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Wrestling with an ethical decision? You're not alone

by Elisabeth Shaw
18 February 2018
Ethical decision making can often be difficult and tangled, but a conversation can help. Ethi-call counsellor Elisabeth Shaw explains how, exploring Rita's story. 
We tend to see human suffering as having two general causes. Life events – loss, abuse, disasters or health issues – be they psychological or physical. We may not immediately think of the suffering caused by ethics as being in the same category. But given the ramifications, ethical decisions can be significant. So too can be the levels of distress such decisions cause.

Rita and her two sisters were grieving their mother’s death. Rita had been named as executor.

Research has demonstrated that ethical dilemmas are likely to elicit more emotion than other types of decisions. The situations they occur in can be unique, making decision making even more difficult. Interpersonal contexts are also more likely to give rise to high levels of emotion – because so many ethical issues occur in relationships this is a “double whammy” for us to contend with.

Negative emotions like disgust, anger, fear or horror are often our cues for recognising we are in an ethically charged situation. This is concerning because research also tells us  negative emotions are related with less ethical decisions. Certainly high levels of anxiety can make good decisions much more difficult to achieve.

Over the last few months, Rita had been researching her family tree. She talked with her mother about her memories. Rita learned her mother had a boyfriend she left when she chose her father, and that she deeply regretted her decision.

In my experience as a team leader for Ethi-call, a helpline for people working through ethical conflicts and dilemmas, I commonly hear of peoples’ worry, anxiety and internal conflict about the decisions at hand. People who are anxious tend to ruminate, become preoccupied, sometimes withdraw from social supports and can have disrupted sleep. All of these further compromise good decision making.

Research on emotions and ethical decision-making consistently notes the importance of fostering greater emotional capacity and skill. People who are stressed, tired or emotionally conflicted may find the requirement to make quick yet effective and sound decisions more challenging.

A couple of weeks before she died she confessed to Rita she had a son to that man. He had been offered for adoption – a decision that affected her whole life. Rita located the son through an online search.

But emotional maturity is a life-long project – when we are faced with an ethical decision, we have to act quickly and decisively. Sometimes the emotional capacity we need is not yet developed. What should we do?

We now understand unethical decision making tends to be more intuitive and automatic. By contrast, ethical decision making is rational, considered and deliberate. You may not be aware of the ethical dimension of your decision or that you’ve acted unethically – “it just seemed like the thing to do”.

She told her sisters, as Rita believed her mother would want her to find him and include him in the Will distribution. But her siblings were horrified at her proposal. “It’s him or us!” they said.

Stressed people often isolate themselves, making decisions based on anxiety, urgency and reactivity. Isolation is a major issue. Our desire to get rid of a burdensome problem can spur us to act quickly, without taking adequate time for reflection. We are also limited by our own imaginations and life experience.

Rita was torn in her loyalty to her mother, her commitment to family and her siblings. All options seemed flawed and her grief was compounding her distress.

Comparing notes with others can help us see more possibilities and calm ourselves enough to proceed effectively. At the same time, consulting too many people – or worse, the wrong people – can be equally distressing. Hearing conflicting, dogmatic opinions can be stressful as we worry about being judged negatively for declining to act on someone else’s advice.
What we’ve learned from our callers is that they want a pressure-free, neutral and objective space to explore their concerns. Without the bias of colleagues or close friends and the pressure of fast decision making, people can often find their own wisdom and create a reasonable and effective plan of action.
Ethi-call is one way to discover such a space, but it isn’t the only option. We can unlock our own ethical resources by reaching out to wise friends or mentors, allowing adequate time for reflection without being rushed or by challenging ourselves to think more creatively.

Rita thought she had to make a definite decision but she had more work to do before she could. Time was on her side – the probate process can be a long period and lots happened in her family in a short period.

Ethical issues are not always neatly resolved. They need to be deconstructed and disentangled, and achieving room to breathe and think is quite a lot in itself. Sorting out all the different influences, options and relationships takes time and careful thought. However taking care to find a framework to progress the decision, to come to a values driven plan and then live peacefully with one’s decision is work worth doing.

Was Rita leaping to conclusions about her mother’s wishes? Did her brother want to be part of the family at all? With time Rita was able to determine how she felt and how to act. What she ended up doing doesn’t matter. What matters is the way she reached her decision.

Elisabeth Shaw is the CEO of Relationships Australia and senior supervisor of The Ethics Centre's Ethi-call service.

Are you currently dealing with an ethical dilemma? A conversation with an objective, independent person can really help. Ethi-call, is a free ethics counselling helpline available for everyone. Book a free online now >>


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