You always know what to do when you make a decision, right? You stay away from things you know are wrong, but what happens when there’s no clear right or wrong answer? What happens when no matter what you do, you’re likely to hurt someone in the process?
There’s a branch of philosophy dedicated to just such questions – ethics. Decision making benefits from lessons from ethics when there’s no clear, cut-and-dry answer. If you want to improve your decision-making process, it’s time to add ethical decision-making strategies to the mix.
What Is Ethics?
Ethics can be hard to pin down. Some people see it stemming from their religion. Others feel it’s feelings of knowing what’s right and wrong. For some people, they may not know what the word means at all.
Ethics, otherwise known as Moral Philosophy, is a branch of philosophy designed to explore the meaning of ethics. Philosophers have debated for centuries about the best path for deciding what’s right and wrong.
Feelings often deviate from what is right, as do societal standards and religious morals. In some cases, these situations change as people and societies evolve. However, understanding what’s right and wrong may take more processing than what we’re prepared for.
Ethics studies the underlying rules and principles of what constitutes right and wrong. Ethics not only explores what those principles are but also examines a person’s journey to creating a personal system of right and wrong that informs all decision making.
The three branches of ethics are Metaethics, Normative, and Applied. Metaethics involves the examination of the meaning of ethics itself while Applied Ethics looks at specific moral issues. Normative Ethics, however, is the study of what defines right and wrong and how to develop a system of ethics.
There are three major approaches to Normative Ethics:
- Virtue Ethics – This approach focuses on the moral character itself. It involves building the characteristics of an ethical person and making decisions according to those characteristics.
- Consequentialist Ethics – According to this approach, the morality of the decision and action is determined by the consequences of the action. You know something is right because the outcome is the right thing.
- Deontological Ethics – Also known as duty-based ethics, this approach focuses not on the outcome but the reason you’ve made the decision or performed the action. You know something is right because you’ve done your duty.
These three areas of Normative Ethics could help you inform your decision-making process and give you a potential roadmap for living a more ethical life.
How Does Ethical Decision Making Fit In?
Ethical decision making models are a crucial part of Ethics. Building a strategy depends on a lot more than just how you feel based on the situation. And if you’re waiting on society to tell you what’s right, you’ll be let down.
A huge part of beginning your ethical journey is putting together your reasons for making those decisions. You’ll need to decide which area of Normative Ethics you belong to.
It’s important to know which primary area you focus on, but in reality, each branch still has elements of the other. Virtue Ethicists may concentrate on the characteristics of ethical people as the primary piece of decision making, but they don’t ignore the consequences or reasons behind the decision.
Once you understand your primary inspiration for your ethical decision making, you can begin to develop your theories and practice. If you decide that you’re a Consequentialist, you’ll know that focusing on the outcome of your decisions is your primary motivation.
Exploring your best avenue for focus provides a better option for making your decisions. Your feelings on the situation may change. Society’s rules and religion’s maxims may change. However, your principles can guide you.
Who Are Significant Thinkers in Ethics?
Thinkers from the past in ethics and ethical decision making could provide some inspiration:
- Socrates – As one of history’s most well-known philosophers, Socrates believed strongly in the social contract and duty, staying to receive a death sentence because of fidelity to the government. He (and his student Plato) believed strongly in virtue ethics as well.
- Aristotle – Aristotle continued the tradition of Virtue Ethics and believed the most moral action was a median state between extreme choices. His ideas of practical wisdom informed all of ethics as we know it.
- Confucius – The social hierarchy played heavily into his code of ethics. It emphasized performing duties based on relationships as the basis of ethics.
- Epicurus – Epicurus focused on happiness and pleasure, and through moderation and deep consideration, virtuous actions were only those that led to a state of satisfaction.
- Thomas Aquinas – A proponent of natural law, Aquinas believed that consequences were irrelevant and intent was everything, considering unjust laws set forth by a government not worthy of being called laws.
- William of Ockham – His famous Ockham’s Razor concept may be the most well known, but his belief that morality is shaped not be consequences or intention. Instead, the mere fact that “God” commands an action or decision makes it moral.
