Am I Right?

How to live ethically

Five Steps to Better Ethical Decision Making

Feelings can put a check on rationalizing

The first step in making an ethical decision is to gather the facts. Try to be as neutral as possible in describing those facts, bearing in mind how inclined we all are to distorting information to benefit ourselves, so you have a tendency to overlook, distort, or stretch the facts to suit ourselves. But if the facts are wrong to begin with, our moral judgment is going to be clouded and lead us down the wrong path.

It is impossible to know all the facts about a situation. Consider how difficult it is to know the subject to which you are closest—yourself. It is amazing how others are able to point out things that you never see about yourself. So, imagine how much more difficult it is to really know another person or an event about which you don’t have direct knowledge. Yet, you have to fill in the blanks as best you can when confronted with an ethical problem. You have to rely upon reasonable assumptions. For example, you may not know all the details about conditions in a factory, but you can make an educated guess based upon what we know about factories in general and what you know about the area in which the plant is located.

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Facts by themselves mean little; they need interpretation. You want to understand what such facts mean in light of your own values, but you also want to understand what the facts mean to the other people involved. Consider the following situation. Joseph is married to Sabrina, but he is sleeping with Elizabeth. An important value for you may be sexual fidelity, but if Joseph lives in a polygamous society, you need to understand what his sleeping with Elizabeth means to Sabrina. It may mean something quite different from what you first supposed.

Step two is to make a prediction, a guess about the future. A prediction is based on facts that are relevant to the situation at hand: If you do this, you increase your chances of reaching the desired results. You can never know the future for certain, but some things are more probable than others. For example, if you hit someone, you are more likely to get hit back than if you smiled at that person, everything else being equal. Of course, there is always an element of uncertainty. The person you smiled at may be paranoid, for example. Yet, you have to take a guess and select the action that you think is most likely to cause good or most likely to avoid harm.

Step three is to identify your feelings. Some people call it intuition; some call it conscience. When our feelings have been cultivated by compassion, they sometimes highlight what our rational and conscious minds have overlooked. Feelings are one way to check to see whether you are rationalizing.

In step four ask whether you could live with yourself if you made that particular choice. Would you be willing to let other people know what you did? Would you feel worse or better about yourself? Would you feel guilty or ashamed? Or would you feel proud and wish that others would do the same under similar circumstances? Would you want everyone to act the way you did?

Finally, in step five you should be able to explain your reasons to other people and be willing to engage with others in a moral conversation about your choice. This is similar to the method scientists use as a way of advancing knowledge. They develop a hypothesis, then test it, reach a conclusion, and finally submit it to others in their field for scrutiny. You should be willing to do no less with your ethical judgments. Unlike science, however, the field of morality isn't confined to higher study. Like it or not, you are engaged in many moral situations in business. While scientists advance knowledge about the world by using the scientific method, you advance your moral knowledge by employing a sound process in making ethical judgments.

Arthur Dobrin, D.S.W., teaches applied ethics at Hofstra University. He is the author, coauthor, and editor of more than twenty books.

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