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Ethics in Public Service – Part 3 !!!

  1. Ethical Decision Making
  2. Making a Decision
  3. Guidelines for Ethical Decision Making
  4. Existentialism
  5. Determinism
  6. Intentionalism
  7. The Logic of Ethics
  8. Good versus Bad Arguments
  9. Deductive versus Inductive Arguments
  10. Truth versus Validity
  11. Sound versus Unsound Arguments
  12. Evaluating the Result of Decisions
  13. Conclusion

Not all choices that one makes are ethical ones. For instance, the choice of “2” or “3” in deciding the correct answer to the problem of “what is 1 + 1?” is not at all an ethical one. Nor is deciding the answer to: “How far away is the earth from the sun?”

A great many decisions are made as a result of testing through a logical, methodological system, such as mathematics and science. Other times, math and science are of no use in the decision-making process and one must delve deeper in order to come up with the “right” solution to the problem at hand.

 “In order to make ethical decisions, it is important to ask the correct questions, to focus on the main issues, to balance determination with compromise, to debate possibilities, and to make the decision that stems from the recommended steps”.

There, however, are additional factors that may serve as an impetus for ethical decision making. These factors may include, but are not limited to, family, friends, religion, community, culture, and law. It is these factors, combined with personal bias, which impact an individual’s concept of right and wrong, and, thus, impact ethical decision making.


Moral questions rarely have clear answers, which is why ethics is a difficult topic to discuss. There are usually more questions than answers in ethical decision making. Though there are various guidelines for conduct, people can rely on some basic formulas or rules for the majority of ethical decisions. The guiding formula for moral judgment as presented consists of the following steps:

• First, select the moral principle that best defines the problem in question. Is it a matter of honesty, fairness, equity, or loyalty?

• Second, justify the situation by examining whether it conforms to the selected principle. If not, what accentuation or mitigating factors could make it more or less fitting with the principle?

• Next, if the situation fits the principle exactly, the judgment should be made in exact accordance with the principle.

• Finally, if the situation does not fit the principle exactly, judgment should be made by determining a high or low likelihood that the situation will fit the principle.

1. When attempting to make a decision, analyzing the issue is the best place to begin.

2. The next step is to consider the facts involved. For instance, one should ask what is beneficial? What is necessary?

3. At this point, it is helpful to consider perspectives that others might hold regarding the issue at hand. If time and place allows for it, it is suggested that opening the issue or decision up for debate might help. Asking questions of others and receiving feedback from those outside of the decision process may aid an individual discover novel solutions or enable unique perspectives to present themselves. It is not uncommon for decisions to be made without adequate time to stop, ask for input, analyze the information, and think about the repercussions of the decision. It is in these situations that individuals should rely on their personal character as a guide for the decision-making process.

After the initial process, there may be multiple decisions that may emerge. Each decision-making scenario, which an individual is confronted with, is unique and, thus, requires a thorough look at the options that present themselves.

1. At this point, an individual would be wise to weigh the pros and the cons of each potential decision outcome.

2. What are the values of each action compared with the consequences that may occur from each option presented?

3. The application of situational ethics may assist an individual in rationalizing decisions or actions and, thus, assist in the decision-making process. However, the application of situational ethics may create a double standard or a subjective decision with relation to ethical principles because each person is unique and what may work for one individual or group in one situation, may not work for another in another situation.

Although not all-encompassing or correct in all situations, the above outline represents an example of a decision-making process. It serves as a guideline rather than as a standard operating procedure for the decision-making processes.

Typically, when ethical decisions are made in routine situations, they are simple because there is consistency of choice most often based on established rules and regulations. While each situation is unique, particularly unusual situations often pose more difficult to an individual because of conflicting views of religion, values associated with culture, or variations in law that are foreign to the individual.

There are many guidelines for ethical decision making, as evidenced by the earlier stated guideline. Using such a guideline is useful to an individual in organizing one’s thoughts and in assessing moral thinking. In Ethics of Human Communication, Rushworth Kidder discusses various levels of moral thinking. While these guidelines originate from ethical decisions regarding journalism, they can be useful when applied to decisions made within the public service sector.

According to Kidder , the four levels of moral thinking which occur are

1. Ideal decision making, or what is absolutely right or wrong.

2. Practical decision making, or following common rules, such as: “Do not tell lies.”

3. Reflective decision making, or the exceptions to given rules.

4. Political decision making, or making decisions for the good of the larger community.

In the end, ethical decision making and ethical judgment is ultimately a result of choices that should be freely made. Although the decision-making process may oftentimes result in there being more questions than there are answers, the recognition that there are various ethical perspectives, and varying levels of moral thinking. The utilization of the aforementioned decision-making strategies can often make the process much more manageable.

Existentialism is a relatively recent concept that has an emphasis on an individual’s freedom to make decisions free of influence from others. This is often referred to as free will. If we are to discuss the concept of free will, it is necessary to discuss the supporting concepts of determinism and intentionalism.

Determinism is a term that applies to the premise that all occurrences, thoughts, and actions are beyond the control of an individual. This concept can often cast doubt on the validity or usefulness of individual choice, and may reveal itself in a personal expression or attitude, typically appearing in such remarks as, “It wasn’t in the cards,” “I was destined to fail,” or “It was fate that. …” A more in-depth concept, known as scientific determinism, deals with an individual’s actions, character, and decisions as results associated with genetics or one’s surroundings.

