Initial Publication Date: February 19, 2018

Ethical Decision-Making

In this module, we provide some guiding principles, and pathways to help guide ethical decision-making. These are a series of basic questions that should be asked when confronted with ethical dilemmas. These are often complex situations with no clear-cut resolution, and without a right or wrong answer. But these decision-making processes will go a long way towards helping all of us make informed decisions that can justify consequent actions.

Ethical Reasoning Can Be Taught: Ethical reasoning is a way of thinking about issues of right and wrong. Processes of reasoning can be taught, and school is an appropriate place to teach them. the reason that, although parents and religious schools may teach ethics, they don ot always teach ethical reasoning. See the article by: Sternberg, Robert J. Teaching for Ethical Reasoning in Liberal Education. Liberal Education 96.3 (2010): 32-37.

And, like learning to play baseball or play the violin, it's important to practice early and often. So, let's get started:


Beneficence is the concept that scientific research should have as a goal the welfare of society. It is rooted in medical research, the central tenet is "do no harm" (and corollaries remove harm, prevent harm, optimize benefits, "do good"). For a more expansive introduction to beneficence, see the essay on The Principles of Beneficence in Applied Ethics from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Some simple guiding questions in applying the concept of beneficence to ethical dilemmas include:

  • Who benefits?
  • Who are the stakeholders?
  • Who are the decision-makers?
  • Who is impacted?
  • What are the risks?

Take a look at the video on Causing Harm--"Causing harm explores the different types of harm that may be caused to people or groups and the potential reasons we may have for justifying these harms." From "Ethics Unwrapped", McCombs School of Business, University of Texas-Austin.

A 7-STep Guide to Ethical Decision-Making

The following is a summary of: Seven-step guide to ethical decision-making (Davis, M. (1999) Ethics and the university, New York: Routledge, p. 166-167.

  1. State the problem.
    • For example, "there's something about this decision that makes me uncomfortable" or "do I have a conflict of interest?".
  2. Check the facts.
    • Many problems disappear upon closer examination of the situation, while others change radically.
    • For example, persons involved, laws, professional codes, other practical constraints
  3. Identify relevant factors (internal and external).
  4. Develop a list of options.
    • Be imaginative, try to avoid "dilemma"; not "yes" or" no" but whom to go to, what to say.
  5. Test the options. Use some of the following tests:
    • harm test: Does this option do less harm than the alternatives?
    • publicity test: Would I want my choice of this option published in the newspaper?
    • defensibility test: Could I defend my choice of this option before a congressional committee or committee of peers?
    • reversibility test: Would I still think this option was a good choice if I were adversely affected by it?
    • colleague test: What do my colleagues say when I describe my problem and suggest this option as my solution?
    • professional test: What might my profession's governing body for ethics say about this option?
    • organization test: What does my company's ethics officer or legal counsel say about this?
  6. Make a choice based on steps 1-5.
  7. Review steps 1-6. How can you reduce the likelihood that you will need to make a similar decision again?
    • Are there any cautions you can take as an individual (and announce your policy on question, job change, etc.)?
    • Is there any way to have more support next time?
    • Is there any way to change the organization (for example, suggest policy change at next departmental meeting)?

A Seven Step Process for Making Ethical Decisions--An example from the "Orientation to Energy and Sustainability Policy" course at Penn State.

A related guide to ethical decision making can be found at Kansas University Iinternatinoal Center for Ethics in Business.

Additional Approaches to Ethical Decision Making

Shaun Taylor's presentation: Geoethics Forums (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 380kB Jun11 14), given at the 2014 Teaching GeoEthics workshop, provided a simple model to help students engage Ethical Decision-Making that includes a) the context/facts of the situation, b) the stakeholders, c) the decision-makers, d) these inform a number of alternate choices, e) that are mediated through the evaluation of impacts and negotiations among the parties, that lead to f) selection of an optimal choice. Taylor provides guidance for what makes a good ethical dilemma discussion, including:

  • Trust, respect, disagreement without personal attacks
  • Being judgmental vs. making a judgment
  • Emphasize process vs. conclusion
  • Uncertainty is OK
  • Description then prescription

Teaching Activity: GeoEthics Forums--The Grey Side of Green (a guide for ethics decision making)

Daniel Vallero also addressed ethical decision making in his presentation at the 2014 Teaching GeoEthics workshop, and defines this 6-step approach to ethical decision making:

  1. State or define the problem/issue
  2. Gather information ("facts") from all sides
  3. Delineate all possible resolutions.
  4. Apply different values, rules, principles, regulations to the different options.
  5. Resolve conflicts among values, rules, etc.
  6. Make a decision and act.

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University provides additional context and advice for ethical decision-making. They have identified five sources of ethical standards (the utilitarian approach, the rights approach, the fairness or justice approach, the common good approach, and the virtue approach.Their framework for Ethical Decision making includes: Recognize the Ethical Issue, Get the Facts, Evaluate Alternative Actions, Make a Decision and Test it, Act and Reflect on the Outcome.

Reviews of the literature on ethical decision-making can be found at:

The American Counseling Association has published their A Practitioner's Guide to Ethical Decision Making (Acrobat (PDF) 20kB Jun18 18) (1995) authored by Holly Forester-Miller, Ph.D. and Thomas Davis, Ph.D.

Assessment of Ethical Reasoning, Values, Moral Thinking