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Making Ethical Decisions

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

A few weeks ago, I went into a bookstore to look around and possibly buy some books to read during my work-from-home stint. I stumbled across The Power of Ethics by Susan Liautuad (Simon & Shuster, New York, NY, 2021) and could not resist buying it: it may provide some additional material for my mediation ethics course.

Ms. Liautuad is a professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California who teaches cutting-edge ethics courses, including one entitled “Ethics of Truth in a Post-Truth World”. Her focus is ethics in the age of technology and “alternative facts” or as she calls it, “compromised truths.” (Id. at 151-169).

Despite the complexity of the issues with which she deals, Ms. Liautaud’s formula for making an ethical decision is quite simple. She breaks it down into four (4) questions:

  1. What are my guiding principles?
  2. Do I have the information I need to make this decision?
  3. Who or what stakeholders matter to my decision?
  4. What are the potential consequences of my decision in the short, medium, and long term? (Id. at 24-35.)

In terms of principles, Ms. Liautuad lists many to choose from including honesty, integrity, kindness, compassion, loyalty, empathy, authenticity, respect, curiosity, responsibility, accountability, humility, family, autonomy, care, fairness, freedom, discipline, justice, perseverance, intelligence, adaptability, inclusion, hard-working, effort, joy, generosity, humanity, self-resilience, wisdom, challenge, equality, learning, happiness, efficiency, competency, gratitude, consistency, reliability, openness, community, friendship, altruism, conviction, drive, education, individuality, persistence, achievement, good intent, be charitable, equity, knowledge, open-mindedness, adventurous, and independence. (Id. at 27.)

So- the first decision to make is which five to eight principles (or two principles if you are making a quick decision) are the most important. (Id. at 26, 172).

Next, determine if you have all of the information you need and if there are any gaps in the information. To figure this out, you may need to “ask questions, listen, observe, examine, verify the influences on your decisions, and then repeat the process often to correct course when information changes.” (Id. at 28.)

Ms. Liautaud points that that it is imperative that we do not ignore information that we have. “[W]e do so at our own peril and other’s peril” (Id. at 29.)

The next question is often overlooked or given short shrift: who are the stakeholders? Not just the immediate ones but all others. “We are never the only stakeholders in our decisions. They affect many people and things – some of which we are not aware at the time of the decision and may never know about.” (Id. at 31, emphasis original.) An example given later in the book is whether to get a measles vaccine. This decision does not only impact the person who is deciding whether to get it; it affects the rest of her immediate family, her relatives, and anyone with whom she could come into contact. They may contract it from her. This includes her schoolmates and the teaching/administrative staff, health care workers who may have to take care of her, and a whole host of others. (Id at 180-183.)

And the last question is not so cut and dried either: what are the potential consequences in the short, medium, and long term? Again, using the vaccine example, the immediate effect is that the person will not suffer any side effects from getting vaccinated. But the medium- and long-term consequences are different; she may get the measles and/or infect many others with measles. Ultimately, while it is rare, she or others, may die from the measles. Or she or others may contract other complications such as ear and eye infections, pneumonia, and encephalitis. (Id. at 180-181.)

So, while the framework for making ethical decisions seems simple, reaching the “proper” conclusion is far from easy. And as the author points out, ethics is not always a binary – yes/no –decision. There is a lot of “shades of gray.” (Id. at 12.)

… Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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