Ethical decision

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In the context of decision making, ethics are personal standards of right and wrong. They are the basis for making ethically sensitive decisions.

Ethics vs. morals[edit]

The words "ethics" and "morals" are frequently used interchangeably.

Ethics refer to behavior customary in our culture or society. Ethics may change as a person moves from one society to the next.

Morals refer to personal standards of right and wrong. Morals do not change as a person moves from one society to the next.[citation needed]

Development of ethical decision-making[edit]

Ethical decisions come from a place of conscience. For many, conscience is simply an internal source of reward and punishment.[1] But according to researcher Lawrence Kohlberg, conscience is only one of several ways in which [ethical] values are represented in the personality.[1] Kohlberg believes there are higher levels of moral development and these are acquired in stages.[1]


According to Kohlberg, punishment orientation is the stage in which actions are evaluated in terms of possible punishment, not goodness or badness. Obedience to power is emphasized.[1] Similar to this is pleasure-seeking orientation in which right action is determined by one's own needs. Concern for the needs of others is largely a matter of potential reciprocation, not of loyalty, gratitude or justice.[1]


The next stage in ethical decision-making is where motivation to make a choice is based on authority orientation or good boy/good girl orientation. In order, this is where emphasis is on upholding law, order and authority as doing ones' duty or in doing that which will please others and give immediate praise.[1]


The final stages of moral development according to Kohlberg focus on individual decisionmaking. Social contract orientation is where one bases support of laws on rational analysis and mutual agreement. Rules are recognized as open to question but are upheld for the good of the community and in the name of democratic values.[1]

The final stage is morality of individual principles where behaviour is directed by self-chosen ethical principles that tend to be general, comprehensive or universal. High value is placed on justice, dignity and equality.[1]

Ethical decision-making in eastern religions[edit]

Traditions, such as Confucianism, animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, have had a similar impact on their cultures. However, they all tend to emphasize different aspects of decisions than does Western academic ethics, which is said to suffer badly from a "God's Eye view" problem. By contrast, these non-Western traditions have emphasized the following:

Trust relationships[edit]

Trust relationships are the foundations of all ethical decisions. One must learn what is good and ethical from some role model or moral example. Religion often raises certain stories about certain people to this level deliberately.

Consistent description[edit]

All ethical and moral judgement attempts to make consistent descriptions of complex situations and difficult decisions. It is considered to be important because, to those who practice the ethical tradition in which the descriptions are applied, it answers the big question: "How should we live?"

The very questions presupposes that we can define "how" (method), "should" (ambition), "we" (a group seeking consensus), "live" (beings with bodies).

Without this context, ethics is generally just talk implying moral judgement - called normative ethics, and covered again in separate article.

The remainder of this article is about practical approaches to ethical decisions that are observed in ordinary people's daily lives and in politics in particular:


An ethical decision is often thought of as the one that reduces future conflict. In sociology and political science, practical and applied ethics itself is often defined as a process of de-escalating moral conflicts to the point of:

At this point the conflict is unlikely to recur.

Avoiding right vs. wrong[edit]

Without this, we fall back to the simplistic view, which is "I am right and you are wrong and you do what I say." (This is usually called moral absolutism). This kind of assertion, backed by force, is the basis of much authority and it leads to violence very often. So much so that it turns out not to be the simplest way to live among humans in the long run, even if it is accepted by small groups (say a whole family) in the short run.

Right versus right[edit]

A simple, practical view is that ethics balances "right versus right": if there's a dispute we care to hear, then each side must have some right on it. However, this presupposes some instinctive moral core of the individual that must recognize right and wrong, else we do not have two individuals asserting "right" and requiring ethical help: if either in fact secretly believes themselves "wrong" then they are engaging in tactics to reduce the chance of getting caught or alerting others to it, neither of which is studied by ethics.

An environment or context[edit]

Ethics can thus be viewed as a lever but one that rests on a moral fulcrum of pre-existing assumptions, like the bodies of the beings in conflict, placed there by circumstances, environments, situations, mostly out of their control - only the choice of resolution is under their own control. When the environment or context has some status in the decision, as in ecological ethics, there is said to be a situated ethics.

