Where do you start your ethical decision making?

  • 8 February 2017

Let’s say you’re faced with a decision that has an ethical side to it. And you’ve decided this time round to do something about it, to actively address the situation rather than ‘walk on by’. The problem is that people often stall at this point, uncertain of where to start, where to turn to?

They will probably think of their firm’s code of ethics, or a similar code from their professional body. After all, they’re likely to be the only documents handy with the word ethics written all over them. Or they could think of the regulator’s rulebook, with its long list of principles and obligations.

Important though these documents are, they suffer from three drawbacks. Firstly, they’re somewhat generic and so seem a bit disconnected from the ‘here and now’ of the situation you’re facing. Secondly, they can sometimes have a ‘pot half empty’ feel to them, telling us what we must do or cannot do. A bit headmaster’ish perhaps. And thirdly, they have a somewhat ‘external’ feel to them, full of important things of course, but written and applied from a distance.

So, in the few minutes you have to decide on how to respond to the tricky ethical situation in front of you, what do you do? It can actually be addressed in a more straightforward way than many of us might think. And it involves turning not to an external reference, but to an internal one: our own values. I’m suggesting turning, first and foremost, to our own values when weighing up what to do in a tricky ethical situation, for four reasons.

Firstly, they are values that we are far less likely to ‘walk on by’, because they are part of who we are. You may of course try to ignore them, but the experience of trying to do so is quite different than say trying to ignore what a code of ethics says.

Secondly, we are much more experienced in using our own personal values than using anyone else’s values. And that experience is vital, for it makes us more likely to actually put them to use.

Thirdly, they are much more accessible and understandable at short notice, for use in those tricky ethical situations. We don’t have to read up on some long list of obligations to understand our personal values, for they have been part of who we are for a long time.

And fourthly, that personal dimension means that we’re going to be much more motivated to put them to use, and that motivation is often the deciding factor between thinking of doing something, and actually doing that something.

Now, what you’ve almost certainly got on the tip of your tongue at this stage, is the question about what exactly your personal values are. They’re not something we tend to nail down and have printed onto a nice reminder card. And they’re probably not something we can be sure we could recite at the drop of a hat. They’re often too nebulous for that, but they are something we recognise when someone asks us if something is important to us.

I’m going to suggest that in your early steps in ethical decision making, that you focus on three very common values, three values that virtually all of us share, even if we may not use exactly the same label for each of them. And those three personal values are honesty, fairness and respect.

In this way, the decision we’re about to make will be grounded in the expectations we have of ourselves, rather than the expectations others have placed upon us. It will involve values that we will have used before, certainly in our personal lives and likely at some point in our working lives as well.