AN APPROACH TO ETHICAL DECISION-MAKING


This approach was developed by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.


Ethics or morality poses questions about how we ought to act and how we should live. It is an inquiry into the justification of particular actions (are these actions right or wrong?), as well as a search for good or virtuous traits of moral character.

The following is a set of questions which might be asked in the face of an ethical dilemma.


RECOGNIZE A MORAL ISSUE

1. Is there a conflict (personal, interpersonal, or institutional) or a question that arises either at the level of thought or of feeling?

2. Is the question a moral or ethical question? Why? (See the introduction above and Questions 5-9 below.)

BEGIN YOUR DECISION-MAKING

3. What are the pertinent facts of the case (e.g., which interests are at stake?)?

4. What alternative actions are available?

EVALUATE THE ALTERNATIVE ACTIONS FROM VARIOUS MORAL POINTS OF VIEW

5. Which alternative would help one develop and maintain a virtuous state of character (e.g., be a person of courage or compassion)?

6. Which alternative would make a good general rule (e.g., always treat others in a just manner) for people to follow in similar situations?

7. Which alternative would lead to the best overall consequences?

8. Which alternative best protects the moral rights of individuals?

9. Which alternative best promotes the common good?

MAKE A DECISION

(after taking into account 10 and 11 below)

10. Considering these various points of view, which of your alternative actions would be the best?

11. What would other persons of good judgment think of the justification of your decision?

CONSIDER YOUR ACTION IN RETROSPECT

12. In retrospect was the action - and its results for others as well as your own moral character - the best action?

13. What do other persons of good judgment think of the action and its results in retrospect?


Questions 5-9 in the above on based on five different approaches to ethics, or different bases for making ethical decisions. These approaches, in order corresponding to the five questiona above, are briefly reviewed now.

THE RIGHTS APPROACH

Each human being has dignity and is worthy of respect. Human dignity gives rise to fundamental moral rights.

Rights are legitimate claims persons have on others and our society. There are two kinds: the first protects human freedom and imposes on others the duty not to interfere with that freedom (e.g., the right to free speech); the second entitles a person to what is necessary for a minimum level of well-being (e.g., the right to food) and imposes on others the duty to sustain that well being.

The principle states: "An action or policy is ethical if it protects or advances moral rights."

THE FAIRNESS OR JUSTICE APPROACH

Focuses on how fairly or unfairly our actions distribute benefits and burdens among the members of a group.

Benefits and burdens may be distributed based on what a person needs, deserves, contributes, etc., or may be distributed equally to all.

The principle states: "In distributing benefits and burdens, treat people the same unless there are morally relevant differences between them."

THE UTILITARIAN APPROACH

Focuses on the consequences that actions or policies have on the well-being ("utility") of all persons directly or indirectly affected by the action or policy.

The principle states: "Of any two actions, the more ethical one will produce the greatest balance of benefits over harms."

THE VIRTUE APPROACH

Focuses on attitudes, dispositions, or character traits that enable us to be and to act in ways that develop our human potential.

Examples: compassion, honesty, courage, faithfulness, trustworthiness, integrity, etc.

The principle states: "What is ethical is what develops moral virtues."

THE HUMANE COMMUNITY APPROACH

Presents a vision of society as a community whose members are joined in the shared pursuit of values and goals they hold in common.

This community is comprised of individuals whose own good is inextricably bound to the good of the whole.

The principle states: "What is ethical is what advances the common good."