Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts A Framework for Ethical Decision Making
A Framework for Ethical Decision Making

A Framework for Ethical Decision Making

In April 2015, the Foreign Policy Research Institute presented its Madeleine and W.W. Keen Butcher History Institute on Ethical Dilemmas in American Warfare hosted by the First Division Museum at Cantigny, Wheaton, IL. Covering such topics as the Dilemmas of Civil Liberties and State Security; the ethics of emergent types of warfare (Drones, Cyberattacks, and Future War); the Dilemmas of Wars Amongst the People: Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq; the Dilemmas of Economic Warfare: and the Case of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare, the Institute took teachers from around the United States through many scenarios, historical narratives, and personal stories that illuminated the complex nature of ethical decision making in military affairs.

Lawrence Husick, Co-Director of the Wachman Center’s Program on the Teaching of Innovation at FPRI has, for some years, served as a speech and debate coach at the high school level, and has coached high school teams in “Ethics Bowl” competitions. As an adjunct to the history institute, Husick adapted a set of materials that he developed for his students to guide them in understanding and applying the philosophical tools of ethical analysis and argumentation so that teachers would have a framework for use in teaching the particular ethical materials to which they were exposed during the institute.

Presented here are those materials, in a slightly revised format. We hope this document will prove useful to anyone teaching high school students how to make ethically informed decisions and how to evaluate historical decisions from the standpoint of the ethical values employed by the actors. The materials are structured as instructions to be used with case studies in a step-wise evaluation of alternative decisions in light of the classical ethical frameworks. Each is described and a formula for evaluation is presented that allows students to explore the nuances and differences among the frameworks and their decision outcomes.

A Framework for Ethical Decision Making

First: State the Facts

  • What are the relevant facts of the case? What facts are not known?
  • Do I know enough to make a decision?
  • What individuals and groups have an important stake in the outcome? Are some concerns more important? Which ones? Why?

Then: Identify the Ethical Issue

Could this decision or situation be damaging to someone or to some group? Does this decision involve a choice between a good and bad alternative, or perhaps between two “goods” or between two “bads”? Is this issue about more than what is legal or what is most efficient? If so, how?

Next: Evaluate Alternative Options for Acting

  • List and evaluate the options by asking the following questions:
    • Which option will produce the most good and do the least harm?
      (The Utilitarian Approach)
    • Which option best respects the rights of all who have a stake?
      (The Rights Approach)
    • Which option treats people equally or proportionately?
      (The Justice Approach)
    • Which option best serves the community as a whole?
      (The Common Good Approach)
    • Which option leads me to act as the sort of person I want to be?
      (The Virtue Approach)
  • (There are, of course, other traditional sources of decisional ethics including religious traditions.)

Finally: Make a Decision and Test It

Considering all these approaches, which option best addresses the situation? Why?

It is important to reflect on the outcome and the ways in which ethical expectations were or were not met, and the ways in which the outcome could have been improved.

Five Common 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 receive 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, specifically, 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. It 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 to determine what standards of behavior can be considered as ethical. There are still problems to be solved, however.

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 Decisions

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 specific steps.

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 carefully examining the problem, aided by the insights and different perspectives of others, can we make good ethical choices in such situations.

A useful resource is the Markkula Center for  Applied Ethics


How to Use the Best Outcomes or Utility Test

A. Introduce the Test

 “Will this produce the best outcomes for everyone affected?” or “Are we maximizing good and minimizing harm for everyone affected?”

For the best outcomes or utility test (the “Utilitarian Principle”), the consequences or outcomes determine what is right or wrong. For this principle, the ends justify the means: an action is right if it creates the best overall outcome. Good outcomes can be measured by:

  • happiness and unhappiness (pleasure and pain)
  • the preferences of individuals
  • money, as an indicator of preferences

B. Why is Best Outcomes or Utility a Valid Way to Decide Right and Wrong?

This test is a valid way to decide which actions are right or wrong because:

  • Everyone counts the same.
  • Everyone wants to be happy or avoid being unhappy.

Therefore, good is what makes the most happiness or least unhappiness regardless of who is affected. In short, we can’t just look at consequences for ourselves or our group to decide what is ethical, because everyone affected by the action has equal standing as a person.

C. Apply the Test

1. Identify the alternative actions that are possible and the persons and groups (the stakeholders) who will be affected by these actions.

