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Framework for Ethical Decisions

Moral questions rarely have clear answers, which is why ethics is a difficult topic to discuss. People tend to get frustrated when things are not black and white; however, think about how often straightforward situations actually do occur in the real world. For example, do you tell little white lies? Can these lies be justified? Should a person tell a lie if it could save someone’s life? What if such a lie was considered justifiable but could put someone else in danger? As mentioned, there are usually more questions than answers in ethical decision-making. Though there are various guidelines for conduct, people can rely on some basic formulas or rules for the majority of ethical decisions. The guiding formula for moral judgment as presented by Souryal consists of the following steps:

  • 1. Select the moral principle that best defines the problem in question: is it a matter of honesty, fairness, equity, or loyalty?
  • 2. Justify the situation by examining whether it conforms to the selected principle. If not, what accentuating or mitigating factors could make it more or less fitting with the principle?
  • 3. If the situation fits the principle exactly, the judgment should be made in exact accordance with the principle.

If the situation does not fit the principle exactly, judgment should be made by determining a high or low likelihood that the situation fits the principle. Accentuating factors support a high likelihood and mitigating factors support a low likelihood that the situation will fit the principle.

The formula is not meant to be quantitative; however, it is a useful guide for better moral judgments (Souryal, 2003). Many ethical questions are difficult to answer, especially if a person has a biased perspective. In an attempt to lessen bias and to fairly resolve moral judgment, the rules that follow have been suggested.

Rule 1: Inherent Good Surpasses Noninherent Good

The two categories of goodness are separated by value. Inherent (or intrinsic) goods are valuable objects, actions, or qualities, such as life, liberty, justice, and happiness. Noninherent goods are objects, actions, or qualities whose value depends on the ability to bring about intrinsic good, such as money and loyalty. The overall value is based on resulting accomplishments as opposed to natural value.

For example, which action is right in a given situation, loyalty or honesty? In this case, honesty is the inherent good, so it is the correct choice. Although loyalty may lead to honesty, good in and of itself is a noninherent good, so it should not come before honesty.

Inherent good > noninherent good

Rule 2: Noninherent Evil Surpasses Inherent Evil

This rule is based on the idea that noninherent evil serves as a means for bringing about or maintaining harm (evil) but by itself is not directly harmful. Examples of noninherent evil may include weapons or government; when used properly, no harm is caused. Inherent harm (evil) includes objects, actions, or qualities that are directly harmful, such as death, slavery, or injustice. The goal of this rule is to minimize harmful outcomes.

Noninherent evil > inherent evil

Rule 3: When Selecting between Levels of Good or Evil,

Select the Highest Good or the Lowest Evil

The principle of summum bonum is a common theme in the study of ethics. It is a tenet that examines the hierarchy of choices. Ethical decision-making prescribes that a person should strive for the greatest good or the lowest harm. Many times, ethical decisions are not a matter of right versus wrong; typically, they are a matter of what option is more right or more wrong in given circumstances or situations.

Murder is a good example to demonstrate this concept. It could occur in a number of ways, including accidental, hanging, lethal injection, poison, or shooting (Souryal, 2003).

Critical Thinking

  • • Options: Accidental, hanging, lethal injection, poison, shooting.
  • • Which is the least harmful?
  • • Which is the most harmful?
  • • Why?
  • • Rank the options and provide justification.

The previous rules state that the least harmful (or least evil) should be chosen above all others as the primary option. Depending on the circumstances involved with each option, the order could potentially change (Souryal, 2003).

Although rules and formulas will not make the actual decision for a person, they will assist in guiding a person to the best option for given situations.

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