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Ethical Decisions: Navigating Tough Choices with Confidence

Follow our guide to ethical decisions to become a more well-informed, well-intentioned leader.

Should an app be able to collect information on users without their knowledge and consent? Do companies need to admit when they've been hacked? These and many other scenarios are examples of ethical issues in modern business, and their answers are rarely as clear cut as you might think. 

Santa Clara University has been studying ethics since our founding in 1851; so much so, in fact, that we have an entire research center dedicated to the cause: The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. The Markkula Center brings the traditions of ethical thinking to real-world problems to make choices that respect and care for others. To bring that research and those practiced methods to the public, we created the Framework for Ethical Decision Making, a free, easy-to-use guide for using ethics in important life choices.

Before you start using the Framework, we recommend reading this blog to get a better understanding of ethics and the ethical decision making process as a whole, as well some of the critical questions and potential tactics that the Framework suggests. 

Understanding Ethics

Ethics, by definition, is a system of moral principles or a “personal code of conduct”.1 It refers to well-founded standards that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues. Ethics, for example, refers to the reasonable obligations to avoid rape, stealing, murder, assault, slander, and fraud. Such standards are adequate because they are supported by consistent and well-founded reasons.2

Secondly, ethics refers to the study and development of one's ethical standards. As you’ll read more about below, feelings, laws, and social norms can deviate from what is ethical, so you must constantly re-examine your standards from different perspectives. Thus, ethics also includes the continuous effort of introspection and striving to ensure that we, and the institutions we’re a part of, live up to standards that are reasonable and solidly-based.2

Building on this, ethical decision making is the process that you use to make choices when faced with a dilemma. After weighing the consequences of a decision against your ethical standards, you can move forward with what aligns with your values. Although your choices might deviate from societal norms, laws, or religious beliefs, there are certain guidelines and approaches for acting ethically that you can use to inform your thought processes. You can find more information on these approaches, or “lenses,” in the Framework for Ethical Decision Making. 

Factors That Can Influence Your Decisions

Here are some of the most common contributors to ethical decision making. 

Cultural and Societal Norms

People usually accept societal standards that are, in fact, ethical, but standards of behavior can quickly and easily deviate from what is ethical. An entire society can become ethically or morally corrupt, such as Nazi Germany or North American slave owners, and it can be hard (or even dangerous) to defy it. 

Moreover, if being ethical were doing "whatever society accepts," then to determine what is ethical, you would have to find out exactly what it is that society accepts. Even if you somehow were able to collect and distill that information, you would need to conform your beliefs to the popular opinion. That in itself could compromise your values or lead to you acting unethically, despite your work to avoid it. 

Personal Values and Beliefs

Your family, education, religious beliefs, and upbringing have a significant impact on your values. However, the personal and emotional (and thus biased) nature of this approach causes many people to act in ways that might actually be unethical. Additionally, if ethics were confined to religion, then ethics would apply only to religious people, which is untrue. 

Policies and Laws

A good policy or law does incorporate many ethical standards, but like many other things, it can still deviate from what is ethical. For example, law can become corrupt when it is a function of power alone or is designed to only serve the interests of specific groups. Because of its procedures and stakeholders, law may also have a difficult time designing or enforcing standards and may be slow to address new problems.

Examples of Ethical Dilemmas 

Whether it’s in your personal or professional life, there are some situations you will encounter that present a particularly difficult ethical issue. Some examples of those are: 

  • Situations where there is no clear "right" or "wrong" answer
  • High-stress or time-sensitive situations that require quick decision making
  • Dealing with ethical conflicts of interest

Techniques for Decision Making

When you find yourself stuck in a situation with ethical implications, don’t be alarmed. We recommend using the full Ethical Decision Making Framework to guide your decisions, but here are some quick and easy techniques to inform your approach.

  1. Gather relevant information
  2. Weigh the potential consequences of different actions
  3. Consider the interests of multiple stakeholders
  4. Seek guidance from colleagues or external resources
  5. Choose an option and commit to it
  6. Engage in ethical reasoning and reflection

Learn to Lead With Your Ethics

If you’re eager to learn more about ethics in business, download our free Ebook “Lead With Your Ethics: A Framework for Ethical Decision Making in Business.” Ethics is ingrained in the curriculum at Santa Clara University, and we’re proud to help professionals like you learn the essential skills to become confident, principled leaders. 




  1. Retrieved on January 9, 2023, from 
  2. Retrieved on January 9, 2023, from 


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