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Ethical Decision Making: What Are The Elements And The Impact?

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To answer this question, we must first examine the thinking process and define the meaning of morality. We continually make decisions without regard to ethics or moral values on a daily basis. We can define morality as a system of shared rules, or values that dictate specific behavior during the interaction of people. Morality or moral value is about doing the right thing and brings up questions on how we ought to act in any given situation. According to John Wilcox and Susan Ebbs, in The Leadership Compass, "Moral behavior is concerned primarily with how we treat one another individually and in groups... - the key then is that morality brings us in contact with others and asks us to consider the quality of that contact" (Shanks, 1997). This paper will discuss the elements of an ethically defendable decision and the impact of ethics on decision-making.

Elements and Ground Rules

As in problem solving, we must first identify the problem, so to in morally sound decision-making, we must first identify or recognize a moral issue. We do this by asking questions that determining whether an action is right or wrong according to the standards of a given society. What is acceptable in one society may not be morally acceptable in another; however, the ethical relevancy of the behavior does not change. Questions like, Will this behavior cause harm to someone? Could this behavior cause a conflict that could be harmful to others, to animals, to the environment, or society in general?

Do we have the facts regarding the incident we need to make a decision on? Who is involved and what are their stakes in the outcome? Who cares? Is there greater risk for one group over another? We must identify these facts and put them into the proper context to make the proper decision. Is it acceptable to lie to protect someone from physical harm? Although an individual may suffer a harmful consequence, is it better to be truthful regardless?

We always have options, and considering alternative actions from different moral perspectives is the next step in defending an ethical decision. The United States Declaration of Independence tells us that, "all men enjoy certain unalienable rights...among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Many of the controversies in our society today center around issues concerning the rights of individuals and groups alike. Employee rights, smokers' rights, and gay rights activists are examples of a few. To determine which option is best, we have to ask the question, "Which one serves the purpose of the most people and does the least amount of harm, or the most amounts of good?" Several options may be available and we are looking for those that promote the development of moral character and the common good of society. We will discuss The Common Good Approach to thinking ethically a little later.

After considering the steps and perspectives discussed above, it is time to make a decision. How do we know if we made the best moral decision possible or the right decision? One way is to reflect on the outcome for all parties involved in the issue. If it was an employee rights issue, how did the company fare in the outcome, the department, the employee, or society? If I could do it all over again, would I do the same thing, or do something differently? This is another question to ask to reflect upon. How many times we have wished we had it all to do over again - certainly, we would have done something differently! We enhance our chances of making sound, ethical decisions by adhering to the aforementioned ground rules.

Impact of Ethics on Decision-Making

It is one thing to have all the facts concerning an issue, but sometimes that is all we have, facts. Have you ever had facts concerning an issue or problem and had no idea what to do with them? I have! Dealing with moral issues and ethical problems can be very frustrating and confusing. We often time truly do not know what to consider, what to look for, or even the process of thinking through the problem. Knowing what is is good; but taking it a step further and determining what should be is at the heart of ethical decision-making.

History has shown that the ethical action is the one that provides the most good to the greatest number of people. Conceived in the nineteenth century by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, this approach, called The Utilitarian Approach, was designed to balance good over evil. (Velasquez, Andre, Shanks, & Meyer). Another approach focuses on an individual's right to choose for him, or herself. In essence, we should be able to choose freely and have the right to choose how people treat us. Although not inclusive, these rights are, the right to agree and disagree, the right of privacy, the right to fight or not to fight, and the list goes on. As you can see, The Rights Approach addresses everyone's rights in a moral issue. If a moral issue shows favoritism it is unfair because it does not treat everyone

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