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Ethical Decision Making: Navigating Tough Choices with Confidence

11 Jan
Statue of Lady Justice

Should an app be able to collect information on users without their knowledge and consent? Do companies need to admit when they've been hacked? These and many other scenarios are examples of ethical dilemmas in modern business, and their answers are rarely as clear cut as you might think.

Every day, you’re faced with ethical decisions, both big and small. In business, this can have a series of consequences, both positive and negative, on you, your colleagues, your company, and your customers. Because of the impact, it’s important to be as well informed and thoughtful as possible to minimize harm and become a more ethical leader.

Santa Clara University has been studying ethics since our founding in 1851; so much so, in fact, that we have an entire research center dedicated to the cause: The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. The Markkula Center brings the traditions of ethical thinking to real-world problems to make choices that respect and care for others. To bring that research and those practiced methods to the public, we created the Framework for Ethical Decision Making, a free, easy-to-use guide to bringing ethical approaches into important life choices.

Before you start using the Framework, we recommend reading this blog to get a better understanding of ethics and the ethical decision making process as a whole, as well some of the critical questions and potential tactics that the Framework suggests.

What is Ethics?

First, let’s start with the root of this discussion: ethics. Ethics, by definition, is a system of moral principles or a “personal code of conduct”.1 It guides the way that you treat other people, how and why you make decisions, what you value in your life, and more. It refers to well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues. Ethics, for example, refers to standards that impose the reasonable obligations to avoid rape, stealing, murder, assault, slander, and fraud. Such standards are adequate because they are supported by consistent and well-founded reasons.2

Secondly, ethics refers to the study and development of one's ethical standards. As you’ll read more about below, feelings, laws, and social norms can deviate from what is ethical, so you must constantly re-examine your standards from different perspectives. Thus, ethics also includes the continuous effort of introspection and striving to ensure that we, and the institutions we’re a part of, live up to standards that are reasonable and solidly-based.2

What is Ethical Decision Making?

Building on this understanding of ethics, ethical decision making is the process that you use to make choices when faced with an ethical dilemma. This can range from everyday choices, like whether to ride the bus or drive your car, or more complex issues, like whether to hire someone with a lengthy criminal record. After weighing the negative consequences of a decision against your ethical standards, you can move forward with the path that aligns with your values.

Your ethical decisions may look different from somebody else’s, depending upon your personal code of ethics. They also might deviate from societal norms, laws, or religious beliefs. However, there are certain guidelines and approaches for acting ethically that you can use to inform and feel confident in your choices: the utilitarian approach, virtue approach, and the justice approach, to name a few.3 You can find more information on these approaches, or “lenses,” in the Framework for Ethical Decision Making.

Factors That Can Influence Ethical Decision Making

Before you take action on an issue, you first must acknowledge and understand the factors that might affect your ethical decision making process. Here are some of the most common primary contributors to ethical decision making.

Cultural and Societal Norms

A large part of human nature is the desire to fit in. In most situations, people prefer not to break from the group for the chance that they might make themselves an outsider. In any society, people usually accept standards that are, in fact, ethical, but standards of behavior can quickly and easily deviate from what is ethical. An entire society can become ethically or morally corrupt, such as Nazi Germany or North American slave owners, and it can be hard (or even dangerous) to defy it. That’s why you must go beyond cultural and societal expectations to inform your ethical decision making.

Moreover, if being ethical were doing "whatever society accepts," then to determine what is ethical, you would have to find out exactly what it is that society accepts. Even if you somehow were able to collect and distill that information, you would need to conform your beliefs to the popular opinion, even if you disagree. That in itself could compromise your ethical values or lead to you acting unethically, despite your work to avoid it.

Personal Values and Beliefs

Your family, education, religious beliefs, and upbringing have a significant impact on your ethical values. However, the personal and emotional (and thus biased) nature of this approach causes many people to act in ways that might actually be unethical behavior. Most religions, for example, advocate for what they think are high ethical standards, when in reality they ostracize and demonize others. Additionally, if ethics were confined to religion, then ethics would apply only to religious people, which is untrue.

You may have grown up in a household that you thought was fair and good, but the same is true for the people down the street, or across the country. A person following the mantra “that’s the way we’ve always done it!” may recoil from doing what is objectively right, even when presented with facts that prove otherwise. For these reasons, it’s important to think outside of yourself and your experiences when making an ethical choice.

Policies and Laws

Similar to cultural norms, you may find yourself confined or influenced by an organization or community of which you are a part (your company, for example). A good policy or law does incorporate many ethical standards, but like many other things, it can still deviate from what is ethical. For example, law can become corrupt when it is a function of power alone or is designed to only serve the interests of specific groups. Because of its procedures and stakeholders, law may also have a difficult time designing or enforcing standards and may be slow to address new problems.

Examples of Ethical Dilemmas

Whether it’s in your personal or professional life, there are some situations you will encounter that present a particularly difficult ethical issue. Some examples of those dilemmas are:

  • Situations where there is no clear "right" or "wrong" answer

Sometimes, you may be faced with issues that don’t have a definite “right” answer, or you may be forced to choose between several bad options to find the lesser of the evils. This is a great time to revisit the Framework for Ethical Decision Making and take careful exploration of the matter at hand.

  • High-stress or time-sensitive situations that require quick decision making

Unfortunately, you won’t always have the time to fully analyze and form a conclusion for your ethical choices. In such situations, you should rely on your intuition and ethical principles to guide you.

  • Dealing with ethical conflicts of interest

Even if you find what you believe to be the most ethical solution to a problem, it may be in conflict with something else that you (or someone you love) hold in esteem. Again, revisiting the framework can help you sort through these situations and arrive at a well-thought out and well-intentioned decision.

Techniques for Making Ethical Decisions

When you find yourself stuck in a situation with ethical implications, don’t be alarmed. We recommend using the full Ethical Decision Making Framework to guide your decisions, but here are some quick and easy techniques you can use to inform your approach.

  1. Gather relevant information
  2. Weigh the potential consequences of different actions
  3. Consider the interests of multiple stakeholders
  4. Seek guidance from colleagues or external resources
  5. Choose an option and commit to it
  6. Engage in ethical reasoning and reflection

Learn to Lead With Your Ethics

As elusive and complicated as ethics can be, its importance and impact in business are undeniable. From discussions on data collection to hiring policies and operations, you can apply an ethical lens to almost every situation you encounter. With a little more training and practice, you’ll be able to lead your colleagues with wisdom, poise, and confidence through any issue.

If you’re eager to learn more about ethics in business, download our free Ebook “Lead With Your Ethics: A Framework for Ethical Decision Making in Business.” Ethics is ingrained in the curriculum at Santa Clara University, and we’re proud to help professionals like you learn the essential skills to become confident, principled leaders.