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How To Make An Ethical Decision

In the course of the day we make hundreds of decisions—from when to get out of bed and what to eat, to how to organize our time or engage with others, to what behavior is and right and wrong.

Whether small or significant, making an ethical choice requires the ability to distinguish between competing options, balancing reason and prudence with emotion and desire. Consider the following steps to help you make better decisions—ones that you feel good about and can live with.

  1. Stop, think, and discern. You can’t be rash when trying to “do right.” Slow down. Clear your head. Make time. And find a good environment in which to think. Then, take a deep breath and get to work.
  2. Identify the challenge before you. Know what you want to achieve. Make sure you have a clear understanding of what you are deliberating. Ask yourself, “Is this the best, most accurate way of presenting the issue?” Don’t assume the obvious way is the only way.
  3. Determine goals—both short-term and long-term. Ask yourself, “What do I both want and need to get out of this decision?” Then prioritize around which of these are most Challenge yourself to see the bigger picture. Look at the situation from 30,000 feet. Try not to get lost in the weeds of immediate gratification.
  4. Get smart. Know the relevant facts—not what you think is true, rather what can be determined through reliable Ask yourself if the people/group providing the information are credible. If someone says they heard, saw, or know something, gauge their honesty, intention, and memory. Be prepared to seek out more information and verify assumptions.
  5. Acknowledge your biases. What are you vulnerable to that could influence or cloud your thinking? An emotion, an inclination, an assumption, an opinion, or a trend? Bring them all to the foreground. And keep an eye on when any make themselves known as you deliberate.
  6. Know your values. Sometimes the values we actually have look different from the ones we think we do. When considering your values, ask yourself: What do you stand up for and stand against? What would you never do? What do you dream about doing? What would you hate yourself if you did or didn’t do? What can’t you live without? What would you never sell or give away? What most brings out your empathy? What are you outraged by? Who do you look up to? What about their values inspires you? What are one or two values you want to pass on to your children or someone else in your life? What would be something worth making huge sacrifices for in order to preserve? The point here is to get a real sense of what matters to you most—what takes priority and precedence in your life—so that then, you can apply it to your decision.
  7. Explore options. Determine what you can do to address the issue at hand and accomplish your goals. Come up with at least three ideas. Any less and you’re not thinking hard enough. Having said this, don’t go off on flights of fancy. Keep the options realistic.
  8. Consider the consequences of each action. Look at each option next to your stated core values. Note which ones align with them and which ones don’t. Eliminate all that violate them. Next, consider the stakeholders—that is, who will be affected by each decision, and how they will be affected. Finally, determine what if any sacrifices will have to be made—either by your or someone else. Also who, if anyone, will be hurt or diminished as a result of each option.
  9. Make your decision and commit to taking action. Choose the option that you deem is most ethical—the one that makes you feel most settled and the one you believe you can live with going forward. If you’re struggling to determine, consider talking to someone you trust, specifically, someone whose character and judgment you respect. Also, ask yourself, “How would I feel if this decision was made public?” or “How would I feel if I heard that someone else made the same decision?” Lastly, what does your gut say?
  10. Check in over time, if appropriate. Ask yourself, “Did the decision I made result in the way I intended? Did it cause any unintended or adverse consequences?” If so, consider reevaluating the situation and readjusting your strategy.

Making an ethical decision isn’t always easy; in fact, often it can be quite hard, especially in the face of competing or conflicting options. Ultimately, what’s most important is to be honest with yourself at each stage of the process in order to strike the right balance between the head and the heart.

*This article was written by Michele DeMarco and is reprinted here with permission.

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