Nine Checkpoints for Ethical Decision

Nine Checkpoints for Ethical Decision-Making
1. Recognize that there is a moral issue. This step is vitally important for
tow reasons. First, it requires us to identify issues needing attention,
rather than to brush past them without another look. Second, it
requires us to sift genuinely moral questions from those that merely
involve manners and social conventions – or that take us into realms of
conflicting values that are not so much moral as economic,
technological, or aesthetic. This recognition is not always easy. Nor is it
without danger. Too much diligence here can turn us into selfrighteous hypermoralists sensing sin at every turn. Yet too little can lead
us into an apathy or a cynicism that breezily dismisses even the most
compelling ethical challenge.
2. Determine the actor. If this is a moral issue, whose is it? Is it mine? The
operative distinction here is not whether or not I am involved. In
matters of ethics, we’re all involved. Why? Because we all live within a
context of community, and communities depend on ethical
interrelations. Reminding us that “no man is an island, entire of itself,”
John Donne instructed us never to “send to know for whom the bell
tolls; it tolls for thee.” So the question is not whether I am responsible –
whether I am morally obligated and empowered to do anything in the
face of the moral issues raised. Warning: In some formulations of
ethical decision-making, this determination of actors includes a
determination of stakeholders. The problem with stakeholder analysis,
however, is the very assumption that there are “stakes” in a dilemma
implies an outcome-oriented mode of thinking. Those who venture into
such analysis are typically so predisposed to an ends-based
utilitarianism that they overlook other ethical principles. That severely
limits their options. Rule-based thinker, after all, couldn’t care less
about “stakes,” since what’ s at issue is obedience to a fundamental
principle so universal that it operates equally for everyone. Both
Kantians and utilitarians, however, need to know the actor.
3. Gather the relevant facts. Good decision-making requires good
reporting. That is especially true in making ethical decisions. Not to
know the way events unfolded, what finally happened, what else
might have happened, who said what to whom, who may have
suppressed information, or who was culpably ignorant or innocently
unaware-not to know these things leaves crucial voids in the
understanding. Why? Because ethics does not happen in a theoretical
vacuum but in the push and pull of real experience, where details
determine motives and character is reflected in context. Also
important to fact-gathering is an assessment of future potential: Robert
Frost, in his famous decision-making poem about the two roads that
“diverged in a yellow wood,” notes that before deciding which way to
go he “looked down one as far as I could” until it disappeared “in the
undergrowth.” Part of fact-gathering involves just that kind of peering
as far as possible into the future.
4. Test for right-versus-wrong issues. Does the case at hand involve
wrongdoing? Here various tests apply. The legal test asks
whether lawbreaking is involved. If the answer is an obvious
“yes,” the issue is one of obedience to the enforceable laws of
the land, as opposed to the unenforceable canons of moral
code. The choice, in that case, is not between two right actions
but between two right and wrong - a legal rather than moral
If the answer to the legal test is less obviously “yes,” three other tests
are useful:
 The stench test, relying on moral intuition, is a gut-level
determination. Does this course of action have about it an
indefinable odor of corruption that makes you (and perhaps
others) recoil and look askance? The stench test really asks
whether this action goes against the grain of your moral
principles – even though you can’t quite put your finger on the
problem. For many people, it’s a common and surprisingly
reliable indicator of right-versus-wrong issues.
 The front page test asks, “ How would you feel if what you are
about to do showed up tomorrow morning on the front pages
of the nation’s newspapers?” What would be your response, in
other words, if what you took to be a private matter were
suddenly to become entirely public? If such a consequence
makes you uncomfortable, you had best not do it.
 The Mom test asks, “If I were my mother, would I do this?” The
focus here is not only on your mother, of course, but on any
moral exemplar who cares deeply about you and means a lot
to you. If putting yourself in that person’s shoes makes you really
uneasy, think again about what you’re on the verge of doing: It
could well be wrong.
It may be worth noting here that the latter three tests align themselves
with our three decision-making principles. The stench test is at bottom a
form of rule-based reasoning, asking not about consequences but about
visceral principles. The front-page test, by contrast, is a form of endsbased reasoning that looks to outcomes: Only of people know what I’m
doing (it seems to assume) will there be any consequences, and
consequences are what matter. The Mom test, requiring care-based
reasoning, is a form of the Golden Rule that asks you to put yourself in the
shoes of another – in this case, a person of high moral stature – to
determine the rightness or wrongness of an action.
If an issue fails these tests, there’s no point going on the following steps.
Since you’re dealing with a right-versus-wrong issue, any further
elaboration of the process will probably amount to little more that an
effort to justify an unconscionable act.
5. Test for right-versus-right paradigms. If the issue at hand passes the
right-wrong tests, the next question is: What sort of dilemma is this? Try
analyzing it in terms of the four dilemma paradigms: truth versus
loyalty, self versus community, short-term versus long-term, and justice
versus mercy. The point of identifying the paradigm, remember, is not
simply to classify the issue but to bring sharply into focus the fact that it
is indeed a genuine dilemma, in that its pits two deeply held core
values against each other.
6. Apply the resolution principles. Once the choice between the two
sides is clearly articulated, the three resolution principles can be
brought to bear: the ends-based or utilitarian principle; the rule-based
or Kantian principle; and the care-based principle based on the
Golden Rule. The goal, remember, is not to arrive at a resolution based
on a three-to-nothing or two-against-one vote. Instead, it is to locate
the line of reasoning that seems most relevant and persuasive to the
issue at hand.
7. Investigate the “trilemma” options. This step, listed here for
convenience, can kick into action at any point throughout this
process. Is there, it asks, a third way through this dilemma? Sometimes
that middle ground will be the result of a compromise between the
two rights, partaking of each side’s expansiveness and surrendering a
little of each side’s rigidity. Sometimes, however, it will be an
unforeseen and highly creative course of action that comes to light in
the heat of the struggle for resolution.
8. Make the decision. This step, surprisingly, is sometimes overlooked.
Perhaps that’s because the intellectual wrestling required in the
previous steps can seem exhaustive, leaving little energy for the final decision. Or perhaps it’s that a quasi-academic mind-set comes into
play, confusing analysis with action and failing to move from the
theoretical to the practical. Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: At
this point in the process, there’s little to do but decide. That requires
moral courage – an attribute essential to leadership and one that,
along with reason, distinguishes humanity most sharply from the animal
world. Little wonder, then, that the exercise of ethical decision-making
is often seen as the highest fulfillment of the human condition.
9. Revisit and reflect on the decision. When the tumult and shouting have
died and the case is more or less closed, go back over the decisionmaking process and seek its lessons. This sort of feedback loop builds
expertise, helps adjust the moral compass, and provides new
examples for moral discourse and discussion.
Kidder, R (1995). How Good People Make Tough Choices. New York, NY: Fireside.
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