Markkula Center for Applied Ethics - Better Choices

All About Ethics Blog

Framework for Ethical Thinking

Framework for Ethical Thinking

How to Make More Ethical Decisions

Tips for Better Ethical Decision Making

No matter what profession you’re in, we can usually predict the kind of ethical issues you will face.  We call these, “Unavoidable Ethical Dilemmas.”  If you’re an entrepreneur, chances are that at some point you will be confronted with the question, “Who owns the idea?” If you’re a public official, you will need to ask yourself, “Am I favoring my friends, family, or contributors over my other constituents?”  In the social sector, you may well have to decide whether the ends justify the means when your mission is worthy but the way someone is proposing to get there is questionable.

At the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, we find that thinking through these potential dilemmas before actually having to make a decision is an invaluable exercise.  We offer lists of unavoidable dilemmas for journalists, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, and other professionals. 

In thinking through these scenarios, we recommend five clear steps:

  • Recognize an ethical issue: Could this decision be damaging to someone? Does it involve a choice between good and bad alternatives?
  • Get the Facts: What do I know, and how can I learn more? What individuals and groups have a stake in the outcome?  Have I consulted the relevant people?  What are my options?
  • Evaluate alternative actions: Which option will produce the most good and do the least harm? Which option best respects the rights of all who have a stake?  Which option treats people equally or proportionately?  Which option best serves the community as a whole? Which option leads me to act as the sort of person I want to be?
  • Make a decision and test it: Considering these approaches, which option best addresses the situation?
  • Act and reflect on the outcome? How can my decision be implemented with the greatest care?  How did it turn out and what have I learned?

The Ethics Center assists individuals and organizations in making decisions using this Framework.  We have applied it successfully with professionals from doctors to reporters, from businesspeople to technologists.  The Framework is also woven into the Center’s Standards for Excellence program for professionals in the social sector.  Through it, we work through issues for nonprofits and foundations regarding mission, strategy, and evaluation; leadership; compliance; finance and operations; resource development; and public awareness, engagement, and advocacy.

On January 19 and February 9, the Center will offer a clinic on the Standards for Excellence. Find more information here


Standards for Excellence, ethics, social sector, nonprofits, blog

Subscribe to All About Ethics

* indicates required