2. For each of the most promising alternatives, determine the benefits and costs to each person or group affected. These calculations:

  • require predicting probable outcomes based on facts and experience;
  • should include both short-term and long-term consequences; and
  • should consider the relative value or “marginal utility” of an outcome to different individuals and groups.

3. Select the action in the current situation that produces the greatest benefits over costs for all affected. If costs outweigh benefits, select the action with the least costs relative to benefits. This step shows the alternative that has the greatest net good for this one situation.

4. Ask what would happen if the action were a policy for all similar situations. Since what is done in one situation often becomes an example or even a policy for future actions, this step shows which alternative maximizes good for this and all future situations.

D. Draw a Conclusion

If the same action is selected in Steps 3 & 4, then this is the ethical action. If different actions are selected, then decide whether the individual action or the policy will produce the greatest good and the least harm, for all affected, over the long term.

How to Use the Rights Test

A. Introduce the Test

 “Are we respecting human rights?”

B. Why is This Test a Valid Way to Decide Right and Wrong?

People are familiar with the idea of rights and are quick to use the word to explain a claim they have against others:

  • why they are entitled to something from society or others.
  • why they should be protected from actions that benefit society or others at our expense.

Rights are not an empirical fact of human life and are understood differently in different societies and periods of history. Rights are a way of thinking that recognizes human beings as valuable in and of themselves (intrinsic value), regardless of their physical and mental attributes or position in society and regardless of what they are worth to others (extrinsic value). Animals also have rights though most people would claim it is a more limited set.

Rights indicate the freedoms or the material conditions required for this value. Without the ability to express his/her political or religious beliefs, for example, or to vote, (liberty rights), or without food, clothing, health care, education, or employment (welfare rights), an individual human cannot live in a way that expresses his/her intrinsic value.

None of these rights has any validity, however, if we do not recognize the intrinsic value in human beings. Why recognize that value in others? Because we recognize it in ourselves and recognize that others are equal to us. If I recognize that I have rights, others must also have rights unless I can explain why they are not entitled to what I am entitled to.

C. Apply the Test

1. Identify the right being upheld or violated.

  • Liberty rights, such as the right to property, to free speech, to religion, and so on, are protections against the encroachment of society or other individuals.
  • Welfare rights, such as the right to food, clothing, education, health care, and so on, are indications of what we need in order to live a life worthy of human beings. Individuals and society may have obligations to help me obtain these if they are available and I have done my part to obtain them.
  • An extensive listing of what many take to be essential human rights is contained in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

2. Explain why it deserves the status of a right, because it is:

  • Essential a person’s dignity and self-worth; and/or
  • Essential to a person’s freedom or well-being.

We can explain why a right is essential by asking what would happen if the individual were denied this right and whether we would want that right respected if we were in that person’s position.

3. Ask whether that right conflicts with other rights or with the rights of others.

When rights conflict, decide which has precedence by explaining why each right is important and showing the consequences for dignity and self-worth (or freedom and wellbeing) if the right is not protected. Ethical people can disagree about which right is more important since no ranking principle is universally accepted.

D. Draw a Conclusion

Explain briefly how the Rights principle does or does not apply in this case.

How to Use the Everybody or Extra Slack Test

A. Introduce the Test

  • “If it is ethical for us to do that, then what if everybody did it?” or
  • “Are we cutting ourselves some extra slack here?”

An “exception” or cutting ourselves extra slack is claiming it is ethical for us to do an action but not ethical for others to do it in the same situation. This is not the same as claiming that it must be ethical for us because “everyone else is doing it.” It is asking what things would be like if everyone else really were doing the action in question.

B. Why is This Test a Valid Way to Decide Right and Wrong?

We are all equal as ethical actors, so whatever is ethical for me must be ethical for others in the same circumstances. This is true for individuals and companies. So why should we be able to get away with something if others can’t?

C. Apply the Test

1. Specify what action we are considering.

Describe the action in a way that captures the ethically relevant features.

Adjust the generality or specificity of the action to highlight what is questionable:

  • Is the action part of a general category such as “not telling the truth” or “breaking a promise”? Or does the action have specific characteristics that are relevant, such as “not telling the truth to save a life” or “breaking a promise because something more important is at risk,” which are more specific descriptions.

Avoid value-loaded descriptors that already contain the ethical judgment (“We are lying to the public”) because this closes off further discussion.