- Thomas Hobbes – The Leviathan was the first official treatise on the social contract. Hobbes believed that humans exist in a lawless “state of nature” without the social contract, thus giving up freedom for protection.
- David Hume – Believed that reason only sought to justify our emotions, rendering moral sentiments (feelings) the prime driver for our ethical decisions.
- Jeremy Bentham – Bentham’s Utilitarianism focuses on the good of the greatest number of people. Ethical decisions maximize the happiness or self-contentment of the greatest number of people.
- Immanuel Kant – Created one of the most famous ethical decision strategies of all time, the Categorical Imperative. If you can apply your decision universally without harmful consequences, your choice is ethical.
- Friedrich Nietzsche – Challenged the traditional Christian oriented view of morality and instead proposed that everything should be questioned and viewed through the lens of creativity, power, and belief in the world as it is.
- Gandhi – Believed that the ends and means are related and that just actions follow the maxims of “justice” and “non-violence.”
- Albert Camus – The father of Existentialism, he believed that humans lived in an absurd, meaningless universe, and each individual must decide how to live ethically.
- Emmanuel Levinas – Our ethics stems not from theories of decision making but our experiences with “the other” and recognizing the freedom and transcendence of the other.
- Elizabeth Anscombe – Coined the term consequentialism – Our concepts of intention are central to who we are as rational beings.
- Phillipa Foot – A leading proponent of modern virtue ethics, she believed that Aristotle’s original notion of virtue ethics could be adapted for a very different, modern world, opposing consequentialism.
These are just a few names among a long line of philosophers who sought to deconstruct how we can make decisions and know with certainty that we’ve done the most moral thing we can. Our ethical decision-making strategies owe a lot to their work.
What Are Some Common Ethical Decision Making Models?
There are quite a few different ethical decision making models. When we want to uncover a logical path to always making the most ethical decision we can for the circumstances, we need a consistent system to ensure that happens.
There are many ethical decision-making frameworks, but let’s take a look at a few famous models that you can try.
The Blanchard Peale Framework
As one of the simplest on this list, the Blanchard Peale Framework is designed to simplify the decision-making process and ensure that the steps provide a logical decision-making framework. It was first introduced by Ken Blanchard and Norman Vincent Peale in their management book, “The Power of Ethical Management.”
This framework focuses on three questions designed to examine different aspects of the decision itself. As you go through the questions, you receive clarity on the issue to make your decision.
- Is it legal? – Compliance with law and regulation could be an ethical marker or deal breaker for this decision.
- Is it fair? – Understanding who benefits from the decision and analyzing whether others are being left out or treated poorly could motivate the decision as well.
- How does it make me feel? – The framework does address your feelings on the matter, noting gut responses to individual decisions can reveal issues with the decision.
The process of this decision was developed mainly for those in a business leadership role, but since many of us will spend most of our lives in a place of work, the principles are sound. You can apply this avenue of decision making in your personal life in some cases as well.
Markkula Center Framework
The Markkula Center framework focuses on elements of traditional philosophy. Once you understand the interplay of these elements, you can begin to dissect your decision. These five dimensions are critical to the problem’s analysis.
- Utilitarianism – Bentham’s logic states that the most ethical decision benefits the maximum number of people.
- Rights Approach – The best decision preserves the rights and dignities of all people.
- Fairness – Humans should be treated equally and given the same access to rights and standards as everyone else.
- Common Good – Decisions that protect the common good and promote higher well-being are the most ethical ones.
- Virtue Approach – We see Aristotle’s influence here. Ethical decisions are made using moral characteristics such as compassion and honesty, with a focus on the kind of people we are when we make a decision.
Once you understand these five dimensions, Markkula offers a five-step approach to help guide your decision making and ensure that you’re making the most ethical decision possible.
- Recognize that it’s an ethical issue
- Gather all your facts and information
- Evaluate the action based on all the alternatives (For example, Utilitarianism – which causes the least harm and the most harm?)
- Make your decision and assess how you feel. If something doesn’t feel right, process through again to see if you arrive at the same conclusion.
