Friday, August 04, 2006

An model for ethical decision making

Many organisations and institutions have developed what could be called simple or lay Ethical Decision Making Tools. These can be regarded colloquially as “rules of thumb’. (a comprehensive list of these can be found at this internet site: ).

Examples of these (sourced from the above site) are:
The ACT model:
“A” – Alternatives – Identify all choices
“C” – Consequences – Project Outcomes
“T” – Tell your story – Prepare your defence

An Ethics Check
Is it legal?
Is it balanced? (Is the decision fair, or will it heavily favour one party over another)
How will it make me feel about myself?

Bell, Book and Candle
Bell – Does the decision or action sound right?
Book – Does the decision violate any written laws, rules or policies?
Candle – How will the decision look when exposed to the “light of day” or public scrutiny?

Glenn Coleman, the Manager of Ethics Communication and Education for Texas Instruments developed and uses the following quick test  for employees to decide on the ethicality of a business action, which I rather like. (source
1.Is it legal? If not, then don't do it.
2.Is it consistent with the company's stated values? Texas Instruments has a clearly stated set of corporate values. Actions that don't fit with them shouldn't be undertaken.
3.If you do it, will you feel bad? If so, there's probably something wrong.
4.How would it look in the newspapers? If having people "find out" will be embarrassing, there's a problem.
5.Do you think it's wrong? If so, don't do it.
6.If you're not sure-ask. Never feel you have to make a decision on ethics by yourself. Get help from others.
7.If you don't get a clear answer, keep asking until you do. Don't fudge an ethical problem by saying you "tried" to get help but couldn't. Keep asking-the boss, the company's lawyers, human resources personnel-until you get a clear answer.

Over and above these models a number of more comprehensive checklists, questionnaires and flowchart models exist.  

A recent project in the Master's degree that I'm reading for required that we develop our own model.

I first created a complex web of flowcharts and decision bubbles, but soon was more entangled and confused than when I had set out so I came up with this simple device.

Act as if you are looking in the eye, and shaking the hand* of those affected by your decision. If you do not feel uncomfortable in this situation then you are acting ethically.

There may admittedly be a fair bit of leg work in understanding just who those folk are that are affected by your decision and how much information you need to provide them so that you feel comfortable but I figured simple was best. My rationalisation for relying on gut instinct over a step-by-step process relied on a ee cummings poem:

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

*Alternate cultures may have different rituals that approximate the Western handshake in nature. This could be a mutual bow, the smoking of a shared pipe or drinking from a mutual gourd. My concept of handshake is taken to include all similar rituals.

But what about the ethics of blogging?

This research paper has an interesting discussion on the history of blogs and includes examples of possible blogger's codes.

When I look at the work being done by Neil Watson and my friend The Real Realist I wonder how my ethical device (replacing the word 'decision' by 'blog post' would work , or do they sleep well at night in the knowledge that they are only considering a small minority of those affected by the forum and one-sided photography that they respectively provide?


Dave said...

Good post! Ethics and blogging, have you read Tucker Max's Miss Vermont story??

ATW said...

Thanks Dave. Hadn't read the Tucker Max story - but have now read some of the tale. Assuming his version of the facts is true is it wrong to reveal the shortcomings of Miss Vermont to the world?
I actually think so.

Not that he shouldn't be allowed to portray his feelings- I'm not suggesting that - but to use my ethics model - would he be able to shake her hand and feel comfortable about it? Probably not - therefore he shouldn't have written what he wrote. He can't claim any moral high ground in this case. Admitting that he is an asshole (as he does) does not condone his harming other folk.

Dave said...

Well exactly, it certainly wasn't ethical of him, if you apply the rules you have described.

The interesting thing about the story is that Tucker wrote the truth, the facts of the stories were not contended in the Supreme Court but rather the legality of publishing the story. Tucker obviously won, but this verdict was not tantamount to saying the blogger was "ethical".

ATW said...

It's a classic case of conflicting values. Freedom of Speech vs Right to Privacy. If only one aspect or value is used to argue whose right or wrong it fails because while remaining a completely logical argument it ignores the other side of the story. But the web was never meant to be balanced was it?

VallyP said...

I've just read this today (Sat 11 Aug), and like the idea of applying the 'look someone in the eye and shake their hand' principle. I am currently in a bit of an ethical dilemma myself where as a freelancer, some clients of a former contractor have asked me to work for them independently of the contractor.

The original contractor for whom I worked has sold their business to a takeover company. Having asked the contractor repeatedly for their position on this and receving no answer or even the courtesy of a reply, I have now decided to take on the work. For me, the 'eye test' would work as I believe I have done what is right! It's still a dilemma though....