I suppose (or at least hope) that we all want to do the right thing but how do we decide what the right thing really is? We likely all have at least some vague principles that we follow to guide our decision making such as being honest, kind to others (or at least polite), and not stealing. Maybe our ethical principles can be well summarized by the Golden Rule (i.e., treat others as you wish to be treated). It sounds pretty good and reasonable too. Additionally, the Golden Rule is well articulated in all of the major religious traditions in one way or another according to the well known author, Karen Armstrong, in her book, The Great Transformation. However, as with most things, deciding what the right thing is tends to be more complicated than it might appear at first glance.
Before we can figure out what the right thing is in any given circumstance, we have to have some framework for thinking ethical conflicts through. We need some structure beyond the black and white question, “Is this ethical or not?” Luckily, we have over 2,500 years of moral philosophy to help guide us! However, you just can’t review 2,500 years of writing and scholarship in one brief blog post. So, in a nutshell, moral philosophy tells us that there are about nine different general principles that can guide us in our ethical decision making. These include the following approaches:
Cultural relativism (i.e., different cultures and subgroups have different ways of living and behaving that should be considered and respected)
Utilitarian (i.e., what action result in the most happiness for the most people?)
Absolute moral rules (i.e., always follow a moral rule such as being honest regardless of the circumstances or consequences)
Rights (e.g., life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as well as perhaps a right to food, housing, education, and a living wage)
Virtue (e.g., honesty, compassion, integrity, loyalty)
Justice (i.e., what is fair?)
Social contract (i.e., informal and formal rules for getting along such as first come, first serve)
Common good (i.e., what is in the best interest of the community?) and
Each of these approaches has their limits as well as their advantages and disadvantages in any given situation. However, they provide us with a structure and framework for considering different approaches to figuring out what the right thing might be.
For now, let us consider the virtue approach. We all have certain virtues and values that we embrace and support. For example, the Boys Scouts have a nice selection such as being loyal, courteous, kind, and so forth. Here at Santa Clara University, we often refer to the 3 Cs: competence, conscience, and compassion. This means that in all that we do we strive for competence, develop our conscience by focusing on and considering ethics, and nurture our compassion for others trying to make the world a better place especially for those in great need. In my book, “Do the Right Thing: Living Ethically in an Unethical World” (see http://www.newharbinger.com/productdetails.cfm?PC=287 for details) I highlight 5 virtues that I believe most people would agree with that can be found in a wide variety of ethic codes as well as many mission and value statements. I call it the RRICC model that stands for respect, responsibility, integrity, competence, and concern. When confronted with an ethical challenge, I suggest using the RRICC model to help figure out the right thing to do. So, asking yourself what would be a respectful thing to do, a responsible thing to do, what would support my integrity (being honest, just, and fair), what would be the competent thing to do, and what would express concern for others? While all of the 9 moral philosophy approaches can offer guidance and it is unreasonable to suggest that one approach is superior to the others in all situations, I tend to think that the RRICC model can be a practical and easy way to understand and use method for quickly thinking through ethical dilemmas. It’s not perfect but it is a start to get us going.
In future posts, I hope to use the RRICC and other models of ethical decision making to address typical challenges that we face as well as those faced by others. For now, when confronting an ethical challenge think about the 9 approaches used in moral philosophy and the 5 virtues in the RRICC model. See if you make better and more thoughtful decisions.