you would feel if your decision made it to the front page of the local newspaper. If you feel uncomfortable about it, then you should consider choosing another alternative.
Family test. How would you feel if a member of your family knew what you were about to do? Would you be proud to defend it?
Another test most relevant today is the social media test. This is where the decision maker asks before choosing a course of action: How would I feel if my action was discussed online? Would I feel good about it, or would I think I may have made a mistake?
8. Take action! (moral action). Act in accordance with your ethical beliefs.
It’s time to act. Maintain moral courage throughout the process. Make sure your behavior matches your beliefs about right and wrong; good and bad. One possible limitation is called “cognitive dissonance,” which is when someone knows what the right thing to do is, but doesn’t always do it oftentimes because of pressure imposed by others (i.e., superiors) to do something else.
Other issues to consider are “moral fading,” where a decision-maker doesn’t pay attention to the moral implications of our decisions. This could be because they are not attuned to ethical reasoning and the challenges it can create.
Ethical behavior is a complex matter because stakeholder interests often conflict, ethical values are unclear, benefits and harms are difficult to evaluate, and the rights of one group may conflict with the rights of others. An ethical decision-making process such as the one described above provides a roadmap to ethical behavior.
Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on April 18, 2023. You can sign up for Steve’s newsletter and learn more about his activities on his website (https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/). Check out professional recommendations on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/steven-mintz-aka-ethics-sage-98268126/.
[i] This part of the model is taken from: Kidder, R.M. (1995). How good people make tough choices. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 272 pp.