Home » Blog » Ethical Decision-Making: Understanding the Basics of Ethical Decision Making

Integrity, reputation, and self-worth are essential elements of a successful professional life. One powerful tool to ensure these qualities are upheld is making ethical decisions. 

Incorporating ethics into decision-making can be challenging, but the benefits are profound. Not only does it help you represent yourself well in business interactions, but it also allows you to take pride in your work.

In this article, we delve into the importance of ethical decision-making and provide practical steps to enhance your ethical decision-making skills.

What is Ethical Decision Making?

Ethical decisions are choices that embody strong moral character and positive values. They are marked by qualities such as respect, responsibility, fairness, and compassion. 

Ethical decision-making often requires thoughtful deliberation and recognizing the significance and accountability associated with the decision. Consistently making ethical decisions can establish trustworthiness and reflect one’s deeply held values. It enables individuals to act in alignment with what matters most to them.

Ethical decision-making is often guided by ethical frameworks or theories, such as utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, or the principle of respect for persons. It requires critical thinking, empathy, and consideration of various perspectives to arrive at a well-reasoned and morally justifiable decision.

Ethical Decision-Making Principles

The principles of ethical decision-making are guiding factors that are considered when faced with moral dilemmas. They include:

Autonomy: Respecting an individual’s independence and right to make their own choices and decisions.

Justice: Treating people with fairness and equality, recognizing their unique needs and circumstances.

Beneficence: Taking actions that contribute to the well-being and good of others and proactively preventing harm when possible.

Nonmaleficence: Avoiding causing harm or minimizing harm in ethical decision-making

Fidelity: Upholding trust and honouring commitments to others who may be affected by the decision.

Seven-Step Guide to Ethical Decision-Making 

The ethical decision-making process consists of standard steps that should be followed in order to make ethical decisions effectively. Adhering to these steps in the intended sequence is crucial for making informed and sound decisions that align with the context and situation at hand. 

Dr. Michael Davis of the Illinois Institute of Technology provides a seven-step guide for ethical decision-making. Let’s take a look at it.

Step 1 – State the problem

The first step of the ethical decision-making process involves clearly stating the problem or issue at hand. This can be done by acknowledging any discomfort or unease one may feel about the decision or by identifying potential conflicts of interest. It is important to be specific and concise when stating the problem in order to have a clear understanding of what needs to be addressed.

This step serves as the starting point for the decision-making process and sets the stage for further analysis and evaluation of the ethical implications of the situation. It requires introspection and reflection to identify the underlying ethical concerns or conflicts that may be present in the decision-making process.

Step 2 – Check the facts

It is important to thoroughly check the facts related to the situation at hand. This involves gathering all relevant information and verifying its accuracy to ensure a clear understanding of the situation. 

This may include identifying the individuals or parties involved, any applicable laws or regulations, professional codes of conduct, and other practical constraints that may impact the decision. 

By carefully examining the facts, one can gain a more accurate and comprehensive understanding of the situation, which can help in identifying potential ethical issues and possible solutions. It is crucial to ensure that all relevant facts are considered before proceeding to the next steps in the decision-making process in order to make an informed and ethical decision.

Step 3 – Identify relevant factors

This step involves identifying relevant factors that may impact the decision at hand. This includes considering both internal and external factors that could influence the outcome. Internally, one must reflect on their own values, beliefs, and biases that may affect their judgment. 

Externally, consideration should be given to stakeholders who may be affected by the decision, such as employees, customers, shareholders, and the broader community. 

Additionally, the potential consequences of the decision, both positive and negative, should be carefully evaluated. This step highlights the importance of thoroughly examining all relevant factors that could influence the ethical implications of the decision and taking them into account when making a well-informed and ethically responsible choice.

Step 4 – Develop a list of options

This step requires one to develop a list of options. It encourages one to think creatively and avoid framing the decision as a simple “yes” or “no” dilemma. Instead, it prompts the individual to consider different possibilities and alternatives, such as whom to approach for help or advice or what to say in a given situation. 

It incites open-mindedness and flexibility in considering a range of options, rather than being constrained by rigid binary choices. It also stirs individuals to think outside the box and explore a variety of potential solutions or courses of action that align with ethical principles and values.

Step 5 – Test the options

This step involves evaluating each option using ethical tests, such as the harm test, publicity test, defensibility test, reversibility test, colleague test, professional test, and organization test.

