How do we analyze the rightness or wrongness in a situation? In his book, Working Ethics, Marvin Brown offers four questions of ethical reflection. Whenever you find yourself in an ambiguous situation, use these questions to help you get clear.
1. What should I do?
All practical considerations aside, what should you and your company do if you evaluate strictly on the ethics of the situation? For example, your best customer is threatening to walk unless you give him a discount and promise not to tell any of your other customers you have done so. If the customer weren’t an important account, would you give in to this blackmail? Look to the policies of the company for guidance. (Hopefully, your company has a clear mission statement and list of values for you to use.)
2. What do I know?
Based upon your observations, what do you know about this situation? Often what may seem to be a morally ambiguous situation is simply a misunderstanding or a projection of someone else’s fears and desires. You want to separate the truth from rumor, conjecture, wishful thinking—everything that might be biased or false. For example, someone tells you that your best friend Mary is dating a co-worker, violating the company policy on personal relationships at work. Mary’s never said anything to you, nor has her behavior toward this co-worker changed one bit, as far as you’ve seen. The first thing you must do is to ascertain the truth by asking Mary about the relationship (preferably, while you’re both away from the office).
3. What does it mean?
Behavior by itself is just behavior; it means nothing unless we put a value judgment on it based on our own personal values. Mary may indeed be dating her co-worker. Say you ask her about it, and she tells you they met at a church function, outside the work context. They’re both careful not to bring the relationship to the office, she says, but neither of them can afford to change jobs right now. What does the behavior mean, according to your values? I would suggest that before you judge the behavior, you ask yourself, “Is this judgment humane?” You might also want to remember the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated.
4. Why do I believe it means that?
What’s the basic assumption underlying your judgment? And is that assumption responsive or appropriate to this particular situation? You may believe that Mary is lying to the company by concealing her relationship, and feel strongly that lying in any context is wrong. But underlying the entire conversation is your assumption that Mary’s lying is any of your business. As a friend, you can advise her to either break it off or find another job. But unless you’re Mary’s boss (or her boyfriend’s boss), it probably isn’t appropriate for you to take any action.
As you can see, these four questions of ethical reflection can come in handy when you’re faced with situations where “right” and “wrong” are a little unclear, or where there are many different courses of action open to you. Use these questions to help clarify your own thoughts and feelings, and to make sure that your ultimate actions will be in alignment with your true values.