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Ethical decision making

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When should I put the needs of my client above the needs of my organisation. In a world of scarce resources and growing management control making such ethical decisions can be difficult. Moral issues can become obscured in a world of economic, professional and social pressures. Often we don’t know or understand crucial facts and yet must evaluate competing moral claims and be able to predict the likely consequences of choices.

Ethical decision making requires more than a belief in the importance of ethics. It also requires ethical sensitivity to the consequence of choices, the ability to evaluate complex, ambiguous and incomplete facts, and the skill to implement ethical decisions effectively.

What Is Ethics?

Ethics refers to principles that marks behavior as right, good and appropriate. Such principles do not always suggest a single, "moral" course of action, but provide a means of weighing and judging among competing options.

The terms "ethics" and "values" are not interchangeable. Ethics is concerned with how a moral person should behave, whereas values are the inner judgments that determine what a person actually does. Values concern ethics when they involve beliefs about what is right and wrong. Most values, however, have nothing to do with ethics. For instance, the desire for social approval and professional influence are values, but not ethical values.

The importance of universality

Most people have ideas about right and wrong based on, cultural mores, family background, personal experiences, laws, organizational norms, professional standards, political thinking and religious beliefs. These are not the best values on which to base ethical decisions — not because they are unimportant, but because they are not universal values.

In contrast with ethical values — eg respect, responsibility, fairness and caring — personal and professional beliefs vary over time. There is nothing wrong with having strong personal and professional moral convictions ,but they need to be set in context by reference to universal values. For example the value of respect for others sets limits on your right to impose your values on others.

When values conflict

Our values are what we prize and our values system is the order in which we prize them. Because they rank our likes and dislikes, our values determine how we will behave in certain situations. Yet values often conflict. For example, the desire for personal independence may run counter to our desire for intimacy. Our desire to be honest may clash with the desire to be rich, prestigious or kind to others. In such cases, we resort to our values system. The values we consistently rank higher than others are our core values, which define character and personality.

From Values to Principles

We translate values into principles so they can guide and motivate ethical conduct. Ethical principles are the rules of conduct that derive from ethical values. For example, honesty is a value that governs behavior in the form of principles such as: tell the truth, don’t deceive, be candid, don’t cheat. In this way, values give rise to principles in the form of specific "dos" and "don’ts."

Ethics and Action

Ethics is about putting principles into action. Consistency between what we say we value and what our actions say we value is a matter of integrity.

It is also about self-restraint:

Not doing what you have the power to do. An act isn’t proper simply because it is permissible or you can get away with it.

Not doing what you have the right to do. There is a big difference between what you have the right to do and what is right to do.

Not doing what you want to do. In the well-worn turn of phrase, an ethical person often chooses to do more than the law requires and less than the law allows.

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