Let’s take a look at each ethical test and how it can be applied to evaluate different options or decisions:

  1. Harm Test: It considers the potential harm or negative impact that an option or decision may cause to others. It involves evaluating whether the option will cause harm to individuals, groups, or society at large. If an option is likely to result in harm, it may be considered unethical.
  2. Publicity Test: It involves considering how the option or decision would be perceived by the public or how it would stand up to public scrutiny. It evaluates whether the option can be justified or defended in the public eye and whether it aligns with societal values and expectations.
  3. Defensibility Test: It examines whether the option or decision can be defended on moral or ethical grounds. It involves considering whether the option can be justified based on established ethical principles, moral theories, or legal frameworks. If an option cannot be defended, it may be deemed unethical.
  4. Reversibility Test: It involves considering whether the decision or action would be acceptable if the roles were reversed. It evaluates whether the option would still be considered ethical if the decision-maker or organization were on the receiving end of the same decision or action. If the option fails the reversibility test, it may be unethical.
  5. Colleague Test: It considers how the option or decision would impact colleagues or fellow employees and evaluates whether the option aligns with the values and interests of other team members and promotes a healthy work environment. If the option disregards the well-being of colleagues, it may be considered unethical.
  6. Professional Test: It is to evaluate whether the option or decision aligns with the professional standards and norms of the relevant industry or field and whether the option complies with codes of conduct, regulations, and ethical guidelines that govern the profession. If the option violates professional standards, it may be considered unethical.
  7. Organization Test: This takes into consideration whether the option or decision aligns with the values, mission, and long-term goals of the organization and whether the option is consistent with the organizational culture, policies, and ethical framework. If the option conflicts with the organization’s values or mission, it may be considered unethical.

By applying these ethical tests to different options or decisions, one can evaluate their ethical implications and make more informed and responsible choices. It’s important to note that ethical tests may not always yield clear-cut answers, and different people may interpret them differently. 

So, it’s essential to engage in critical thinking, consider multiple perspectives, and seek input from stakeholders when evaluating options ethically.

Step 6 – Make a choice based on steps 1-5

This means making a choice based on the information gathered in the previous steps. After carefully considering the problem, checking the facts, identifying relevant factors, developing a list of options, and testing the options using various ethical tests, it is time to come to a decision. 

This step requires weighing the pros and cons of each option and selecting the one that aligns with one’s ethical principles and values and is consistent with the information gathered in earlier steps. 

It may involve making a difficult choice, taking into account potential consequences, and considering the ethical implications of the decision. The decision should be well-considered and made with integrity, keeping in mind the potential impact on stakeholders, the organization, and oneself.

Step 7 – Review and reflect on the previous steps

The final step is to review the previous steps and consider how to reduce the likelihood of facing a similar ethical dilemma in the future. This encourages reflection and learning from the experience to improve decision-making skills. 

It may involve considering personal cautions, such as establishing a policy on certain questions or considering job changes that align with one’s ethical values. Seeking more support, such as by consulting with colleagues or seeking guidance from an ethics officer or legal counsel, can also be helpful.

Additionally, considering ways to bring about changes in the organization, such as suggesting policy changes at departmental meetings, can contribute to a more ethical and supportive work environment. It emphasizes continuous improvement and proactive measures to avoid or effectively handle ethical challenges in the future.

It’s important to note that the above steps are intended to serve as a guide and may need to be adapted to fit specific situations or contexts. Ethical decision-making is a complex and dynamic process that requires critical thinking, moral reasoning, and consideration of multiple perspectives.

Conclusion: The Benefits of Ethical Decision Making 

Ethical decision-making encourages moral behaviour by prompting individuals and organizations to consider the ethical implications of their actions and act in alignment with principles of right and wrong. It safeguards the rights and interests of others by preventing actions that could cause harm or violate their rights, and it upholds public trust by demonstrating a commitment to ethical conduct rather than mere profit or convenience.

Additionally, it enhances reputation by showcasing a dedication to high ethical standards and values and facilitates decision-making by providing a clear framework for evaluating options and determining the best course of action. Finally, it promotes long-term success by establishing a positive reputation, fostering trust, and mitigating costly legal or reputational repercussions.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can one promote ethical decision-making in an organization?

Promoting ethical decision-making in an organization involves several key practices. This includes setting clear ethical standards and expectations, providing regular ethics training and education, fostering a supportive and open organizational culture, leading by example with ethical behaviour from leaders, and establishing robust ethical policies and procedures with reporting mechanisms. By implementing these practices, organizations can create an environment that prioritizes ethical decision-making and behaviour, ensuring that ethical considerations are integrated into all aspects of the organization’s operations.

How can biases affect ethical decision-making?

Biases can affect ethical decision-making by influencing the way we perceive and process information, leading to flawed judgments and decisions. Biases such as confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, and implicit bias can lead to unethical behaviour, as they can cloud our judgment, distort our perception of reality, and lead us to make decisions that favour our own interests or beliefs rather than considering objective ethical principles.

Why is ethical decision-making important?

Ethical decision-making is important because it helps individuals and organizations make choices that are morally responsible, fair, and justifiable. It ensures that decisions are made with integrity, taking into consideration the potential impact on others and the broader society. Ethical decision-making promotes trust, accountability, and sustainability in personal and professional contexts.

What are the potential consequences of unethical decision-making?

The potential consequences of unethical decision-making can include legal and regulatory penalties, which can result in legal and regulatory consequences, such as fines, lawsuits, and the loss of licenses or certifications, and reputational damage, which can damage an individual’s or organization’s reputation, leading to loss.