A Framework for Thinking Ethically
This document is designed as an introduction to thinking ethically. We
all have an image of our better selves-of how we are when we act
ethically or are “at our best.” We probably also have an image of what
an ethical community, an ethical business, an ethical government, or
an ethical society should be. Ethics really has to do with all these
levels-acting ethically as individuals, creating ethical organizations and
governments, and making our society as a whole ethical in the way it
What is Ethics?
Simply stated, ethics refers to standards of behavior that tell us how
human beings ought to act in the many situations in which they find
themselves-as friends, parents, children, citizens, businesspeople,
teachers, professionals, and so on.
It is helpful to identify what ethics is NOT:
Ethics is not the same as feelings. Feelings provide important
information for our ethical choices. Some people have highly
developed habits that make them feel bad when they do
something wrong, but many people feel good even though they
are doing something wrong. And often our feelings will tell us it
is uncomfortable to do the right thing if it is hard.
Ethics is not religion. Many people are not religious, but ethics
applies to everyone. Most religions do advocate high ethical
standards but sometimes do not address all the types of
problems we face.
Ethics is not following the law. A good system of law does
incorporate many ethical standards, but law can deviate from
what is ethical. Law can become ethically corrupt, as some
totalitarian regimes have made it. Law can be a function of
power alone and designed to serve the interests of narrow
groups. Law may have a difficult time designing or enforcing
standards in some important areas, and may be slow to address
Ethics is not following culturally accepted norms. Some cultures
are quite ethical, but others become corrupt -or blind to certain
ethical concerns (as the United States was to slavery before the
Civil War). “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is not a
satisfactory ethical standard.
Ethics is not science. Social and natural science can provide
important data to help us make better ethical choices. But
science alone does not tell us what we ought to do. Science may
provide an explanation for what humans are like. But ethics
provides reasons for how humans ought to act. And just
because something is scientifically or technologically possible, it
may not be ethical to do it.
Why Identifying Ethical Standards is Hard
There are two fundamental problems in identifying the ethical
standards we are to follow:
- On what do we base our ethical standards?
- How do those standards get applied to specific situations we face?
If our ethics are not based on feelings, religion, law, accepted social
practice, or science, what are they based on? Many philosophers and
ethicists have helped us answer this critical question. They have
suggested at least five different sources of ethical standards we should
Five Sources of Ethical Standards
The Utilitarian Approach
Some ethicists emphasize that the ethical action is the one that
provides the most good or does the least harm, or, to put it another
way, produces the greatest balance of good over harm. The ethical
corporate action, then, is the one that produces the greatest good and
does the least harm for all who are affected-customers, employees,
shareholders, the community, and the environment. Ethical warfare
balances the good achieved in ending terrorism with the harm done to
all parties through death, injuries, and destruction. The utilitarian
approach deals with consequences; it tries both to increase the good
done and to reduce the harm done.
The Rights Approach
Other philosophers and ethicists suggest that the ethical action is the
one that best protects and respects the moral rights of those affected.
This approach starts from the belief that humans have a dignity based
on their human nature per se or on their ability to choose freely what
they do with their lives. On the basis of such dignity, they have a right
to be treated as ends and not merely as means to other ends. The list
of moral rights -including the rights to make one’s own choices about
what kind of life to lead, to be told the truth, not to be injured, to a
degree of privacy, and so on-is widely debated; some now argue that
non-humans have rights, too. Also, it is often said that rights imply
duties-in particular, the duty to respect others’ rights.
The Fairness or Justice Approach
Aristotle and other Greek philosophers have contributed the idea that
all equals should be treated equally. Today we use this idea to say that
ethical actions treat all human beings equally-or if unequally, then fairly
based on some standard that is defensible. We pay people more based
on their harder work or the greater amount that they contribute to an
organization, and say that is fair. But there is a debate over CEO
salaries that are hundreds of times larger than the pay of others; many
ask whether the huge disparity is based on a defensible standard or
whether it is the result of an imbalance of power and hence is unfair.
