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 matter. 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.