Making Ethical Decisions booklet – From the Josephson Institute of Ethics



Groundwork for Making Effective Decisions

Whether or not we realize it at the time, all our words, actions and attitudes reflect choices. A foundation to good decision-making is acceptance of two core principles:

  1. we all have the power to decide what we do and what we say, and
  2. we are morally responsible for the consequences of our choices.

Sometimes the power to choose is not self-evident. Outside control and inner emotions can leave one feeling powerless. Especially when one is young or immature, feelings of joy and depression, anger, fear, frustration, grief, anxiety, resentment, jealousy, guilt, loneliness, love and lust seem to come and go on their own, creating moods that may seem beyond control. The intensity of our feelings can encourage us to act and react impulsively as if we had no choice. We may not have the power to do everything we want to do, but we still have the power to decide what to do with what we have. And that is power enough.

Often people think the responsibility is avoidable. Young or immature individuals are notorious for laying the blame for their actions on others: “You made me lie,” “I had to take the car without your permission,” “I had no choice,” or “It just happened.” We need to teach our children that even though they may not like their choices they still have choices — and the responsibility to make them wisely. What is more, the power and responsibility associated with choice exists even when it is extremely difficult to be reflective. Anger, frustration, fear and passion are not acceptable excuses for bad choices (including bad attitudes).

Let’s look at the components of good choices more closely.

Taking Choices Seriously

We all make thousands of decisions daily. Most of them do not justify extended forethought. They are simple, repetitive or without significant consequence. In such cases, it may be safe to just go with our feelings. It’s OK to decide spontaneously what to wear and eat and what to say in casual conversations. When the issues are not morally complex and the stakes are small, our normal instincts are sufficient.

The problem comes when we don’t distinguish between minor and potentially major issues, when we “go with the flow” in situations that demand a much more careful approach.

Recognizing Important Decisions

Reflection does not come naturally to everyone. That is why it is so important for parents to sharpen their children’s instincts about what matters and what doesn’t. This will serve them all through their lives.

The simple formula is: the greater the potential consequences, the greater the need for careful decision- making. To help identify important decisions, ask yourself these four questions:

1. Could you or someone else suffer physical harm?

2. Could you or someone else suffer serious emotional pain?

3. Could the decision hurt your reputation, undermine your credibility, or damage important relationships?

4. Could the decision impede the achievement of any important goal

Good Decisions Are Both Ethical and Effective

Ethical Decisions. A decision is ethical when it is consistent with the Six Pillars of Character – ethical decisions generate and sustain trust; demonstrate respect, responsibility, fairness and caring; and are consistent with good citizenship. If we lie to get something we want and we get it, the decision might well be called effective, but it is also unethical.

Effective Decisions. A decision is effective if it accomplishes something we want to happen, if it advances our purposes. A simple test is: are you satisfied with the results? A choice that produces unintended and undesirable results is ineffective.

For example, if we make a casual remark to make someone feel good but it makes him feel bad instead, we were ineffective. If we decide to do something we really don’t want to do just to please a friend and the decision ends up getting us in serious trouble, it’s ineffective.

The key to making effective decisions is to think about choices in terms of their ability to accomplish our most important goals. This means we have to understand the difference between immediate and short-term goals and longer-range goals.

Effectiveness Example: Suzy and Sue

Suzy is both worried and furious. Her friend Sue is more than two hours late. As the clock ticks away, Suzy is going over in her mind all the things she can say and do to make Sue understand that her behavior is unacceptable. She reviews in her mind a direct confrontation that may well involve raised voices and heated tempers. This type of setting is the breeding ground for bad decisions.

If Suzy wants to make an effective and ethical decision and avoid doing something foolish and impulsive, she must set aside emotions long enough to allow her to think clearly about her objectives, both short-term and long-term. Her most immediate desire may be to vent her anger and frustration in the belief that it will teach a lesson. Yet her longer-term goal is to help Sue become more responsible and respectful. And she would like to strengthen rather than weaken their relationship and the quality of their communications.

