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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Introduction to “A Framework for Ethical Decision-Making”

Jonathan Kwan, Margaret McLean, Irina Raicu

The Markkula Center’s Ethical Decision-Making Framework is a tool designed to 1) help users see and identify a broader set of ethical issues than they would have without it, and 2) guide users through a process that includes both pre-decision and post-decision steps.

The goal of the Framework is to help people make better informed, more carefully considered decisions that will ultimately be more congruent with their own choices and values—decisions that they are less likely to regret later.

The Framework does not tell users what the right or most ethical thing to do is. While applying the Framework, the user is still the one who has to make a judgment call.

The Framework is therefore not an ethics algorithm; there is no such thing. The ethical analysis changes depending on a variety of factors including the types and numbers of stakeholders impacted by a decision, the relationships among stakeholders, the broader context in which the decision is embedded, the kinds of benefits and harms that flow from it, and the weight that one assigns to various ethical perspectives (rights, justice, common good, etc.).

The six ethical lenses briefly introduced in the Framework are very concise, broad-stroke descriptions of several ethical perspectives. The user is not asked to choose among them. Looking at a potential decision landscape through each of them in turn, a Framework user will see different ethical aspects highlighted. The lenses are therefore complementary in that they help Framework users see more of the ethical nuances of a situation. However, the lenses might also reveal ethical aspects that come into conflict with each other; when this happens, the balancing of those ethical considerations is up to the user.

The Framework is intended to be practical and accessible. For that reason, it does not go into depth on any of the ethical perspectives that it presents. However, the Markkula Center website includes complementary (and still concise) essays that expand the descriptions of each of the lenses. Of course, users interested in reading more about any of the ethical schools of thought can also find other much more extensive resources about them.

The Framework does not claim to include a full compendium of ethical perspectives spanning history and cultures. The tapestry of human thought about ethics is rich and varied. However, there are common threads that run through it, and the Framework focuses on those, again with the goal of serving as a useful aid that is relatively easy to apply.

The process described in the Framework is not linear; while it begins, for example, with the gathering of key facts and the identification of stakeholders, those steps might need to be repeated if the application of the ethical lenses reveals additional stakeholders and highlights the need for additional facts.

We have found that people who use the Framework repeatedly also build their ethical analysis “muscles”—developing habits of reasoning and response, and a growing comfort level with applying the lenses to challenging situations.


A Framework for Ethical Decision Making

Nov 8, 2021