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Doing the right thing – ethical decision making

Ethics is a complex area. It is concerned with the kind of people we are. This could be called the “ethics of being”. It is also concerned with the things we do or fail to do. This could be called the “ethics of doing”. This short statement has the latter as it focus – what we do, and how we decide what we ought or ought not to do.

Ethics does not provide simple answers, except on the most patently obvious issues. That does not mean ethics are of no value. They are truly our lane markers along the highway of life. They offer guidance in lines of action.

Ethics is about right and wrong in human conduct. Ethics is about choices, dilemmas and grey areas. It explores the question of what we ought to do, rather than simply discuss what people could do or actually do.

As free persons we are constantly faced with making choices. Some of these will be trivial such as what outfit to wear today, some will be much more serious issues, even involving life and death. The decisions we make here can be so fundamental that they will shape the kind of people we become. This is why ethical decisions have to be made carefully.

In order to know what to do in a given situation, we need to explore the issue carefully in terms of the action involved, its consequences and the context in which it takes place. Once we have clarified these points, our personal values will guide us in making the final decision.

Where do you stand?

The position taken on an ethical issue will depend on two things: values, and priorities. Values are the things that we hold important for our sense of who we are. They are expressed in statements such as "human life and dignity should be protected," or "cheating is wrong." They develop over time and are influenced by family, religion, education, peers and a whole range of experiences, both good and bad, that have helped shape us.

In some situations even people who agree on the same values will disagree on the right choice because a particular situation brings different values into conflict and requires us to prioritise our values. This might occur when discussing the need for war. Most people agree that killing people is wrong, but some may argue that such action is necessary to achieve a greater good.

Sometimes, there will be no clear right and wrong, and both terms of a choice will appear equally bad. This kind of choice is sometimes referred to as a dilemma, where there does not seem to be any way out without compromising one's values, or where one's decision will have inevitable bad consequences. Sometimes the alternatives presenting themselves are so confronting or paralysing that there is not really a choice at all. In Sophie's Choice, Sophie had to choose which of her two children should go to the gas oven. This is an impossible choice.

Suggestions for making ethical decisions:
• Identify the core ethical issue or issues involved;
• Make sure you understand the facts;
• Identify the main players in this issue and see if you can identify their interests;
• List the values at stake or in conflict in this matter;
• Examine the possible options and their likely consequences;
• Choose the option you think best caters for the values and principles you believe to be important;
• Give reasons (to yourself or others) why you have chosen this option and show why it is a better resolution of the issue than the other options;
• Make your decision, but keep an open mind.

In wrestling with decisions you need to clearly identify your values, think of the possible options and their likely consequences, and then choose the option you think best suits the values and principles you hold important. If you go through this process carefully, you will not ensure that everybody agrees with you or that your decision is better than anyone else's, but you will be able to defend your position effectively.

Even after you have weighed up all the evidence in the light of your personal values, it is important to keep and open mind. If you get further information or someone else presents a better argument, you may be able to change your opinion without compromising your values.

Sometimes, however, in spite of all our efforts to clarify an issue in which laws, policies or guidelines are unclear, we may still not know what to make of a situation. In this case, and if an urgent decision has to be made, one can only do one's best. As long as we do that, all we can be charged with is a mistake or an error of judgment.

Do the right thing!

Sometimes, the choices we must make to live up to our value system will be neither confusing, nor impossible. They will be stark and clear, but will demand real courage if we are to go through with them. Occasionally, the ethical thing to do may put huge demands on us in terms of courage.

Dr. Michael Walsh
Consultant - Edmund Rice Business Ethics Initiative

Re-published with the permission of Edmund Rice Business Ethics Initiative www.erc.org.au/busethics/
Copyright Edmund Rice Business Ethics Initiative 2003. All rights reserved.



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