Making Ethical Decisions booklet – Josephson Institute of Ethics




Making Sense of Ethics

Should I lie on a job application to spare my children from being thrown in the street? Should I ignore my boss’s hypocrisies to keep my position? Making ethical decisions can be difficult. We make most of them in a world of economic, professional and social pressures, which can obscure moral issues. Often we don’t know or understand crucial facts. We must rank competing moral claims and must be able to predict the likely consequences of choices.

Ethical decision making requires more than a belief in the importance of ethics. It also requires ethical sensitivity to implications of choices, the ability to evaluate complex, ambiguous and incomplete facts, and the skill to implement ethical decisions effectively.

Most of all, it requires a framework of principles that are reliable (such as the Six Pillars of Character) and a procedure for applying them to problems. This booklet provides both.

What Is Ethics?

Ethics refers to principles that define behavior as right, good and proper. Such principles do not always dictate a single “moral” course of action, but provide a means of evaluating and deciding among competing options.

The terms “ethics” and “values” are not interchangeable. Ethics is concerned with how a moral person should behave, whereas values are the inner judgments that determine how a person actually behaves. Values concern ethics when they pertain to beliefs about what is right and wrong. Most values, however, have nothing to do with ethics. For instance, the desire for health and wealth are values, but not ethical values.

The Importance of Universality

Most people have convictions about what is right and wrong based on religious beliefs, cultural roots, family background, personal experiences, laws, organizational values, professional norms and political habits. These are not the best values to make ethical decisions by — not because they are unimportant, but because they are not universal.

In contrast to consensus ethical values — such basics as trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship — personal and professional beliefs vary over time, among cultures and among members of the same society. They are a source of continuous historical disagreement, even wars. There is nothing wrong with having strong personal and professional moral convictions about right and wrong, but unfortunately, some people are “moral imperialists” who seek to impose their personal moral judgments on others. The universal ethical value of respect for others dictates honoring the dignity and autonomy of each person and cautions against self-righteousness in areas of legitimate controversy.

When Values Collide

Our values are what we prize and our values system is the order in which we prize them. Because they rank our likes and dislikes, our values determine how we will behave in certain situations. Yet values often conflict. For example, the desire for personal independence may run counter to our desire for intimacy. Our desire to be honest may clash with the desire to be rich, prestigious or kind to others. In such cases, we resort to our values system. The values we consistently rank higher than others are our core values, which define character and personality.

From Values to Principles

We translate values into principles so they can guide and motivate ethical conduct. Ethical principles are the rules of conduct that derive from ethical values. For example, honesty is a value that governs behavior in the form of principles such as: tell the truth, don’t deceive, be candid, don’t cheat. In this way, values give rise to principles in the form of specific “dos” and “don’ts.”

Ethics and Action

Ethics is about putting principles into action. Consistency between what we say we value and what our actions say we value is a matter of integrity.

It is also about self-restraint:

  • Not doing what you have the power to do. An act isn’t proper simply because it is permissible or you can get away with it.
  • Not doing what you have the right to do. There is a big difference between what you have the right to do and what is right to do.
  • Not doing what you want to do. In the well-worn turn of phrase, an ethical person often chooses to do more than the law requires and less than the law allows.

Why Be Ethical?

People have lots of reasons for being ethical:

  • There is inner benefit. Virtue is its own reward.
  • There is personal advantage. It is prudent to be ethical. It’s good business.
  • There is approval. Being ethical leads to self-esteem, the admiration of loved ones and the respect of peers.
  • There is religion. Good behavior can please or help serve a deity.
  • There is habit. Ethical actions can fit in with upbringing or training.

There are obstacles to being ethical, which include:

  • The ethics of self-interest. When the motivation for ethical behavior is self-interest, decision-making is reduced to risk-reward calculations. If the risks from ethical behavior are high — or the risks from unethical behavior are low and the reward is high — moral principles succumb to expediency. This is not a small problem: many people cheat on exams, lie on resumes, and distort or falsify facts at work. The real test of our ethics is whether we are willing to do the right thing even when it is not in our self-interest.
  • The pursuit of happiness. Enlightenment philosophers and the American Founding Fathers enshrined the pursuit of happiness as a basic right of free men. But is this pursuit a moral end in itself? It depends on how one defines happiness. Our values, what we prize and desire, determine what we think will make us happy. We are free to pursue material goals and physical sensations, but that alone rarely (if ever) leads to enduring happiness. It more often results in a lonely, disconnected, meaningless existence. The morally mature individual finds happiness in grander pursuits than money, status, sex and mood-altering substances. A deeper satisfaction lies in honoring universal ethical values, that is, values that people everywhere believe should inform behavior. That unity between principled belief and honorable behavior is the foundation for real happiness.