The Common Good Approach
The Greek philosophers have also contributed the notion that life in
community is a good in itself and our actions should contribute to that
life. This approach suggests that the interlocking relationships of
society are the basis of ethical reasoning and that respect and
compassion for all others-especially the vulnerable-are requirements of
such reasoning. This approach also calls attention to the common
conditions that are important to the welfare of everyone. This may be a
system of laws, effective police and fire departments, health care, a
public educational system, or even public recreational areas.
The Virtue Approach
A very ancient approach to ethics is that ethical actions ought to be
consistent with certain ideal virtues that provide for the full
development of our humanity. These virtues are dispositions and habits
that enable us to act according to the highest potential of our character
and on behalf of values like truth and beauty. Honesty, courage,
compassion, generosity, tolerance, love, fidelity, integrity, fairness,
self-control, and prudence are all examples of virtues. Virtue ethics
asks of any action, “What kind of person will I become if I do this?” or
“Is this action consistent with my acting at my best?”
Putting the Approaches Together
Each of the approaches helps us determine what standards of behavior
can be considered ethical. There are still problems to be solved,
The first problem is that we may not agree on the content of some of
these specific approaches. We may not all agree to the same set of
human and civil rights.
We may not agree on what constitutes the common good. We may not
even agree on what is a good and what is a harm.
The second problem is that the different approaches may not all answer
the question “What is ethical?” in the same way. Nonetheless, each
approach gives us important information with which to determine what
is ethical in a particular circumstance. And much more often than not,
the different approaches do lead to similar answers.
Making good ethical decisions requires a trained sensitivity to ethical
issues and a practiced method for exploring the ethical aspects of a
decision and weighing the considerations that should impact our choice
of a course of action. Having a method for ethical decision making is
absolutely essential. When practiced regularly, the method becomes so
familiar that we work through it automatically without consulting the
The more novel and difficult the ethical choice we face, the more we
need to rely on discussion and dialogue with others about the dilemma.
Only by careful exploration of the problem, aided by the insights and
different perspectives of others, can we make good ethical choices in
We have found the following framework for ethical decision making a
useful method for exploring ethical dilemmas and identifying ethical
courses of action.
A Framework for Ethical Decision Making
Recognize an Ethical Issue
- Is there something wrong personally, interpersonally, or socially?
Could the conflict, the situation, or the decision be damaging to people
or to the community?
- Does the issue go beyond legal or institutional
concerns? What does it do to people, who have dignity, rights, and
hopes for a better life together?
Get the Facts
- What are the relevant facts of the case? What facts are unknown?
- What individuals and groups have an important stake in the
outcome? Do some have a greater stake because they have a special
need or because we have special obligations to them?
- What are the options for acting? Have all the relevant persons and
groups been consulted? If you showed your list of options to someone
you respect, what would that person say?
Evaluate Alternative Actions From Various Ethical Perspectives
- Which option will produce the most good and do the least harm?
Utilitarian Approach: The ethical action is the one that will
produce the greatest balance of benefits over harms.
- Even if not everyone gets all they want, will everyone’s rights and
dignity still be respected?
Rights Approach: The ethical action is the one that most
dutifully respects the rights of all affected.
- Which option is fair to all stakeholders?
Fairness or Justice Approach: The ethical action is the one that
treats people equally, or if unequally, that treats people
proportionately and fairly.
- Which option would help all participate more fully in the life we share
as a family, community, society?
Common Good Approach: The ethical action is the one that
contributes most to the achievement of a quality common life
- Would you want to become the sort of person who acts this way
(e.g., a person of courage or compassion)?
Virtue Approach: The ethical action is the one that embodies the
habits and values of humans at their best.
Make a Decision and Test It
- Considering all these perspectives, which of the options is the right
or best thing to do?
- If you told someone you respect why you chose this option, what
would that person say? If you had to explain your decision on
television, would you be comfortable doing so?
Act, Then Reflect on the Decision Later
- Implement your decision. How did it turn out for all concerned? If
you had it to do over again, what would you do differently?
This framework for thinking ethically is the product of dialogue and
debate at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara
University. Primary contributors include Manuel Velasquez, Dennis
Moberg, Michael J. Meyer, Thomas Shanks, Margaret R. McLean, David
DeCosse, Claire André, and Kirk O. Hanson.