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Main Street: Look for ‘third way’ to ethical dilemmas

August 30, 2018

Choices — we all make them, everyday. Sometimes just a few, and sometimes hundreds or even thousands. No matter how many decisions we collectively make, we all fall under the domain of ethics: How we determine and follow through on ethical decisions.

Noted ethicist Rushworth Kidder stated, “As we practice resolving dilemmas, we find ethics to be less a goal than a pathway, less a destination than a trip, less an inoculation than a process.”

To make ethical decisions, we first must understand the underlying definition of ethics as it relates to decision-making. The ethical literature describes ethics as “based on well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness or specific virtues.”

Looking at ethics through a broader lens, we can see certain dimensions need to be included to produce ethical decision-making. As discussed in Craig E. Johnson’s “Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership,” he asserts the following factors: Illustrating a situation can cause significant harm or benefit to many people (magnitude of consequences), proving one person or a group will greatly suffer because of a decision (concentration of effect) and showing the consequences will happen soon (temporal immediacy). Taken together, these factors assist the decision-maker to inculcate a framework for producing effective ethical decisions.

Based on a wide range of factors discussed by Kidder’s ethical checkpoints in Johnson’s text, I will highlight Kidder’s salient points and then comment in parentheses on how to add this to your ethical leadership domain.

1. Recognize there is a problem. (Acknowledging there is a problem is the first step which deserves our attention and further helps distinguishing moral questions from disagreements about manners and social conventions. This includes political correctness and ascribing to social norms that are antiquated and out of date. We must acknowledge the problem before we can begin to seek solutions.)

2. Determine the actor. (Once we identify an ethical dilemma, we need to decide who is responsible for the problem. Who is ultimately responsible for making the decision affecting the issue at hand?)

3. Gather the relevant facts. (Sort through the issues and determine the facts through adequate, accurate and current information from multiple sources. This process is called triangulation. Separate the facts from fiction or biased accounts. Triangulate the assembled information to determine the facts of the case. This can help reduce the mere intentions of other biased parties who might have disparate views or self-serving agendas.)

4. Test the right-versus-wrong issues. (Utilizing the stench test — a choice is generally a poor one if it gives you a negative, gut-level reaction. If this chosen issue appeared on the front page of the local paper, how would you and others react? This employs a moral code of conduct and reasoning.)

5. Test the right-versus-right issues. (Many ethical decisions pit two core values against each other. This includes telling the truth or being loyal to others, personal needs — self-centered versus the needs of others or community, and short-term benefits versus long-term negative outcomes. View the ethical issue from disparate perspectives and make the decision based on an egalitarian principle — the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or one.)

6. Apply the ethical standards and perspectives. (Reviewing the various components of ethics: communitarianism, utilitarianism or a moral imperative, decide on the intended purpose of the outcome that generates the best solution for all parties involved. Create a win-win scenario.)

7. Look for the third way. (In lieu of win-lose, lose-win, or lose-lose scenarios, seek a win-win scenario that evolves from compromise or the development of a creative solution that creates synergy instead of the destructive use of a zero-sum game perspective. The solution creates a win-win for all parties involved and, in the long-run, is more sustainable than short-term gains of winners and losers.)

8. Make the decision. (This requires reviewing the relevant facts, actors and possible solutions to the ethical dilemma or issue. This evokes leadership to make the decision and utilizing moral reasoning [higher order thinking], which separates us from the animal-instinctual world.)

9. Revisit and reflect on the decision. (Review your choices and critically review how you arrived at your decision. Reflect on what worked and what went wrong. Analyzing the pattern of your decisions allows you to critically reflect on lessons learned and crucible learning moments, which become teaching guidelines to apply in the future.)

In the final analysis, and as Johnson said, your initial reaction to an ethical dilemma is in part shaped and influenced by your emotions, cultural influences, past experiences and intuitions.

Therefore, seek the “third way” to increase creative solutions to ethical dilemmas. But, be cognizant that any solution is subject to analysis, and perfect decision-making is never to be expected. In the long-run, by utilizing the ethical decision-making patterns as described by Johnson, it further increases your chances of making the best informed ethical decision now.

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