Ethical Decision-Making

Given the information presented, how does one then translate ethical theories and approaches to real-world application? How does a person interpret this knowledge into something useful for personal and professional life? These pieces are part of the bigger picture in that all of the previous information guides ethical decision-making. To make ethical decisions, it is important to ask the right questions, to focus on the main issues, to balance the determination with compromise, to debate possibilities, and to make the decision that stems from these recommended steps. Additional factors that influence ethical decision-making include families, friends, environments, community, culture, law, and religion. These factors along with personal opinion shape a person’s concept of right and wrong. Cumulatively, the ideas of the various approaches presented provide a foundation to explore the issues involved in ethical decision-making.

When attempting to make a decision, analyzing the issue from multiple perspectives is the best place to begin. The next step is to consider the facts involved: What is beneficial and what is unnecessary? It is then helpful to consider the perspectives that others might take regarding the issue. If time allows, open the issue or decision up for debate; asking questions and receiving feedback may help a person discover creative solutions or enable alternate perspectives to emerge. Though feedback is generally positive, it has been shown that social interests tend to have the most significant impact on ethical decision-making, stemming from the external pressures. Conceptually, the pressure from social interests is relative to peer pressure; what answer is preferred by the majority? It is not uncommon for decisions to be acquired without adequate time to stop, think, examine, and deliberate the actions for that ethical value. In these cases, people should rely on their personal character as a guide. After the initial process, one or more decisions may emerge. At this point, it is wise to weigh the pros and the cons of each potential outcome: What are the values of the action compared with the consequences that may occur? Applying situational ethics may help a person to rationalize decisions or actions. Situational ethics simply depend on the particular situation’s circumstances. However, situational ethics creates a double standard in relation to ethical principles because what works for one person or group may not work for another. These steps provide the initial foundation for ethical decision-making.

Typically, moral judgments made in routine situations are easier because there is consistency of choices based on rules and regulations. Unusual situations are more difficult because they can involve conflicting values of religion, culture, or law, and are not as familiar to a person. One framework for ethical decision-making presented in Ethics of Human Communication (Johannesen et al., 2008) stems from Rushworth Kidder regarding ethics in journalism. This framework was developed to explore the underlying structure of decision-making:

  • 1. It is an ethical issue and it consists of x, y, and z.
  • 2. This person/these people are responsible for making the decision.
  • 3. The relevant facts are x, y, and z.
  • 4. It is truly a matter of right or wrong, ethical or unethical.
  • 5. Is it a choice between competing ethical or right actions?
  • 6. Common theories should be applied to determine what is at stake.
  • 7. Look at both options to see if a third option, or compromise, transpires.
  • 8. Make a decision.
  • 9. Evaluate the situation to learn what would or would not be done if the situation occurred again.

Using such frameworks is useful in organizing moral thinking. The four levels of moral thinking that occur are (1) ideal decision-making, or what is absolutely right or wrong; (2) practical decision-making, or following common rules such as “Do not tell lies”; (3) reflective decision-making, or the exceptions to given rules; and (4) political decision-making, or making decisions for the good of the larger community (Johannesen et al., 2008). Ethical judgment is a product of freely made choices, and although the process may result in more questions than answers, the implementation of these organizational strategies can make the process much more manageable. How do people make choices?

Existentialism is a twentieth-century concept that focuses on an i ndividual’s freedom to make choices without the influence of others. Ethics in Criminal Justice: In Search of the Truth by Souryal (2003) recognizes that when discussing free will, supporting concepts to consider are determinism and intentionalism. Determinism means that all thoughts and actions are beyond human control. It can cast doubt on the validity of human choice and manifest itself in a person’s attitude, such as “I was destined to fail” or “The outcome is fate.” Scientific determinism, more specifically, deals with a person’s character, conduct, and choices as products of genetics or surroundings. This concept is supported by the following operative elements:

  • • Genes and chromosomes cause genetic conditions and physiological makeup.
  • • Climate and geography influence personality and disposition.
  • • Society and culture provides traditions, beliefs, and tendencies for actions.
  • • Education and solicitation provide a knowledge base.

Intentionalism is the opposite of determinism in that it maintains that people possess free will and are accountable for their actions. The arguments for intentionalism are as follows:

  • 1. External forces are influences, not determinants. Awareness of their effect on decision-making decreases their power. People should rationally accept, reject, or alter available options.
  • 2. People are able to use logical reasoning to make good choices. It is thought that determinists focus too narrowly on cause and effect, thus assuming that preceding events cause the actions that follow.
  • 3. Arguments for determinism are contradictory; the belief is that everything is predetermined, yet they have created the concept of determinism.

Themes in decision-making are a popular way to classify characteristics. Based on the concepts for decision-making, is persuasion considered unethical? In the scientific determinism view, surroundings influence decisions, so the answer is likely, “Yes, persuasion is unethical because it can manipulate a person’s decision.” In the intentionalism view, people make their own choices regardless of external factors, so the answer is likely, “No, persuasion is not unethical because people are accountable for their decisions” (Souryal, 2003). What do you think? Is persuasion unethical? What factors could make the influences more or less ethical?

Personal success in the process of ethical decision-making requires people to remain honest, compassionate, truthful, and fair. Openmindedness and sensitivity to alternate perspectives are encouraged because, although achieving happiness is ideal, sacrifice may be necessary to do the right thing. Emotion is not a good indicator for ethical decisions because sometimes what is right does not feel good or make us happy. Actions a person should take during the decision-making process include selecting and presenting facts and opinions fairly, favoring public motive over personal cause, and accepting diverse opinions and arguments when presented rationally. In addition, there are qualities that not only will help a person achieve successful decision-making but will also enable the existing knowledge and decision-forming methods to grow or expand. Examples of personal qualities gained include becoming more aware and open to the broad range of ethical issues (may span from a little white lie to perjury), developing critical thinking and analytical skills (less how and more why), developing a broad perspective that includes intuition and critical thinking, and becoming more personally responsible. The traits and skills listed contribute to a person’s success in ethical decision-making.

 
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