General Guidelines for Ethical Decision Making

General Guidelines for Ethical Decision Making

It is useful when making ethical decisions to understand that different considerations enter the picture for each of us. Nonetheless, there are some overarching principles we can use in approaching ethical decision making. The effect of the actions on

  • the decision maker (egoism);
  • everyone potentially involved (utilitarianism); and
  • the fundamental principles (deontology)

represent three major systems of theoretical ethical systems.

One approach to ethical decision making is to consider the effect of your decision on yourself as the decision maker, anyone else potentially involved, and the bigger picture – the impact of your actions on your institution, your profession, and the world. Once you understand the potential impact of your decision on yourself and others then you will be in a better position to make a decision. Before making a decision, make sure that you first get all the facts about the situation, identify as all the alternative actions as possible, evaluate each possible decision, consult others, if at all possible, and then make a decision.

It is always a wise idea to seek the counsel of others around you who may have more and/or a wider array of experiences and/or who may be better able to be impartial about the issue or event. Do you know to whom you can go if something goes wrong? Do you have someone with whom you can discuss sensitive issues in confidence? Whenever possible try to work through those in your organization and work up the organizational ladder. For example, for issues relating to your group, consider consulting your research advisor first.

When faced with an ethical dilemma, the following are some useful questions to consider:

  • What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?
  • Who or what may be affected?
  • How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)
  • Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?
  • What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?
  • Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
–poet and philosopher George Santayana

After you have made a decision, make it a point to reflect on the outcome of your decision. The only way you can change the future is by actively affecting change in how you think/reason and how you act: Are you satisfied with how your decision turned out? What lessons did you learn?