How to Make Good (Ethical) Decisions

how to make good ethical decisions
Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

What is the Good, Right and Purposeful Way to Make Choices?

When I was about ten years old, I decided to run away from home and ran (unexpectedly) into an ethical issue. I can’t remember exactly why I wanted to run away (as my life wasn’t exactly bad) but I do remember that I strolled out of the house carrying nothing but a penknife. I was obviously confident in my survival skills and overly trusting that warm weather would continue!

With my elementary school logic, I decided that a hole in the ground – in the woods not far from my house – was the obvious place to start my new life. As this den was also known to my friends it was not long before one stumbled across me as I cleared the twigs from my future bed space. 

“What are you doing?” My friend asked me. “Making camp.” I replied, “I have run away from home so don’t tell anyone!”

My friend wandered off and I continued working. Then, about twenty minutes later my friend arrived back. Behind him stood my dad. I remember looking into my friend’s eyes, feeling betrayed but also knowing they had done the right thing. I was outraged and relieved all at the same time. 

What are ethics and why are they important?

At that stage in life, I had no idea what ethics was, but I did intuitively know that my friend made a courageous moral decision that day. Ethics is simply that; it is making good or right choices. That includes big ethical dilemmas, such should we limit artificial intelligence or genetic engineering, right through to more everyday choices, such as whether you help yourself to extra stationery at the office for personal use at home. 

Making good decisions is not easy. We might have an intuitive feel of what is right or wrong but sometimes the answer is not obvious. This is particularly the case when various values come under tension. 

Taking my running away as an example, my friend had to balance the value of loyalty against that of care. Loyalty might have persuaded them to keep quiet as I had shared something in confidence, but out of care for me they knew the right thing was to tell my parents.

Therefore, sometimes values on their own are not sufficient. In these moments, where good values are in tension, we can employ a decision-making tool to help make the best ethical choice.

How to make ethical decisions

One such technique has been developed by The Ethics Centre in Australia. The Ethics Centre is a not-for-profit organisation that promotes the use of ethics in everyday life and decision-making. They suggest a decision-making model based on considering values, principles, and purpose.

In this context (and using the wording of The Ethics Centre):

  • Values tell us what’s good – they’re the things we strive for, desire, and seek to protect.
  • Principles tell us what’s right – outlining how we may or may not achieve our values.
  • Purpose is your reason for being – it gives life to your values and principles.

Of course, to employ this methodology you must first know what your values, principles and purpose are, so let’s take some time to consider each in turn.

Values

Values are things we give worth, things we prioritise. The values (or virtues) we aspire to come in different forms, such as:

  • Personal values (the ones we prioritise as an individual)
  • Corporate values (the ones we hold in a community or organization such as a company’s values)
  • Universal values (ones that are held in common more globally such as the UN Charter of Human Rights)

Therefore, the starting point, when making a decision, is working out which values are the most important ones in the circumstance. If you have never properly identified your values, then I would recommend you discover your top 3 personal values.

Principles

Principles help us think about what is right or wrong and, in this way, they complement values. These principles are essentially algorithms for behaviour. For example, when working in the British Army and considering a course of action the principles I was taught to apply can be summed up in the following question: 

“Is this action lawful, appropriate, and professional?”

Many of our principles have a basis in religion. For example, one of the principles I (like many) try to live by is the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule is the idea of treating others as we would like to be treated and this precept is reflected in various spiritual traditions. For example, the Hindu Mahabharata states:

“One should never do something to others that one would regard as an injury to one’s own self.”

Mahābhārata 13.114.8

Or in the teachings of the Buddha:

“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” 

Udanavarga 5:18

And similarly, Jesus of Nazareth said:

“Do to others what you want them to do to you.” 

Matthew 7:12

So, as with values, there are some common themes, but it is also worth reflecting upon the specific principles you hold to. This can be done systematically if you take time to reflect on how you make decisions. This reflective process will start to reveal the underlying principles you use. 

If you would like to explore more on identifying and developing principles, then I recommend reading Ray Dalio’s book Principles where you can see how this process can be done on both a personal and organisational level.

Purpose

Similarly, to values and principles, there can be overlapping ideas of purpose. These might be:

  • Individual purpose – your own sense of personal purpose 
  • Professional purpose – the specific purpose we have in a given work role
  • Organisational purpose – the mission statement of a team or business your work for

To understand purpose and make it measurable it is advisable to create a clear and concise mission statement. A good purpose statement is a definition of success, within a given context.

For example, my own mission statement is:

 “To serve people by helping them unlock their leadership, in order to support them on their adventure.”

In this case, my personal purpose statement also encompasses my top three values of serviceleadership, and adventure (but this does not have to be the case). For example, Oprah Winfrey’s purpose statement is:

“To be a teacher. And to be known for inspiring my students to be more than they thought they could be.”

What I find useful about this (and good purpose statements in general) is they can give a measure of success against different time scales. Both the mission statements above can be used to consider achievement in a day, week, year, or lifetime. These statements also help to analyse whether decisions have worked towards the good and successful outcome of the stated purpose.

Factors that impact good decision-making and ethical choices

Even after identifying our values, principles, and purpose, or those specific to a given ethical problem, there are still factors that can impact making a good choice. Most of these factors relate to cognitive bias, the subconscious rules of thumb we use to help us make quick decisions.

To minimise the negative impacts of cognitive bias it is worth considering the following:

  • Education and training. Learn about decision-making and the different types of cognitive bias
  • Diversity of thought. Bring different perspectives to a team or decision
  • Build a culture that allows challenge. Create a culture around you where people are more likely to challenge or call out bad behaviour and decisions (even if that is just a good friend who will be brutally honest with you)

The three things to help you make good ethical decisions

Therefore, if you want to make ethical decisions you need to first know your values, principles, and purpose. Then, while allowing for cognitive bias, you can then balance these three elements against each other to make your choice.

This does not mean you will immediately come up with an answer. If you are new to exploring values, principles, and purpose then that will likely throw up challenges and questions to work through before you even get back to the ethical problem you are facing!

But don’t despair. The search for good outcomes and truth is a journey, not a single destination. It should inspire personal reflection, critical thinking, and the sort of discourse that Socrates would be proud of. And that quality thinking leads to good actions, and as Martin Luther King said:

“The time is always right, to do what is right.” 


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