A Framework for Moral Decision Making
Developed by Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre,
Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer
Moral issues greet us each morning in the newspaper, confront
us in the memos on our desks, nag us from our children's soccer
fields, and bid us good night on the evening news. We are bombarded
daily with questions about the justice of our foreign policy,
the morality of medical technologies that can prolong our lives,
the rights of the homeless, the fairness of our children's teachers
to the diverse students in their classrooms.
Dealing with these moral issues is often perplexing. How,
exactly, should we think through an ethical issue? What questions
should we ask? What factors should we consider?
The first step in analyzing moral issues is obvious but not
always easy: Get the facts. Some moral issues create controversies
simply because we do not bother to check the facts. This first
step, although obvious, is also among the most important and
the most frequently overlooked.
But having the facts is not enough. Facts by themselves only
tell us what is; they do not tell us what ought
to be. In addition to getting the facts, resolving an ethical
issue also requires an appeal to values. Philosophers have developed
five different approaches to values to deal with moral issues.
The Utilitarian Approach
Utilitarianism was conceived in the 19th century by Jeremy Bentham
and John Stuart Mill to help legislators determine which laws
were morally best. Both Bentham and Mill suggested that ethical
actions are those that provide the greatest balance of good
To analyze an issue using the utilitarian approach, we first
identify the various courses of action available to us. Second,
we ask who will be affected by each action and what benefits
or harms will be derived from each. And third, we choose the
action that will produce the greatest benefits and the least
harm. The ethical action is the one that provides the greatest
good for the greatest number.
The Rights Approach
The second important approach to ethics has its roots in the
philosophy of the 18th-century thinker Immanuel Kant and others
like him, who focused on the individual's right to choose for
herself or himself. According to these philosophers, what makes
human beings different from mere things is that people have
dignity based on their ability to choose freely what they will
do with their lives, and they have a fundamental moral right
to have these choices respected. People are not objects to be
manipulated; it is a violation of human dignity to use people
in ways they do not freely choose.
Of course, many different, but related, rights exist besides
this basic one. These other rights (an incomplete list below)
can be thought of as different aspects of the basic right to
be treated as we choose.
The right to the truth: We have a right to be told the
truth and to be informed about matters that significantly
affect our choices.
The right of privacy: We have the right to do, believe,
and say whatever we choose in our personal lives so long
as we do not violate the rights of others.
The right not to be injured: We have the right not to be
harmed or injured unless we freely and knowingly do something
to deserve punishment or we freely and knowingly choose
to risk such injuries.
The right to what is agreed: We have a right to what has
been promised by those with whom we have freely entered
into a contract or agreement.
In deciding whether an action is moral or immoral using this
second approach, then, we must ask, Does the action respect
the moral rights of everyone? Actions are wrong to the extent
that they violate the rights of individuals; the more serious
the violation, the more wrongful the action.
The Fairness or Justice Approach
The fairness or justice approach to ethics has its roots in
the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who
said that "equals should be treated equally and unequals unequally."
The basic moral question in this approach is: How fair is an
action? Does it treat everyone in the same way, or does it show
favoritism and discrimination?
Favoritism gives benefits to some people without a justifiable
reason for singling them out; discrimination imposes burdens
on people who are no different from those on whom burdens are
not imposed. Both favoritism and discrimination are unjust and
The Common-Good Approach
This approach to ethics assumes a society comprising individuals
whose own good is inextricably linked to the good of the community.
Community members are bound by the pursuit of common values
The common good is a notion that originated more than 2,000
years ago in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. More
recently, contemporary ethicist John Rawls defined the common
good as "certain general conditions that are...equally to everyone's
In this approach, we focus on ensuring that the social policies,
social systems, institutions, and environments on which we depend
are beneficial to all. Examples of goods common to all include
affordable health care, effective public safety, peace among
nations, a just legal system, and an unpolluted environment.
Appeals to the common good urge us to view ourselves as members
of the same community, reflecting on broad questions concerning
the kind of society we want to become and how we are to achieve
that society. While respecting and valuing the freedom of individuals
to pursue their own goals, the common-good approach challenges
us also to recognize and further those goals we share in common.
The Virtue Approach
The virtue approach to ethics assumes that there are certain
ideals toward which we should strive, which provide for the
full development of our humanity. These ideals are discovered
through thoughtful reflection on what kind of people we have
the potential to become.
Virtues are attitudes or character traits that enable us to
be and to act in ways that develop our highest potential. They
enable us to pursue the ideals we have adopted. Honesty, courage,
compassion, generosity, fidelity, integrity, fairness, self-control,
and prudence are all examples of virtues.
Virtues are like habits; that is, once acquired, they become
characteristic of a person. Moreover, a person who has developed
virtues will be naturally disposed to act in ways consistent
with moral principles. The virtuous person is the ethical person.
In dealing with an ethical problem using the virtue approach,
we might ask, What kind of person should I be? What will promote
the development of character within myself and my community?
Ethical Problem Solving
These five approaches suggest that once we have ascertained
the facts, we should ask ourselves five questions when trying
to resolve a moral issue:
What benefits and what harms will each course of action
produce, and which alternative will lead to the best overall
What moral rights do the affected parties have, and which
course of action best respects those rights?
Which course of action treats everyone the same, except
where there is a morally justifiable reason not to, and
does not show favoritism or discrimination?
Which course of action advances the common good?
Which course of action develops moral virtues?
This method, of course, does not provide an automatic solution
to moral problems. It is not meant to. The method is merely
meant to help identify most of the important ethical considerations.
In the end, we must deliberate on moral issues for ourselves,
keeping a careful eye on both the facts and on the ethical considerations
This article updates several previous pieces from Issues
in Ethics by Manuel Velasquez - Dirksen Professor of Business
Ethics at Santa Clara University and former Center director
- and Claire Andre, associate Center director. "Thinking Ethically"
is based on a framework developed by the authors in collaboration
with Center Director Thomas Shanks, S.J., Presidential Professor
of Ethics and the Common Good Michael J. Meyer, and others.
The framework is used as the basis for many programs and presentations
at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.