2. Ask, “What if everyone did it?”

If the action were adopted by others in similar situations, would it:

    • Become impossible for anyone to do the action because everyone tried to do it? If everyone lied, no one would believe anyone else, so it would be impossible for anyone to lie successfully (if lying is “deceiving others by not telling the truth”). If everyone broke promises. then it would be impossible for anyone to do so because no promise would be accepted. If everyone filed false tax returns, then the government would stop voluntary tax filings and collect taxes directly, so it would be impossible for anyone to file a false return. Since everyone is equal, it is not ethical for us to do something that not everyone can do. We would be making an exception for ourselves.
    • Create a social climate unacceptable to us because everyone was doing it? If I do not want to operate in a climate in which I cannot trust people to tell the truth or keep their promises, then I should tell the truth and keep my promises. Not to do so would be to make an exception for myself that I don’t deserve since everyone is equal.

3. Draw a conclusion from Step 2: What if everyone did it?

Either condition would make the action unethical: “We should (or should not) do this action since we would (or would not) be claiming an exception for ourselves: we can (or can’t) all do it and/or the common adoption of the action would create a world we and our company would find acceptable (or unacceptable).”

4. Ask, “What if they did it to us?”

If the action were directed at us, would we think it was ethical? We are not asking if we would like it, but whether we would think it was ethical. This step of reversing the action is a way of applying the Golden Rule: “Do unto others.”

5. Draw a conclusion from Step 4: “What if they did it to us?”

If it would not be ethical for others to do the action to us, then it is unethical for us to do the action because we would be claiming an exception for ourselves.

6. Summarize the Conclusions from “What if everyone did it?” and from “What if they did it to us?”

If the action would be impossible for everyone to do, if it would be unacceptable to us or the company if everyone did it, or if it would be unethical for someone to do it to us, then the action would not be ethical for us to do since that would be claiming an exception for ourselves—that we should be able to do what it is unethical for others to do. Failing any one of the three conditions shows the action to be unethical.

D. Draw a Conclusion

Explain briefly how the Extra Slack test does or does not apply in this case.

How to Use the Choices Test

A. Introduce the Test

 “Are the people affected able to make their own choices?”

B. Why is This Test a Valid Way to Decide Right and Wrong?

Things have value because people value them. All people deserve equal respect as ones who give value to things. What I value has no claim to be “more valuable” than what you value.

So let others make their own choices based on what they value. Don’t choose for them except in special circumstances. Children, for example, may not be equal because they may not know what they really value.

Those who have made promises, signed contracts, or made other prior commitments may not be free to act because of their commitments.

C. Apply the Test

  1. Am I giving others freedom to choose what they value?
  2. We are free to make our own choices if we not being forced or coerced to choose something we do not value.
  3. Are there any prior choices (contracts, promises) by which a person has limited his/her own freedom?
  4. Am I giving them the information necessary to know what they value in this situation? Information requires the level of information (or the opportunity to get the information) necessary to know which alternative best fulfills what a person values. A practical test to determine whether the information is adequate can be done by asking: would that person choose differently if he/she had additional information?

D. Draw a Conclusion

Is the action unethical because it does not give the persons being affected the freedom and/or the information to choose what she/he values?

How to Use the Justice Test

A. Introduce the Test

 “Is this a fair distribution of benefits and burdens?”

B. Why is This Test a Valid Way to Decide Right and Wrong?

If everyone is equal—that is, has equal value as a human person—then everyone has an equal claim to a share. The default distribution is to give everyone an equal share since all shares are worth the same. There are some circumstances, however, in which everyone does not have an equal claim because they worked harder or less hard, contributed more or less, have greater or less need, etc. Thus, a fair distribution in each situation depends on whether there is absolute equality: Treat equals equally and non-equals unequally.

The reasons for inequality:

  • Effort: some may have worked harder
  • Accomplishment: some may have achieved more or performed better
  • Contribution: some may have contributed more to the group or society
  • Need: some may have a greater need to be served first or receive a larger share
  • Seniority: some may have arrived in line first, be older or younger, or have more years of service
  • Contract: a prior agreement about how the distribution should be made.
  • Relationship or In-Group Status: some may have a claim because they are members of my family or a group to which I owe loyalty.

C. Apply the Test

  1. What is the distribution? Who is receiving the benefits and burdens in the situation? Do those who get benefits also share burdens? Do those with benefits share some of the burdens? These are factual questions. Once you know the distribution, you can decide if it is fair or not.
  2. Is the distribution fair? Which criterion for distribution would be most fair in this situation and why would it be most fair in this situation? You have to defend the distribution and the criterion or reason for the distribution.
  3. If disagreement persists over which outcome is fair or over which criterion for inequality is best in the situation, then select a fair process to decide what is fair: an election, dispassionate judge, chance decided by a coin or paper-rock-scissors.

