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How to be ethical in your decision-making

Managers are expected to act ethically at all times. However, making good ethical decisions requires a practiced method for exploring the ethical aspects of a decision and weighing the ‘pros and cons’ affecting a chosen course of action. When practiced regularly, the ethical approach often becomes an automatic process. The following framework for ethical decision-making provides an invaluable way of identifying ethical courses of action…

1. Recognize an ethical issue.

Not all issues involve conscious, ethical

consideration. Usually, you will tend to know, as if instinctively, that there is an ethical issue involved. You need to discern which issues and in what ways

ethical considerations are demanded. The issue could be that a person’s rights have been violated, that the resultant actions could affect people’s lives, or that the decision being contemplated could impact negatively on someone without his or her knowledge—until it is too late to do anything about it. In essence, you will need to question whether or not any ethical principles have been breached such as the right to know through access to information and the right to privacy.

2. Get the facts.

Your decision-making must be informed – even if

sometimes the best decision will be to do nothing. You need to assemble all of the relevant facts including any violation of corporate policy, code of ethics, and even the (Confucian) Golden Rule: Do unto others… You will need to consider also what facts remain unknown. In addition, consideration must be given to those individuals and groups who have an important stake in the outcome. Some may have a greater stake because of special needs or because of particular connections or relationships. Ideally, consultation with those who are likely to be affected needs to occur—beforehand rather than later. You may even consider discussing your list of available options to someone whose views you respect.

3. Evaluate options from various ethical perspectives.

The ideal option will produce the most good, or cause the least harm, to those involved or affected in some way. There are generally considered to be five approaches that can help to inform a decision-making process, according to Issues in Ethics (Vol. 1, No. 2 1988). Each approach provides important information that can help to determine what is ethical in particular circumstances. A brief summary of those approaches is as follows:

  1. The Utilitarian Approach deals with consequences. The approach tries both to increase the good done and to reduce the harm done.
  2. The Rights Approach tries to protect and respects the moral rights of those affected.
  3. The Fairness or Justice Approach relates to equality and fairness.
  4. The Common Good Approach calls attention to the common conditions that are important to the welfare of everyone—laws, lawmakers, law enforcers, health care, a public educational system, and so on.
  5. The Virtue Approach enables us to act according to the highest potential of our character and on behalf of key values such as truth, justice, and beauty.

In Ethical Decision Making, Kallman and Grillo decrease the approaches to three:

• egoism—good for me, least harm for me,

• utilitarianism—good for the group, least harm for the group, and

• altruism—good for all, some harm for me.)

Such approaches help us to determine what standards of behavior can be considered ethical. At least two problems are created.

• The first is that we may not agree on the content of some of these specific approaches. We may not agree, for example, on what constitutes the

common good.

• The second is that the different approaches may not all answer the question “What is ethical?” in the same way.


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