- Act on your decision
A part of this framework is also reflecting on the ethics and the aftermath of your decision. Do you have something to learn from the outcome? Would you do something differently? You’re learning from each decision about how to make more ethical decisions in the future.
Issue Contingent Model
For some decision-makers, varying circumstances can drastically change the outcome of the decision itself. Thomas M. Jones devised a model updating decision making to account for a social psychology variable known as moral intensity.
Moral intensity is a decision determiner because, in some cases, the consequences of the decision lend greater weight to its ethical category. For example, if you decide to do something that causes a loss of life, that’s a very different unethical decision than cheating someone out of money.
It considers the magnitude of consequences, social consensus and morality, the concentration of the effects of the decision, temporal immediateness, and the probable impact. It examines the idea that two people may come to different conclusions concerning the same issue because of different circumstances.
Not all decisions are the same because they have different impacts. There’s a four-step process for considering these impacts and their effects on the choice itself.
- Recognize the issue as a moral one
- Make a judgment about the issue after considering the impacts.
- Establish the moral intent of the decision.
- Enact your decision and engage in the behavior.
When you have a nuanced issue, the adaptable circumstances of this model can help sort through a variety of complex factors to arrive at your decision. You’ll consider the impacts of the decision at each stage and check-in with reflection after the decision is over.
This six-step process involves the philosophical work of Beauchamp and Childress. It follows a logical, six-step pattern, understanding that the framework is dynamic as you receive new information or your situation changes.
Beauchamp and Childress are best known for their work in the medical ethics field. Although their framework was developed specifically for making ethical medical decisions, the framework stands as a logical framework for a variety of difficult decisions.
The framework consists of six steps to help guide the person through the decision-making process consistently and effectively.
- Identify the Dilemma – Understand what the problem is and consider all pertinent information to frame the question. For Beauchamp and Childress, many decisions go awry because the decider never adequately framed the issue.
- Gather your information – Once you’ve framed the dilemma, the next step is to identify all pertinent information and could include many different sources.
- State all options – Articulating all the options can help you define what it is you’re able to do about the situation and can focus your efforts on considering the impact your decision will have. This step involves brainstorming to find as many options as possible.
- Apply ethical principles to the decision – Once you’ve got all your options on the table, you can begin to weigh them against the ethical principles of virtue, intent, and consequences to understand the full impact of each decision. This gives you a clearer idea of which path to take.You may want to list out the pros and cons of each different option to gain a full understanding of how each decision might play out. In the pros section, you can show how the choice will uphold ethical principles. In the cons place, you can show how the decision will violate a moral principle.
- Make your decision – Each con must be weighed carefully as you decide on your final option. Once you’ve gotten these pros and cons filled out, the choice often becomes apparent, but you’ll still have some cons to attend to. Revisit these carefully to ensure you come to the same outcome.
- Implement the decision – If you don’t act on the decision, there’s no point in going through the steps. Taking action is the final part of this decision, and once you’ve implemented the decision, you can pause for further reflection to learn from the circumstances.
PLUS Ethical Decision Making Model
The PLUS model from the Ethics Resource Center uses the acronym to lead the decision-maker through the ethical framework for each decision. The letters stand for filters designed to examine each aspect of the decision-making process.
- P – Policies and ProceduresDoes the decision you’re making conform to the policies and procedures outlined for your company or organization? If this isn’t a business decision, are there other community policies you must consider?
- L – LegalWill my decision violate any laws or regulations? If you aren’t sure, this is a critical aspect to explore.
- U – UniversalKant’s Categorical Imperative applies here. If the decision can be applied company-wide or even worldwide with the same consequences or impact, you may have your choice. Consider how it would impact you and others if your decision were widely applied.
- S – SelfVirtue Ethics time again. How does it apply to your understanding of your ethical self? Does it follow virtuous principles you’ve set for yourself and your own actions? Does it meet your standards?
Once you’ve defined the problem, you can begin to understand how each filter addresses the issue. In most cases, it makes quick work of understanding the impact of each decision and helps managers, leaders, and individuals more fully understand the process.
There are seven steps in this model, and each requires attention to the PLUS standards to understand the problem and its solution.