D. Draw a Conclusion

Will this action produce a fair distribution, and why?

How to Use the Common Good Test

A. Introduce the Test

 “Are we doing our part to look out for the common good in this situation?”

B. Why is This Test a Valid Way to Decide Right and Wrong?

Being able to live together in a community requires that we pay attention not just to our individual goods, but also to the common conditions that are important to the welfare of all. This common good includes the social systems, institutions, natural and technological environments, and ways of understanding that we all depend on to pursue our individual goods. For a community to be sustainable, these must work in a manner that benefits all people. Since we all have access to the common good and benefit from it, we all have obligations to establish and maintain it.

C. Apply the Test

1. Specify what parts of the common good are involved.

Which social systems, institutions, environments, and ideologies that we depend on for a functioning and healthy society could be advanced or damaged by our actions in this situation? What actions will strengthen them? What actions will weaken them?

The common good includes, among other things, the family, social, educational, and health care systems required for human growth, development, and happiness; the police, courts, military, and political system required for public safety, a functioning government, and peace; the businesses, financial, and legal systems necessary for the production of goods and services and economic development; and the ecosystem and technology which make all these activities possible. The common good also includes the sets of ideas we use to understand the different aspects of the common good.

2. Explain why we have an obligation to promote or protect the common good.

What obligation does my company have to maintain these aspects of the common good because we benefit from them?

If my company benefits from having stable families and educated workers, for example, do we have an obligation to promote these aspects of the common good or at least not to harm them?

3. Does the proposed action conflict with this obligation?

Do our employment policies and actions in the community weaken family stability or education or put these aspects of the common good at risk?

This question might help an investment banker recognize that even though he is due a multimillion dollar bonus, the common good of restoring trust in the financial system may require that he give it up; that the common good of maximizing the good effects of distributing federal stimulus money in a severe recession means that lobbying for a particular interest group needs to be restrained more than in ordinary times; or that the common good of maintaining the courts as an efficient problem resolution mechanism requires that even though a company’s deep pockets enable them to stall a lawsuit indefinitely by filing endless motions, they should not do so.

D. Draw a Conclusion

If the action conflicts with my or my organization’s obligation to contribute to the common good, it is the wrong action.

How to Use the Character or Virtue Test

A. Introduce the Test

  • “Does this action represent the kind of person I am or want to be?”
  • “Does it represent my organization’s reputation or vision of the kind of enterprise it wants to be?”

B. Why is This Test a Valid Way to Decide Right and Wrong?

The kind of person I am, or the kind of organization this is, are just as important to living a good life as what specific actions we do. My character and the organization’s culture are represented and influenced both by how we act and by what we aspire to be. To focus only, as the other ethics test do, on how to judge individual actions to be right or wrong would be to miss an important aspect of ethics. Part of our aspiration is to have virtues or habits of acting in certain ways that fit our character. If we know who we are and aspire to be, we can decide how to act by considering whether an action is something that would be done by the kind of person or organization we want to be.

C. Apply the Test

  1. Ask if the action will help to make you the kind of person you want to be. Consider whether the action fits your self-image or the story you would like to tell about your life. The most excellent or virtuous people are usually thought of as those who consistently act with honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, fidelity, integrity, fairness, self-control, prudence, and so on. One way to see if the action fits with who you would like to be is to ask whether the action is something that the person you most respect in your company would do.
  2. Ask whether the action will fit in the organization’s reputation or vision of what it would like to be. An individual’s actions represent and affect not only him/her, but also the person’s organization, or even nation. The image of what the organization wants to be will be found in the mission and vision statements, the core values, and the ethics code, as well as in the stories that are told about the heroes and the villains in the  history and mythology.
  3. Ask whether the action maintains the right balance between excellence and success for the firm. Excellence refers to how well the activities of the organization are conducted. Each activity, such as producing a product or service, marketing it to customers, financing the organization, accounting and maintaining controls, and so on can be done in the best possible way. Striving for too much perfection in any one of these areas, however, can have an effect on the ability of the firm to do the other activities and generate profits necessary to keep it in operation over the long term.

D.Draw a Conclusion

Actions that fit your idea of what kind of person you want to be, and with the firm’s idea of what it wants to be, are good actions.

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