If Suzy thinks about these potentially conflicting goals she will realize how important it is to choose her words and tone carefully. Her decision on how to handle this situation is an important one that could significantly affect her relationship with Sue.

Among the questions that arise are: Is Suzy more concerned about being sure Sue knows how angry she is or is she more interested in trying to get Sue to think and act differently in the future? Does Suzy want a forced apology or real remorse? Does she want to make Sue feel bad or angry? How important is it that Suzy shows that she is in control as opposed to developing a more respectful, mature relationship with Sue? Obviously the answers to these questions greatly affect the way Suzy reacts.

Suzy is trying to make an effective decision. If we fail to adequately consider our choices in terms of longer-term consequences, we might accomplish short-term objectives (expressing anger), but at the cost of our long-term goals. Good decisions help us achieve our major goals, poor ones impede us from doing so.

And keep in mind that at this stage Suzy doesn’t even know why Sue is late. Perhaps there are good and persuasive reasons (e.g., she had to take a friend to the hospital or her car broke down). In any event, to react without first asking for an explanation is unfair.

Discernment and Discipline

There are two critical aspects to ethically sound decisions: knowing what to do and doing it.

Discernment. The first requirement of good decisions is discernment. It is not obvious to everyone, for example, that it is just as dishonest to deliberately deceive someone by half-truths and omissions as to tell an outright lie. It’s also not always clear how to respond most effectively. Discernment requires knowledge and judgment.

Discipline. Good decisions also require discipline, the strength of character to do what should be done even when it is costly or uncomfortable. It’s not enough that we discern the ethical and effective course; we must follow it. This often takes will power or moral courage: the willingness to do the right thing even when it is inconvenient, scary, difficult or costly.


In the example above, discernment and discipline play crucial roles. Suzy may know she should control her temper and develop a thoughtful strategy. But knowing and doing are two different things. It will take a tremendous amount of discipline to overcome her anger. Yet isn’t that precisely what we want others to do? If Suzy handles the situation effectively she will model good decision-making and increase the likelihood that Sue will learn to do likewise.


Each person affected by a decision has a stake in the decision and a moral claim on the decision-maker. Good decisions take into account the possible consequences of words and actions on all those potentially affected by a decision (“stakeholders”).

Being thoughtful or considerate about the way our choices affect others is one aspect of using the stakeholder concept. Another is to be systematic and disciplined in thinking about whom a decision could affect. The stakeholder concept reinforces our obligation to make all reasonable efforts to foresee possible consequences and take reasonable steps to avoid unjustified harm to others.

Stakeholders Example: Charlie and the “Harmless” Prank

Suppose Charlie, a high school senior and member of the football team, is being pressured by friends to take part in a major prank involving putting glue in the door locks of classrooms. Preventing entry to the school may seem funny at first, but he might be less likely to participate if he thinks about all the stakeholders and consequences. It is likely to cost a great deal of money to fix the problem and it will disrupt the lives and plans of hundreds of teachers and students. In addition, if Charlie is caught, it’s likely that he will be disciplined in ways that involve lots of others. If he isn’t allowed to play in the next football game his teammates and school supporters will be disappointed. If he is suspended he may not be able to attend the senior prom and his date will be upset. His parents could be greatly embarrassed and the school may receive negative publicity that affects the reputation of all students. Finally, it is hard to estimate all the personal costs – it may affect graduation, the ability to get into a college, the possibility of getting or keeping an athletic scholarship and the need to go to summer school. If Charlie thinks of all these things before he chooses, a good decision is more likely.

If we consider the likely impact of actions and words — including physical and emotional harm to others — we’ll make better choices and have better relationships. But intelligent decision-making has more far-reaching effects than avoiding immediate harm. Bad choices lead to unhappy, unfulfilled lives; good choices lead to greater happiness and satisfaction in everything one does.