This is not the same as situational ethics which is about single decisions unlikely to recur.

Touchstones for Ethical Decisions[edit]

The ethics you use in making decisions is informed by a variety of sources. By consciously recognizing these influences, you have the opportunity to be intentional about how your ethical code develops. Here are some to consider:

Organizational or group codes[edit]

Castes or groups in society may have their own moral syndromes that simplify the types of decisions they make, e.g. as professionals in a commercial or governmental field. Jane Jacobs claims there are two irreconcilable moral syndromes that arise from those contrasting views:

Paul Adler defined markets, hierarchies, and communities as three different ways to resolve and make an ethical decision. While Jacobs denied that collusion or collaboration between the syndromes could be constructive, and called any confusion of the two a "monstrous moral hybrid", Adler thought that "Communities" could do this without corruption. By Jacobs' definition the community itself might be a source of corruption.

Family influences[edit]

George Lakoff's theory of moral politics states that these arise from family role differences ultimately, with a moral code emphasizing the logos or "rule" of the father as being the source of the motivations of the political "right", and one emphasizing the more merciful moderns or mother-like view as being moral source for the "left".


One solution is castes: people are raised to make decisions in particular ways based on their family traditions which are drawn from professional traditions. Then people take on the profession for which they are best prepared. This addresses the problem raised above, that the simplest ways to make 'ethical decisions tend to conflict. But of course then the choice of profession is not up to the person but the family or the society around them.

Political parties[edit]

Without such a system, differences may evolve into some full system of community consensus or politics:

Politics, as Bernard Crick put it, is "ethics carried out in public". His list of political virtues is an attempt to frame politics as a form of ethics, and ethics as a form of conflict resolution.

A political party for instance in democracy helps those who see ethical decisions the same way, form groups to promote those criteria for decisions that they see as most important.


Most surviving societies recognize certain acts that are usually bad for the society, such as lying, stealing, murder of people, adultery, and impiety (to God or Nature which in early societies was often the same).

Seeking safety[edit]

Sociologists and anthropologists believe that there is a tendency in most societies to support:

It is actually not possible to use any of those words without moral judgements - possibly judgments inherited from the dictionary - this is studied in meta-ethics and in descriptive ethics also.

Since all surviving societies must protect helpless people like elders, children, and pregnant women, it is likely that these concepts are defined more with reference to those helpless people than to others - that is, those with power have a duty to protect the helpless.

Right to thrive[edit]

One nearly-universal moral principle is some form of the golden rule: "Act towards other people as you would want others to act towards you." Another principle is that a person can only be blamed or praised if they could choose to act or refuse to act. Another is that there seems to be something good about helping living things in general, or compassion or empathy.

It is useful to distinguish "good from bad" in our actions just as we might distinguish "good from evil" morally in our thoughts. It's also useful to recognize that we use the word "right" to assert what we are due and to judge what is correct. To anything that's alive, it's "right" for it to live, that too is built into the body. If a creature is physically fit and capable of thriving in its environment, it takes a lot to overcome a preference to live:

Why we need tribes and villages[edit]

The ideal size of a corporation has been stated as 70 people, and an ideal village no more than 150, the so-called "Dunbar's Number". At this scale, the simple view can be applied directly, and one need do no more than assess what moral concepts mean to the group. In other words, assess morality very informally and apply only informal sanctions or punishments with little or no need for force.

As groups and societies get larger, technology advances, and violence more likely, that shared moral cognition gets harder to manage. Some rigorous epistemology agreements like a moral code or standard of evidence must be applied. These, and political standards like an electoral process, increase the potential for agreement and decrease the potential for violence, at the cost of added complexity and requirement to place trust in some referees (like judges or constitutional monarchs or a church or GodKing). At some point this becomes indistinguishable from the simplistic trust in authority, and, probably, the cycle of agreeing must begin all over again, in smaller units of trust.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Coon, Dennis (1986). Introduction to psychology : exploration and application (4th ed.). St. Paul: West Pub. Co. pp. 476–478. ISBN 0-314-93167-8. 

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