- A quick guide to ethical decision-making
- Would I be happy for this to be on the public record?
- What would happen if everybody did this?
- How would I like it if someone did this to me?
- Will the proposed course of action bring about a good result?
- What will the proposed course of action do to my character or my organisation's character?
- Is the proposed course of action consistent with my espoused values and principles?
- How the Ethics Centre can help
While people have always had to face a host of complex ethical issues, the current environment of continuous and rapid change presents an array of novel challenges. In previous times, people could draw upon a fairly stable stock of values and principles that had been tried, tested and found to be relatively adequate to the task of providing guidance.
Unfortunately, the shape of the world is such that it is no longer satisfactory to rely on a set of 'virtuous habits'. Instead, people need to be able to exercise sophisticated judgement and then justify their decisions by appeal to a set of well-developed reasons. In other words, people have to think through ethical questions and not just apply solutions that might have worked at some time in the past.
In turn, this means that people have to be comfortable with the language of ethics. Unfortunately, the evidence seems to suggest that many are not. Having lost the language of ethics, many people feel ill-equipped to tackle the complex issues that they now have to confront on an almost daily basis.
Fortunately, there are a few relatively simple filters that can be applied by those wanting to 'road-test' their judgement. A brief selection of these follows.
If you are faced with an ethical dilemma and would like some quick pointers to help you on your way, the following questions should help you get started with your decision-making process:
- What are the relevant facts?
- Which of my values make these facts significant?
- What assumptions am I making?
- What are the weaknesses in my own position?
- Would I be happy for my actions to be open to public scrutiny?
- Would I be happy if my family knew what I'd done?
- What will doing this do to my character or the character of my organisation?
- What would happen if everybody took this course of action?
- How would I feel if my actions were to impact upon my child or parent?
- Have I really thought through the issues?
- Have I considered the possibility that the ends may not justify the means?
Below is a more in-depth look at some ethical decision-making frameworks and guiding questions.
Often associated with former US Supreme Court Judge, Justice Brandeis, the 'Sunlight Test' asks a person to imagine how they might feel knowing that the decision was going to be made (and questioned) in the full light of public scrutiny. More importantly, how would you feel if the people you most admire knew about the proposed course of action?
Of course, the 'Sunlight Test' has its weaknesses. In particular, imagine a situation in which a person especially admires the opinion of scoundrels. A member of an organised crime gang may derive particular kudos for engaging in especially heinous behaviour.
More realistically, people in business might belong to an organisation that celebrates an ethos of winning at all costs - irrespective of the damage done to others. It all depends on the nature of the people from whom positive reinforcement is sought.
Would you be happy if your proposed course of action became the rule for everyone? If not, then what makes you so special?
Most frameworks for ethical decision-making start from an initial position that the right decision for one person should be right for everybody in the same position.
This question is linked to the former one. It is, of course, the 'golden rule' being “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
Of course, some would argue that there is in some cases an obligation to treat people in a way that is better than you would expect for yourself.
But at a basic level, the fact that you would not like the same thing to happen to you may be reason enough for stopping to think again.
Many people naturally judge the ethical status of an action according to its consequences. However, how do we decide that a particular outcome is good?
Are there some things that are forbidden no matter how 'good' the outcome might seem to be?
For example, can you sacrifice one innocent individual for the good of ten other people? Can you sack one good worker in order to save the jobs of ten?
Many people argue that our decisions help to shape our character and vice versa. That is, we cannot lie and cheat without somehow becoming a fraudulent liar.
This is one of the reasons that people often counsel against, say, paying bribes in order to secure a commercial advantage in a difficult market. Once such practice becomes habitual, it may be difficult to prevent the underlying values and principles from spreading throughout the organisation. After all, if it works in one place- then why not everywhere else?
Plenty of people (and organisations) are happy to tell you what they stand for. Unfortunately, what they do in practice is not always in alignment with what they espouse.
This 'values gap' between word and deed is known to be one of the most powerful sources of cynicism in contemporary society.
There are, of course, a number of other questions that can and should be asked. Furthermore, the sophistication with which such questions are explored is the difference between successful and credible ethical reflection and an exercise in mere 'navel gazing'.
It should also be noted that there is no guarantee that the asking of these questions is going to generate an answer that all will agree to be right. Whatever one decides, the odds are that someone else will have come up with an answer that is different.
But this is to miss the point! While it is extremely unlikely that anyone can generate an answer that would attract universal assent, it is possible to engage in a process of reflection that all could agree to be scrupulously, honest, competent and sincere.
In these days of increased accountability, the prize of being able to stand up and articulate a sound set of reasons for pursuing a course of action is well worth having. That is why we spend so much time, at St James Ethics Centre, helping to assist and equip people to work through the difficult ethical issues that help to shape the environment within which they live and work.
If you have an ethical dilemma or would like some assistance in making a good decision, St James Ethics Centre's free, confidential and non-judgemental 'good decision line' service, Ethi-Call, can help.
Learn more about Ethi-Call, our Ethics Counselling service. Otherwise, telephone 1800 672 303* to arrange to speak with one of our trained ethics counsellors.
You can also raise ethical dilemmas for public discussion on our Ethics Forum, as well as participate in discussions about the ethical dilemmas faced by others.
* nb. this is an Australian 'free call' telephone number. Contact us if you are unable to get through on this number.