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Making Ethical Decisions

A Framework for Ethical Decision-Making

The following guidelines are the product of dialogue and debate at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Primary contributors include Claire Andre, David DeCosse, Kirk O. Hanson, Margaret R. McLean, Michael Meyer, Dennis Moberg, Thomas Shanks, and Manuel Velasquez.

Recognize an Ethical Issue

1. Is there something wrong personally, interpersonally, or socially? Could the conflict, the situation or the decision be damaging to people or to the community?

2. Does the issue go deeper than legal or institutional concerns? What does it do to people as persons who have dignity, rights, and hopes for a better life together?

Get the Facts

3. What are the relevant facts of the case?

4. What individuals and groups have an important stake in the outcome? Do some have a greater stake because they have a special need or because we have special obligations to them?

5. What are the options for acting? Have all the relevant persons and groups been consulted? If you showed your list of options to someone you respect, what would that person say?

Evaluate Alternative Actions from Various Ethical Perspectives

Two people sitting on a bench with mountains in the background6. Which option will produce the most good and do the least harm?
Utilitarian approach: the ethical action is the one that will produce the greatest balance of benefits over harms.

7. Even if not everyone gets all they want, will everyone’s rights and dignity still be respected?
Rights and duties approach: the ethical action is the one which best respects the rights of all affected and is faithful to one’s duties.

8. Which option is fair to all stakeholders?
Justice or fairness approach: the ethical action is the one that treats people equally, or if unequally, that treats people proportionately and fairly.

9. Which option would help all participate more fully in the life we share as a family, community, society?
Common good approach: the ethical action is the one that contributes most to the achievement of a quality common life together.

10. Would you want to become the sort of person who acts this way (e.g., a person of courage or compassion)?
Virtues approach: the ethical action is the one which invites performance of key dispositions and habits which represent humans at their best.

Make a Descision and Test it

11. Considering all these perspectives, which of the options is the right or best thing to do?

12. If you told someone you respect why you chose this option, what would that person say? If you had to explain your decision on television, would you be comfortable?

Act, then Reflect on the Decision Later

13. Implement your decision. How did it turn out for all concerned?  If you have to do it over again, what would you do differently?