• "Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man": Making Ethical Decisions

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    Opinions … everyone’s got a passionate one. We throw them around like fervent confetti because we are driven by our emotions, which are the perfect storm of circumstances. With the same intensity of a hot flash (which feels like you’ve been set ablaze from the inside out), nothing matters more than how you feel at that powerful moment. I tortured many shivering colleagues in meeting rooms over the years by blasting the air conditioning mid-winter — just to suit my own urgent sensitivity.

    The instant power of social media (the internet’s chaotic dumping ground for superfluous “information”) sparks similar emotional reactions to oversimplified words, pictures, and sounds that combine to provoke strong responses from our stimulated senses. And most often we act upon those feelings with quick “likes,” “shares,” and exaggerated emojis, or strike with inappropriate comments to knock people down before quickly moving on with our day.


    It’s so much easier to FEEL than to THINK.


    Decision-making requires a lot of thought, and frankly, who has time for that? I’m guilty of this shameful logic every day because I simply don’t want to “do the work” required to make a better choice. As a professor of writing, I have to read a lot of student work then give a grade: it’s a lot easier/faster to punch in numbers on a rubric rather than to explain all the errors and corrections. They don’t learn much from me ticking those boxes other than the amount of relevant failures, but it creates a manageable, quantitative score … and numbers don’t lie, right? They form the hard, clear evidence, while opinion only lends soft, opaque support that’s often debatable.

    Our modern public school system is obsessed with test scores to the point where students no longer receive evaluations based on anything else, probably for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned. But I think most us us have realized by now that in order to achieve a higher standard (not to mention a constructive learning environment), it takes a combination of quantitative and the much more difficult/time-consuming qualitative. Reaching an ethical outcome for any evaluation first requires deliberation. When more than one person is involved, it becomes a conversation. In my February column, I talked about collaboration and outlined Aristotle’s framework for constructive discussions:


    Framed around an understanding of Passion, Logic, and Ethics (pathos, logos, and ethos), a proper argumentative format follows the formula (P+L=E) — we start with a passion for a subject, follow up with research that forms logical ideas, then end with ethical conclusion and insight. Kairos (Greek for season/opportunity) is an often overlooked component to the equation … there is a time and a place for everything, and a little judgment goes a long way.


    This formula also works for making decisions, especially ethical ones … the murky gray space between obvious black and white where some people only see morality.


    Ethics is the discipline that examines one’s moral standards or the moral standards of a society. Ethics is the study of moral standards – the process of examining the moral standards of a person or society to determine whether these standards are reasonable or unreasonable in order to apply them to concrete situations and issues. The ultimate aim of ethics is to develop a body of moral standards that we feel are reasonable to hold —standards that we have thought about carefully and have decided are justified standards for us to accept and apply to the choices that fill our lives.


    It is also helpful to identify what ethics is NOT:

    • Ethics is not the same as feelings. Feelings provide important information for our ethical choices. Some people have highly developed habits that make them feel bad when they do something wrong, but many people feel good even though they are doing something wrong. And often our feelings will tell us it is uncomfortable to do the right thing if it is hard.

    • Ethics is not religion. Many people are not religious, but ethics applies to everyone. Most religions do advocate high ethical standards but sometimes do not address all the types of problems we face.

    • Ethics is not following the law. A good system of law does incorporate many ethical standards, but law can deviate from what is ethical. Law can become ethically corrupt, as some totalitarian regimes have made it. Law can be a function of power alone and designed to serve the interests of narrow groups. Law may have a difficult time designing or enforcing standards in some important areas, and may be slow to address new problems.

    • Ethics is not following culturally accepted norms. Some cultures are quite ethical, but others become corrupt -or blind to certain ethical concerns (as the United States was to slavery before the Civil War). "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" is not a satisfactory ethical standard.

    • Ethics is not science. Social and natural science can provide important data to help us make better ethical choices. But science alone does not tell us what we ought to do. Science may provide an explanation for what humans are like. But ethics provides reasons for how humans ought to act. And just because something is scientifically or technologically possible, it may not be ethical to do it.

    So simply put, ethical decisions are for everyone, but they are not simple. There are four moral standards that should be considered first. For every choice, try analyzing it against the following:


    Making ethical choices also requires the ability to make distinctions between competing options.  

    Here are seven steps to help you make better decisions:

    1. Stop and think: This provides several benefits. It prevents rash decisions, prepares us for more thoughtful discernment, and can allow us to mobilize our discipline.

    2. Clarify goals: Before you choose, clarify your short-term and long-term aims. Determine which of your many wants and "don't wants" affected by the decision are the most important. The big danger is that decisions that fulfill immediate wants and needs can prevent the achievement of our more important life goals.

    3. Determine facts: Be sure you have adequate information to support an intelligent choice. To determine the facts, first resolve what you know, then what you need to know. Be prepared for additional information and to verify assumptions and other uncertain information. In addition:

      • Consider the reliability and credibility of the people providing the facts.

      • Consider the basis of the supposed facts. If the person giving you the information says he or she personally heard or saw something, evaluate that person in terms of honesty, accuracy, and memory.

    4. Develop options: Once you know what you want to achieve and have made your best judgment as to the relevant facts, make a list of actions you can take to accomplish your goals. If it's an especially important decision, talk to someone you trust so you can broaden your perspective and think of new choices. If you can think of only one or two choices, you're probably not thinking hard enough.

    5. Consider consequences: Filter your choices to determine if any of your options will violate any core ethical values, and then eliminate any unethical options. Identify who will be affected by the decision and how the decision is likely to affect them.

    6. Choose: Make a decision. If the choice is not immediately clear, try:

      • Talking to people whose judgment you respect.

      • Think of a person of strong character that you know or know of, and ask yourself what they would do in your situation.

      • If everyone found out about your decision, would you be proud and comfortable?

      • Follow the Golden Rule: treat others the way you want to be treated, and keep your promises.

    7. Monitor and modify: Ethical decision-makers monitor the effects of their choices. If they are not producing the intended results, or are causing additional unintended and undesirable results, they reassess the situation and make new decisions.

    If you made it to the end of this article, it shows that you are serious about making thoughtful decisions or would like to improve your skills. That’s great, because “caring” about the choices we make, in a context beyond ourselves, is the foundation for ethics. And even when we take careful steps to work our decisions through the process, we often forget about step #7 listed above: monitor and modify. According to Heraclitus (pre-Socratic Greek philosopher), change is the only certainty in life, so a decision or opinion we once had might not be valid anymore. It's important to re-assess our positions, evaluating them against current conditions.

    Many experts claim that we make roughly 35,000 decisions each day, both simple and complex. And often bad ones are made because our brains are overloaded, rushed and starved for energy. Therefore, we often choose short-term, urgent action rather than careful consideration. If you still haven't chosen a new year's resolution, or just want to shake off the long, cold winter with a renewal of purpose in the coming spring, why not make a commitment to making better decisions?

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