A Model for Making Moral Decisions
To address adequately the ethical dilemmas that people regularly encounter, I will present a procedure for making moral decisions. I offer it not as a formula that will automatically generate the “right” answer to an ethical problem, but rather as a model designed to make sure that the right questions are asked in the process of ethical deliberation.
Given the ethnic and religious diversity of our society, the model used for making ethical decisions should be able to accommodate a variety of different moral and ethical perspectives. The model presented here is not tied to any one particular perspective but can be used comfortably with a variety of cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. Although this model is consistent with the Bible and allows for use of biblical principles, it is not a distinctively Christian model. As you will see, it is heavily oriented toward virtues and principles, with consideration of consequences in a supporting role.
As we mentioned earlier, what makes many moral dilemmas so difficult is that the Bible does not always address an issue clearly, if at all. More general biblical virtues and principles may be brought to bear on the issue at hand. In these instances, however, there is often disagreement about which biblical principles and virtues are applicable and how they apply to the specific issue under discussion. Further, it may be that the virtues/principles conflict in any given scenario. These tend to be some of the most difficult ethical dilemmas because they involve making choices and weighting the virtues/principles that have a bearing on the case. Appeal to principles and virtues alone will not necessarily resolve any particular case. Thus, insisting that all ethical dilemmas be resolved simply by appeal to biblical principles and virtues seems to oversimplify things. Certainly, appealing to the Bible, either a specific text(s) or more general principles, can conclusively resolve many moral questions, but in some cases that does not happen.
Perhaps the first question to be sure to address has to do with defining an ethical dilemma. I often ask people how they would know if they were facing an ethical dilemma, and not surprisingly, they frequently are unable to answer this question. It may be that people miss some of the ethical dilemmas they face because they are not sure what to look for. Here is the definition of an ethical dilemma: An ethical dilemma is a conflict between two or more value- or virtue-driven interests. You must be sure to identify the parties in the conflict, what their interests are, and what virtues and values underlie those interests.
Following is a list of the elements of a model for making moral decisions:1
1. Gather the Facts.
Frequently ethical dilemmas can be resolved simply by clarifying the facts of the case in question. You may find that you have a different sort of dilemma, not a moral one. For example, you might discover that you have a communication breakdown that has created the dilemma that can be solved simply by facilitating a conference that brings clear and timely communication. Or you may find that you have a strategic dilemma instead of a moral one, where the issues involved are morally neutral. When you have a genuine ethical dilemma, gathering the facts is the essential first step that must be taken prior to any ethical analysis and reflection. In analyzing a case, we need to know all of the available facts. Later, we may need to acquire additional information pertaining to the case. Thus, to make an intelligent ethical decision, one needs to ask two primary questions: What do we know? and What do we need to know?
2. Determine the Ethical Issues.
Ethical issues are stated in terms of legitimate competing interests or goods. These competing interests are what actually create an ethical dilemma. Remember, an ethical dilemma is defined as a conflict between two or more value/virtue-driven interests. That is, moral values and virtues must support the competing interests in order to have a genuine ethical dilemma. If you cannot identify any underlying virtues/values, then you may have some other kind of dilemma, not a moral one. Participants in these dilemmas normally hold to their positions with substantial passion because they are driven by deeply held ethical values and virtues. The issues should be presented in an X versus Y format in order to reflect the competing interests in a particular ethical dilemma.
3. Determine What Virtues/ Principles Have a Bearing on the Case.
In any ethical dilemma, certain virtues and moral values are central to the competing positions. It is critical to identify these principles and, in some cases, to determine whether some principles are to be weighted more heavily than others. Clearly, biblical principles should be weighted more heavily. Also, the virtues and values that speak to the case may come from a variety of sources, such as the Constitution or natural law (those almost self-evident values that are widely shared), which would supplement the applicable biblical principles. In a diverse cultural context, it may be that values may come from other religious traditions or widely held values from that particular culture.
4. List the Alternatives.
Part of the creative thinking involved in resolving an ethical dilemma involves developing alternative courses of action. Although you will probably rule out some alternatives without much thought, in general, the more alternatives that are listed, the better the chance that your list will include some very good ones. In addition, you may come up with some creative alternatives that you had not considered earlier.
5. Compare the Alternatives with the Virtues/Principles.
At this point the task is one of eliminating alternatives according to the moral principles that have a bearing on the case. In many instances the case will be resolved at this point, since the principles will eliminate all alternatives except one. In fact, the purpose of this comparison is to see if a clear decision can be made without further deliberation. To do this involves satisfying all the relevant virtues and values. If a clear decision is not forthcoming, the next part in the model must be considered. At the least, some of the alternatives may be eliminated by this step of comparison. Often, in order to make a clear decision, you must weight one or more virtues/values more heavily than the others. When weighting certain virtues/values more heavily than others, be sure to provide good reasons for your placing more emphasis on one virtue/value than the others. You should provide more basis for your weighting than simply your intuitions.
6. Consider the Consequences.
If the principles do not yield a clear decision, then a consideration of the consequences of the remaining available alternatives is the next step. Here the task is to take the viable alternatives and attempt to predict both the positive and negative consequences of each. In addition, one should try to estimate how beneficial are the positive consequences and how severe are the negative ones, since some consequences will be clearly more substantial than others.
7. Make a Decision.
Deliberation cannot continue indefinitely. At some point you must make a decision. Realize, too, that ethical dilemmas often have no easy and painless solutions. Frequently, the decision that is made is one that involves the least number of problems or negative consequences, not one that is entirely devoid of them. Be careful of trusting your “sleep-well quotient.” You may make a good decision and still not sleep well, because these dilemmas are often very difficult and don’t lend themselves to easy solutions.
Applying the Model
Using the preceding model, let’s return to the case of the patent violators. Here we will illustrate how to apply the model and clarify the meaning of each of the elements in the model. Two additional cases will be presented and analyzed in the framework of this model to ensure that it is clear and can be used profitably.