Making Ethical Decisions: Introduction

This Josephson Institute booklet examines the hows and whys of making choices that withstand ethical scrutiny. With realistic examples and a step-by-step decision-making model, this easy-to-read primer is ideal for individuals or as a training guide for your organization. Purchase booklets »

Purchase the Making Ethical Decisions bookletIntroduction

Say you’re the widowed parent of three children. You’ve been jobless for almost a year. Six months ago you started looking outside your field, dropping your expectations and salary requirements. You’re deep in debt, have no medical coverage and are overdue on the rent. You’ve been trying to keep up a cheerful attitude for your children, who don’t know the extent of the family’s woes.

Now a good job has come up. You are told it’s between you and another person, but you must swear in writing that you’ve never taken illegal drugs. Trouble is, you used to smoke a little marijuana now and then. You’ve never taken any other illegal drug and you don’t use marijuana anymore either — but that hasn’t changed your opinion that it is absurd and hypocritical that marijuana is illegal while alcohol and nicotine — which every year kill millions and cost society billions — aren’t. Do you lie on the application?

Most of our decisions aren’t such dilemmas. But the stakes can be high even in mundane matters, for everything we do and say represents a choice. How we decide determines the shape of our lives.

Making decisions that are ethical requires the ability to make distinctions between competing choices. This booklet seeks to provide a blueprint. In various editions, it has long served as the basic primer of the Josephson Institute of Ethics, a nonprofit training and consulting organization based in Los Angeles, California, and active nationwide. The Institute advocates principled decision-making based on six common values called the “Six Pillars of Character”: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and good citizenship. The Six Pillars are the basis of ethically defensible decisions and the foundation of well-lived lives.

No one can simply read about ethics and become ethical, of course. People often have to make decisions under economic, professional and social pressure. Rationalization and laziness are constant temptations. But making ethical decisions is worth it if you want a better life and a better world. Keep in mind that whether for good or ill, change is always just a decision away.

— Wes Hanson, editor

Making Ethical Decisions: Table of Contents

1. Making Sense of Ethics

• What Is Ethics?
• The Importance of Universality
• When Values Collide
• From Values to Principles
• Ethics and Action
• Why Be Ethical?

2. The Six Pillars of Character

     - Honesty
     - Integrity
     - Reliability (Promise-keeping)
     - Loyalty
     - Civility, Courtesy and Decency
     - Dignity and Autonomy
     - Tolerance and Acceptance
     - Accountability
     - Pursuit of Excellence
     - Self-Restraint
     - Process
     - Impartiality
     - Equity

3. Groundwork for Making an Effective Decision

• Taking Choices Seriously
• Recognizing Important Decisions
• Good Decisions Are Both Ethical and Effective
   Example: Suzy and Sue
• Discernment and Discipline
• Stakeholders
Example: Charlie and the "Harmless" Prank

4. The Seven-Step Path to Better Decisions

  1. Stop and Think
  2. Clarify Goals
  3. Determine Facts
  4. Develop Options
  5. Consider Consequences
  6. Choose
  7. Monitor and Modify

5. Obstacles to Ethical Decision Making: Rationalizations

• If It's Necessary, It's Ethical
• The False Necessity Trap
• If It's Legal and Permissible, It's Proper
• It's Just Part of the Job
• It's All for a Good Cause
• I Was Just Doing It for You
• I'm Just Fighting Fire With Fire
• It Doesn't Hurt Anyone
• Everyone's Doing It
• It's OK if I Don't Gain Personally
• I've Got It Coming
• I Can Still Be Objective

6. Being the Person You Want to Be

• Where Does Character Come From?
• On Happiness