Framework for Ethical Decision Making

In 2014, the Ethical Advocate blog featured a story about the Santa Clara University Markkula Center’s “ethical decision-making” app, and more recently discussed other social networking tools and apps that can boost ethics and compliance awareness.

Santa Clara University’s app turned three years old on April 15, 2017, celebrating over a million views (Ethics App, 2017). The app, called Making an Ethical Decision, is made available to anyone who wants to download it to a smartphone or tablet. The app prompts users to consider whether they have sufficient facts about an ethics issue to make a decision and if they do, to choose the best action to take in the circumstances. Considerations include:

  • identifying the people who have a stake in the decision,
  • considering options through five different ethical perspectives,
  • weighing different approaches, and
  • scoring different potential decisions.

The five ethical perspectives (second bullet, above), are based on the Markkula Center’s “framework for ethical decision making,” found at the web page of the same name.

Recognize an ethical issue

  1. Could this decision or situation be damaging to someone or to some group? Does this decision involve a choice between a good and bad alternative, or perhaps between two “goods” or between two “bads”?
  2. Is this issue about more than what is legal or what is most efficient? If so, how?

Get the facts

  1. What are the relevant facts of the case? What facts are not known? Can I learn more about the situation? Do I know enough to make a decision?
  2. What individuals and groups have an important stake in the outcome? Are some concerns more important? Why?
  3. What are the options for acting? Have all the relevant persons and groups been consulted? Have I identified creative options?

Evaluate alternative actions

  1. Evaluate the options by asking the following questions:
  • Which option will produce the most good and do the least harm? (The Utilitarian Approach)
  • Which option best respects the rights of all who have a stake? (The Rights Approach)
  • Which option treats people equally or proportionately? (The Justice Approach)
  • Which option best serves the community as a whole, not just some members?
    (The Common Good Approach)
  • Which option leads me to act as the sort of person I want to be? (The Virtue Approach)

Make a decision and test it

  1. Considering all these approaches, which option best addresses the situation?
  2. If I told someone I respect-or told a television audience-which option I have chosen, what would they say?

Act and reflect on the outcome

  1. How can my decision be implemented with the greatest care and attention to the concerns of all stakeholders?
  2. How did my decision turn out and what have I learned from this specific situation?

Apps like this one don’t provide “the answer” to any given situation, but they certainly can be used to enhance training and engage all staff in thinking through the consequences of any decision.

Ethical Advocate has been providing ethics hotline, compliance, and training services for over a decade. We invite you to contact us for more information.


“Ethics App 3 Year Anniversary.” News Release, Santa Clara University Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, March 28, 2017.

Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. “A Framework for Ethical Decision Making” (web page).