More specifically, this concept is grounded in the following:

An individual’s genetic make-up (specific genes and chromosomes) affects one’s physiological make-up, which directly impacts one’s decision making.

• An individual is a product of his environment. More specifically, climate and geography play a part and may directly influence personality and disposition, which will impact decision making.

• The society in which an individual lives and the cultures present within the society provide the individual with traditions, values, and foundational information that influence one’s actions.

• An individual’s education and experience provide for a personal knowledge base from which the decision process can be made.

Intentionalism is a term given to the premise that individuals have free will and, thus, are accountable for their actions and the results of their decisions. More specifically:

1. External pressures on individuals are viewed as influences upon them rather than as preexisting determinants. When an individual assesses his or her surroundings and becomes aware of these external pressures, their impact on the decision-making process is considerably reduced.

2. Each individual possesses logic, therefore, it is possible to make use of logical reasoning to assist with ethical decision making. Based on the above concepts, is persuasion then considered to be unethical? Determinism would state that “yes, persuasion is unethical because it can manipulate a person’s decision”. Whereas, intentionalism would state that “no, persuasion is not unethical because people are accountable for their decisions”.

Logic is a basic tool in the study of ethics and, as such, it is important to mention some techniques relating to logical evaluation with regards to moral decision making. From a logical standpoint, a decision is a good moral one when its “premises” (evidence/reasons) support it, and a decision is a bad moral one when its premises lack support. Therefore, when one attempts to make a moral decision and evaluate the decision options, he or she must attempt to answer three questions:

1. What is the argument attempting to prove? Or, more specifically, what is the “conclusion” (Sentence that an argument claims to prove. This is sometimes referred to as a decision)?

2. What are the “premises”? (Any sentence that an argument offers as proof or evidence of the conclusion.)

3. Is the conclusion supported by the premises?

a. If the premises are not all true, then the conclusion is not adequately supported.

b. If the premises are not all relevant to the question at hand nor enough to prove the conclusion, then the conclusion is not adequately supported.

After one assesses the premises laid out before him and attempts to ascertain whether or not he supports the stated conclusions, he can begin to decide if he has a foundation for a good or a bad argument.

An “argument” is made up of any of a number of sentences that claim to prove one another. Therefore, an argument is a good argument if “the premises are true, the premises are relevant to the conclusion, and no premise simply restates the conclusion”. 

And an argument is bad when “a premise is false, a premise is irrelevant to the conclusion, or a premise simply restates the conclusion”.

Arguments can be further characterized as being either deductive or inductive arguments. Those arguments that claim certainty are referred to as being “deductive.” These arguments claim that because the stated premises are true, then the conclusion is certainly true.

Whereas, arguments claiming probability are referred to as being “inductive.” These arguments claim that because the stated premises are true, then the conclusion is probably true. Most inductive arguments have their foundation in past observations or experiences.

It is important to understand the distinction between deductive and inductive arguments when one is faced with evaluating moral decision making, as each of these has a different kind of evaluation that is attached to them. Deductive arguments have conclusions that are either certain or uncertain.

Therefore, when the given premises do not prove a conclusion certain, even if highly probable, the argument fails. Whereas, inductive arguments are often more difficult to evaluate because concepts of probability vary between individuals. What one individual considers probable, another individual may consider improbable.

It is also important to differentiate between true and false, and valid versus invalid where decision making is concerned. As has already been discussed, arguments are sets of sentences, and these sets of sentences can either make up a good or a bad argument. A good argument is considered to be “valid,” or more specifically, an argument is valid “if the premises are true and, thus, the conclusion must certainly be true (in a deductive argument) or as probable as the argument claims (in an inductive argument)” .

A bad argument, on the other hand, is considered to be “invalid,” or more specifically, “even if the premises were true, that would not demonstrate the truth or probability of the conclusion”. Individual sentences, on the other hand, do not make up an entire argument, but instead are concerned with stating either a premise or a conclusion. These individual sentences can be found to be either true or false.

There is a final level of evaluation that bares mentioning and that pertains to the soundness of valid arguments. Valid arguments are classified as being either “sound” or “unsound.” A sound argument is one where all stated premises are true. An unsound argument is one that contains at least one premise that is false.

Upon reaching a decision, it is logical for an individual to evaluate the results of the decision. While this would have been hypothesized earlier in the decision- making process, now that the decision has been made, the real-time effects and results can be evaluated. Based on the information provided at the time of the decision, was the right choice made?

If presented with the same options in the future, how would the decision change? It is here that the dilemmas of actions and consequences begin to show themselves. When actions occur, there are certain patterns that begin to emerge.


Due to variations in personal ethics, bias, and external influences, individuals do not always reach the same conclusions; however, this does not necessarily mean that the other individual is wrong. A particular situation may not have one “right” answer; however, it may have many “wrong” answers. Therefore, it is necessary that individuals use their best judgment (based on personal ethics) and common sense when attempting to reach the “best” conclusion.

It is important for one to understand the decision-making process if one is to evaluate whether or not a decision is an ethical or unethical one. Given the kind of power a civil servant wields, it is not only desired but is essential that the decision taken are in tune with the ethical principles of the organization and society at large.

August 28, 2017

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