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  • Writer's pictureClaire Marie

Ethical Decision Making

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

Ethical Decision-Making Claire Belisle Management 350 Paul Harvey June 16, 2003

Ethical Decision-Making

Readings in Critical Thinking describes decision-making as a process through which “the decision maker [comes] up with a solution [to] a recognized and defined problem” (73). Organizational Behavior describes “an ethical dilemma [as] a situation in which a person must decide whether or not to do something that, although benefiting them or the organization, or both, may be considered unethical” (p. 14). Merriam-Webster Online defines ethics as “a set of moral principals or values” ( and the Josephson Institute refers to ethics as “principles that define behavior as right, good and proper” (Making Sense of Ethics).

So, what is ethical decision-making? Using these descriptions and definitions, ethical decision-making is the process through which one comes up with a solution to a problem that is morally correct, but one question remains – what does one mean when he or she describes something as morally correct?

Because an individual’s morals and values can vary from one individual to another, it is important to understand our own values and beliefs before making a decision. It is also important to realize that our own values may not be universal as the Josephson Institute points out when it states:

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 (Making Sense of Ethics).

The Josephson Institute further states:

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 (Making Sense of Ethics).

Imposing our personal morals on any given situation can be detrimental to the decision-making process. An example would be when a teenage girl comes home to her parents to tell them that she is pregnant. If the parents’ believe through their moral standards that she must be married before the child is born, while the girl does not, but the parents prevail, the girl could find herself in a marriage that might fail in the future.

Through an article entitled “Ethics for the MRCGP: Making consistent ethical decisions” it may be noted, “There are many ethical frameworks… but the most widely accepted at present is an American framework called the ‘four principles.’ ” The article goes on to define those principles in simple terms as “do good,” “do no harm,” “act fairly” and “allow people to determine their own futures.” The article also adds that these four principles are to be used in conjunction “with a consideration of whom these principles apply to”, but it also points out that there are times when the principles conflict. The example given is one of sexual abuse of a young girl by her father and the girl’s request to keep her secret. In this case one must determine if the principle of “do no harm” outweighs the principle of “allow people to determine their own futures.” This is where the consideration of those affected would come into play, taking into consideration that the person in question is a child and that the conduct in question is against the law in most cultures.

Continued exploration of the subject of ethical decision-making finds The Josephson Institute offering “the six pillars of character” as a basis for “ethical values to guide our choices” (The Six Pillars Of Character). These pillars are “trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship” (The Six Pillars of Character) and are seen as universal among most cultures. They are also viewed as being intertwined and dependent on each other:

The Six Pillars act as a multi-level filter through which to process decisions. So, being trustworthy is not enough — we must also be caring. Adhering to the letter of the law is not enough — we must accept responsibility for our action or inaction (The Six Pillars of Character).

By using these “pillars” or values, an individual will have a better basis for defending the ethics behind a decision. Ultimately, the best course of action to take when making a decision is to fall back to:

The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Golden Rule is one of the oldest and best guides to ethical decision-making. If we treat people the way we want to be treated we are likely to live up to the Six Pillars of Character. We don’t want to be lied to or have promises broken, so we should be honest and keep our promises to others. We want others to treat us with respect, so we should treat others respectfully (The Seven-Step Path to Better Decisions).

So, why be ethical?

“Making Sense of Ethics” offers five reasons: “inner benefit, personal advantage, approval, religion and habit.” Valry Fetrow offers another reason – it’s good business:

Upholding ethical business standards, resolving ethical dilemmas right away, and rooting out unethical practices before they flourish, can solidify an organization’s sound reputation – and even its fiscal standing.

By using ethical standards through which to make a decision, a company can build a reputation for good work with fair relations with customers, suppliers and employees.

For example, Company A is a mid-sized commercial construction company that has been in business in the southeast since March of 1990. By providing clients with quality workmanship and treating its sub-contractors fairly, the company has built a reputation as a quality contractor, relying on repeat business and referrals for its growth. The company’s founders have a strong belief in The Golden Rule and make many of their decisions from that foundation. The company’s growth to gross revenue in excess of 80 million dollars in just over ten years is a testament that their ethical foundation has been a success.

As with any decision-making process, Company A set a precedent for using The Golden Rule for its ground rules in decision-making. If the company were to veer from that principle for making decisions, the ground rules could change and a new set of ground rules formed. With the earlier example of the teenage girl, if the parents were to make their decision based on a different set of principles, for instance, their daughter’s possible future, the parents might have encouraged their daughter to give the child up for adoption so that she might pursue her goals in life.

In conclusion, ethical decision-making is a process by which decisions are made based on a set of values or principles. What those values or principles are is dependent on the beliefs and values of the individual. How that person applies those values to decisions they make may depend on other factors involved in the situation, but should ultimately rely on what the individual believes to be the best choice.


Fetrow, V. (2003, February). Ethics is Good Business. Buildings, 97(2), 54-56. Retrieved June 16, 2003, from Proquest Database.

Making Sense of Ethics. (2002). The Josephson Institute. Retrieved June 16, 2003, from

The Six Pillars of Character. (2002). The Josephson Institute. Retrieved June 16, 2003, from

The Seven-Step Path to Better Decisions. (2002). The Josephson Institute. Retrieved June 16, 2003, from

Tonbridge. (2003, February 24). Ethics for the MRCGP: Making Consistent Ethical Decisions. Pulse,75. Retrieved June 16, 2003, from Proquest Database.

Schermerhorn, J.R., Hunt, J.G., & Osborn, R.N. (2000). Organizational Behavior (Rev. custom 7th ed., University of Phoenix). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

University of Phoenix. (Ed.). (2003). Readings in Critical Thinking [University of Phoenix Custom Edition]. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.


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