- Define the problem using PLUS filters
- Gather your information using PLUS filters and seek guidance from mentors and relevant experts or leaders.
- Identify alternatives to the proposed solution until everything is on the table.
- Evaluate those alternatives using PLUS filters to create a holistic picture of solutions and their impacts.
- Make your decision after careful consideration.
- Implement your decision.
- Evaluate your choice against the PLUS filters to learn what went well and what didn’t. You hone your ethical decisions each time you stop to evaluate your actions.
TARES Ethical Persuasion
What if your decision is one of messaging? This particular model was created for public relations professionals whose work bumps against ethical principles. When a message is created that may violate ethical principles, how does someone know whether it’s morally correct to transmit that message?
The framework is another acronym, making it easy to process. It centers around principles of messaging, asking the decider to categorize the various elements of the message into categories.
- T – TruthfulnessIs the message true? Does it manipulate the truth or make unsubstantiated claims? Is it consistent?
- A – AuthenticityDoes the persuader have expertise? Is the persuader hiding who they are? Is it clear who is creating or promoting the message?
- R – RespectDoes the message respect the audience? Is it designed to hide or cause indirect harm?
- E – EquityIs the appeal equal across audiences? Is there an inconsistent aspect of the message that renders it problematic?
- S – Social ResponsibilityDoes the message honor the common good? Is it designed to benefit a few while harming many? Are there people left out of this message who might be harmed directly or indirectly?
Addressing these aspects of the messaging often makes your course of action clear. This method helps create consistent ethical messages, whether it’s company communication, marketing, or personal messages.
You may even be able to use it when deciding if you should tell another person something on your mind that could cause hurt feelings. By allowing yourself to examine your motives and consider the common good, you may have a better chance of understanding the ethical path.
Ralph Potter Jr., a Harvard ethics professor, created a simple solution for considering everything in the decision. It involves dividing the issue into four quadrants to help both identify the problem and examine the factors at play.
It works through a series of steps that guide the decider and help lay out in plain terms what the problem and factors are. It’s a simple decision-making protocol that can guide a person and help uncover any hidden motivations.
Step One – Look at the Facts
What do you know to be true about this particular issue? Is there any information you’re missing that might change the outcome? This critical type of data is the first step in truly understanding the problem that you have.
Step Two – Examine the Values
Virtue Ethics making an appearance again – what values are most important to you? Do you want to be honest about your decision? Fair to everyone involved? How do your potential choices align with your principles?
Step Three – Examine Principles
The next part requires an understanding of philosophy. Look through the list above of critical contributors to the field of ethics to see how your decisions look through their lens. Can it be applied universally through Kant’s Categorical Imperative? Does it adhere to Aristotle’s Golden Mean? Can it cause the greatest good for the greatest number of people as in Utilitarianism?
It’s a good idea to have a handful of different ethical frameworks to look at when you’re deciding. Make sure they’re all different, so you get a different perspective on the subject.
Step Four – Determine Loyalties
Who (and in some cases what) are you loyal to in your thinking? You must examine your motivations for deciding before you decide to do anything. You can sometimes miss a glaring ethical issue because your motives blind you.
Once you’ve reached your decision, you just need to carry it out. Reflection also helps with future choices because you can take the time to decide what works and how to make better decisions in the future.
How Do I Learn More About Ethics?
The more you read and research the area of ethics, the better equipped you are to examine your motivations and analyze a problem from multiple angles. You must understand your issues from various perspectives to see how to proceed.
There are plenty of books at the library on Moral Philosophy and Ethics, as well as online resources. You can watch YouTube videos or google sources of ethical decision making models to gain an understanding of your issue.
The more you read and research Ethics, the more your mind is open to the possibilities that underlie an ethical life. It may not be enough to examine an issue from a single angle or a single point of moral philosophy.
Once you’ve outlined your problem and decided on your framework, a critical part of the decision-making process is the reflection at the end. This gives you time to learn from your situations and apply other filters in the future.
Ethical decision making is a long-view process that will require a lot of introspection and may push your mental capabilities to the limit. It’s a worthwhile pursuit, and all your efforts could pay off when you’re more confident in your decisions.