When Ethical Principles Conflict

by Josephson Institute on November 18, 2010

When ethical principles conflict (e.g., when being honest may be unkind) and there is no clear-cut right response, you must choose which principle to honor.  Ethical conflicts are best resolved by decisions-making strategies that help you see the moral implications of diverse choices, sort out competing claims, and evaluate the consequences of each option.  The following methods may help you in such situations:

The Publicity Test

The Publicity Test asks you to consider what you would do if you knew your decision would be reported on the front page of the newspaper or your actions were being videotaped and would be shown on the 10 o’clock news.  This decision-making strategy instructs you to make decisions that, if publicized would strengthen trust and build your and your organization’s reputation for integrity and competence. Choices that look good only if no one knows about them are almost always bad ones.  A choice that jeopardizes your reputation or subjects you or your agency to criticism or disgrace should be avoided.

The Role-Model Test

The Role-Model Test asks you to think of the person whose judgment and character you most respect (your role model).  Then ask yourself, “What would that person do?”

The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – is one of the oldest and best guides to good decision making.  This most basic and useful ethical theory, sometimes called the Rule of Reciprocity, has a long history in both scripture and philosophy:

  • Confucius: “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do unto others.”
  • Aristotle: “We should behave to others as we wish others to behave to us.”
  • Judaism: “What do you dislike, do not do to anyone.”
  • Hinduism: “Do nothing to thy neighbor which thou wouldst not have him do to thee thereafter.”
  • Islam: “No one of you is a believer unless he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”
  • Buddhism: “Hurt not others with that which pains thyself.”
  • Christianity: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

If you treat people the way you want to be treated, you’re living up to the Golden Rule.  Applying the “do unto others” standard will often reveal if your action is ethical or not.  For example, if you don’t want to be deceived, don’t deceive others.  If you want others to keep their commitments to you, keep your commitments to them.

Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, proposed two principles underlying the Golden Rule:

  • Rule of Respect.  Never treat others as the means for your own gain or gratification.
  • Rule of Universality. When considering an action, ask yourself, “If everyone did it, would it be a good thing?”

The Bell, Book, and Candle Test

The Bell: Is there a problem? Be alert to bells warning you of an ethical issue.  Outside employment, gifts, and gratuities and special discounts are among the “bells” that should induce you to check the “law”.

The Book: Is it Legal? Check organizational resources to confirm that your contemplated conduct is not governed or restricted by any laws, regulations or rules.

The Candle: Is it Right? Even if legal, how would your conduct look in the light? If a reasonable person could conclude you acted improperly, the act could damage you and your agency’s reputation.

When confronted with conflicting ethical principles what decision making model do you use?

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