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 Ethics: There’s an App For That!

Markkula Center unleashes new tool for life’s tough decisions.

Sometimes it’s not enough to let your conscience be your guide. In the throes of a complex ethical dilemma, for example, some practical direction and a smart phone in your pocket might prove handier.

A new app from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics offers users a step-by-step approach toward ethical decision making in the face of any quandary. The Center’s “Ethical Decision Making” app is available through the Apple iTunes app store and can be viewed online at

“It walks people through a series of questions with the facts of the situation and the stakeholders in mind,” explained Miriam Schulman, assistant director of the Center. She said the questions are general, based on five classic ethical approaches that consider if an action is fair and just; if it promotes virtue; if it promotes the common good; if it respects the rights of individuals; and if it produces the most good and the least harm.

Users choose a decision they think will best address their problem, and then evaluate the ethics of that decision by ranking their responses to the five questions. Along the way, the app presents supplemental information and guidance to help the user make a thoughtful evaluation. “It’s not going to tell you ‘yes’ or ‘no’ at the end,” said Schulman. “The responses are weighed and a score is given; depending on that score, the user may wish to move forward with his decision or consider a different option.”

History of the Ethical App
The app’s five questions have been used to discuss ethical thinking by the Markkula Center since it was founded in 1986. Schulman says the framework can be found in different programs and settings.

“We didn’t make them up. These are classical approaches that have been around a long time, coming from Aristotle and other philosophers, traditional ethicists, the Bible,” she explained.

Today, the relevance and durability of these ethical guideposts is evident. Schulman said the Center website receives hundreds of hits from people all over who are interested in the framework and who wish to reprint and use the information that forms the basis of it. That’s one reason why Markkula Center staff believes the app will appeal to a sizeable audience.

“We know people will find it handy and useful,” said Schulman. “I can’t envision any situation that it wouldn’t cover.” She noted that the app can work for anyone—from a businessman thinking about off-shoring part of his operation to a daughter grappling with the idea of putting her mother in a nursing home. “It’s versatile. The questions are the underpinning for any ethical situation; it doesn’t matter what field it’s in.”

The Markkula Center’s advisory board began discussing the idea for an app last summer. Soon after, Schulman and Irina Raicu, Internet ethics director, started work on the project. They were aided by Executive Director Kirk Hanson, who figured out how to translate the Center’s framework for the app software.

“Most university ethics centers are very small,” explained Schulman, “but SCU has made a big investment in the Markkula Center—we believe we’re the largest in the U.S. with a staff of 20—and we get a tremendous amount of support from the University and our donors.”

That vital assistance, she noted, has allowed the Center to become a leader in ethics education and communications. “We were on the Web very early and on social media sites as well,” she said. And as far as software applications go, “there’s not much out there, so I believe we’re at least one of the first to develop an app that helps people make ethical decisions.”

Celebration of a Launch
A party celebrating the app launch will take place April 15, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics in the Arts & Sciences Building on the Santa Clara University campus. The SCU community is invited for refreshments and a demo of “Ethical Decision Making.”

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