Ethical Decision Making Tools

Ethical Decision Making Tools

Three Types of Tools

There are many decision making  tools that are great for solving all kinds of problems. However, there are some special considerations and tools when solving ethical problems.

Basic Principles

Before we look at some specific tools you can use to help solve ethical decisions, let’s look at some general principles you should follow.

  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Will the affected person also think that this decision is ethical?
  • Make sure you have all the information.
  • Look at the problem through various principles. How can the principle of loyalty be fulfilled through this problem? How does confidentiality come into play?

For Quick Decisions

Let’s look at two tools that can be used when you have to make snap decisions.

Ethical Priorities
Nan DeMars suggests three priorities, in this order:

  • Take care of yourself.
  • Take care of your company.
  • Take care of your supervisor.

So let’s say your supervisor asks you to lie about their whereabouts to someone. Make sure your needs are covered first, then take care of the company’s needs, and then worry about your supervisor.

The Smell Test
When you are considering a solution, ask yourself these questions:

  • How would I explain this decision to my children?
  • How would I feel if this decision were reported on the news?
  • Can I live with this decision? Will it keep me up at night?
  • How would my mother feel about this decision?

These questions will highlight potential problems with the solution you’re considering.

Advanced Processes

Now let’s take a look at some more advanced tools that you can use if you have some time to ponder your options before making a decision.

The Potter Box
Developed by Ralph Potter of the Harvard Divinity School in 1965, this provides a more detailed method of decision making.


Let’s take a look at the steps.

  1. We start with the action or policy that has caused the dilemma.
  2. Next, we analyze the situation. Write down the who, what, where, when, why, and how.
  3. Now, determine what values are called into play by the dilemma. Credibility? Trust? Reliability? Honesty?
  4. Next add the principles that might affect the situation. Perhaps the maxim that human life should be valued above all else comes into play. Or perhaps you personally believe that theft is always wrong.
  5. Now, determine where loyalties lie. To your company? The client? The supplier? What other loyalties might affect the situation?
  6. Now you’re back at the action or policy. How will you alter things to solve the dilemma, using the information gathered?

The Kidder Process
Ethics expert Rushworth Kidder has developed a nine-step process that will help you sort out ethical issues. You may find this process more practical and easier to use than the other approaches we have discussed.

  1. Recognize that there is a moral dilemma.
  2. Determine the actor. Are you morally obligated to do anything about the dilemma? Do you have the power to act?
  3. Gather the relevant facts. Determine who, what, how, when, why, and where. Try to predict possible future events that could affect your decision.
  4. Test for right versus wrong issues. Does the moral issue potentially concern law breaking? Does the action go against your moral principles? How would you feel if the decision you’re considering was reported in the news? Would your mother make the same decision? If these questions point out that your decision is obviously wrong, then you can stop at this step.
  5. Test for right versus right paradigms. Is this a case of truth versus loyalty, self versus community, short term versus long term, or justice versus mercy? Generalizing the issue into one of these paradigms helps you identify that the core issue is two values facing off against each other.
  6. Apply the resolution principles. Determine what the resolution would be based on the Golden Rule, Kantian principles, and utilitarian principles. This is simply to identify lines of reasoning.
  7. Investigate the trilemma options. This step can actually take place at any point during the process. Is there a third way through this dilemma?
  8. Make the decision.
  9. Revisit and reflect on the decision.

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Business Ethics For The Office?