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Framework for Moral Reasoning

This expanded version of the seven-step format for ethical decision-making is one way to break down the components of a case.

I. Sorting Out Ethical Issues

A. Types of issues

1) Issues for Individuals

  • The young engineer, her supervisor
  • Others in the work group
  • An individual's conflict of interest
  • Problem keeping a promise to a colleague.

2) Professional Ethical Issues

  • Professional Standards that apply
  • A professional act or task governed by standards, e.g. writing a report, keeping lab notebook

3) Institutional Issues

  • Relate to organizational structure, practices and climate
  • How they bear on whether individuals behave responsibly, eg. barriers between departments of a company, policies about individual dissent.

4) Social Policy Issues

  • Eg. Challenger accident. Mission of NASA, funding of program might be relevant. (1)
  • Whether there ought to be regulations

B. Identifying Ethical Issues

1) What is the problem?

  • Someone /more than one person is bothered. What's troubling him/her.

2) What makes it an ethical problem?

  • Violations of a moral code are at stake.
  • There is a threat of harm that may be unjustifiable.
  • Code provision is violated

3) Who is affected?

  • Important because we have to know whose interests must be taken into account.
  • Helps to get a clearer idea about the ethical problem.
  • Eg. Once we identify persons or constituency who may be injured, we may bet a better grip on the ethical issue.

4) Is the situation legal?

  • Might a violation of law be involved?
  • Eg. Legal requirement for asking consent of next of kin for a certain medical procedure.

5) Are professional standards or codes at issue?

  • Breach of Confidentiality
  • Engineers entrusted with proprietary
  • Law with clients confidences
  • Medicine with patient's records.

6) Is there a violation of an organizational policy or code?

  • General Electric's stated policy that prohibits price fixing

7) Having surveyed 1-6, what's at stake?

8) Does it now seem that we can describe the ethical problem in various ways?

  • Usually alternate descriptions of the actors, the situation or action in question.
  • Rationalizations exploit that different descriptions of action, situation, agent, allow different formulations of ethical problems.

9) Wrestling with the issue of alternative descriptions, considering thoroughly who are affected parties may show that there is more then one problem, or that different people in the situation have their distinctive ethical problems.

II. Agreed Upon Standards

For assessing a situation, options for action, deciding what in the end to do.

You need and there are standards.

Rules of morality - even wide agreement on justified violations, eg. killing in self-defense
How to interpret - agreeing on how to interpret rules in situations may produce disagreements.
There are justifiable exceptions with reasons for exception agreed upon.
Is this such a situation?

eg. DC-10 Airplane crashes: questions of breaking a contractual promise, a memo detailing major design flaws with cargo lock and latch would be transmitted to Federal Airline Administration by McDonald Douglas, not the subcontractor, Convair. (2)

Professional Codes

Engineers, physicians, lawyers, architects, chemists, physicists, not managers.
There may be a provision on point, students are often relieved to find relevant provisions.
Why do these provisions exist? Some previous experience in the professions led to adoption of the provision.

III. A Format for Ethical Decision Making in Seven Steps

1. State problem (e.g. "Do I have a conflict of interest? or even "This makes me uncomfortable").

2. Check facts (some problems disappear upon closer examination of the situation; others change radically).

3. Identify relevant factors

  • Who is affected by the decision? An individual, several individuals? An organization?
  • What are the consequences for the affected parties?
  • Do any laws, professional codes exist that should be considered?
  • Are their any practical considerations (under $200, in fifteen minutes, procedural constraints, etc.)

4. Develop list of at least five options (be imaginative, try to avoid "dilemma" -not "yes" or "no" but who to go to, what to say).

5. Test options, using such tests as the following:

  • Harm test - does this option do less harm than any alternative?
  • Publicity test - would I want my choice of this option published in the newspaper?
  • Defensibility test - could I defend my choice of this option before a Congressional committee, a committee of my peers, or my parents
  • Reversibility test - would I still think the choice of this option good if I were one of those adversely affected by it?
  • Virtue test - what would I become if I chose this option often?
  • Professional test - what might my profession's ethics committee say about this option?
  • Business test - what do my colleagues day when I describe my problem and suggest this option as my solution?
  • Organization test - what does the organization's ethics officer or legal counsel say about this option?

6. Make a tentative choice based on steps 1-5

7. Review steps 1-6: What could make it less likely you would have to make such a decision again?

  • What precautions can you take as an individual (announce policy on the question, change job, etc.)?
  • What can you do to have more support next time (e.g., seek future allies on this issue)?
  • What can you do to change the organization (e.g., suggest policy change at next departmental meeting)?


(1) For a brief synopsis of the case and a instructor guide, see “Engineering Ethics: The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster” Department of Philosophy and Department of Mechanical Engineering. Texas A&M University. Last viewed 26 February 2019.

(2) In brief, the DC-10 case looks at the ethical obligations of the designers of the DC-10 airplane to design and build an aircraft that met appropriate safety standards. Between 1970 and 1989, three crashes and one near-crash occurred due to design flaws in the DC-10. In this specific instance in this detailed case, an engineer at Convair wrote a memo detailing the design faults of the cargo door latch and lock system. The company, Convair, was a subcontractor to McDonnell Douglas who was the main company designing the DC-10 and had signed a contract that forbid them from directly contacting the Federal Aviation Administration about problems with the aircraft. As Convair was already in a dispute with McDonnell Douglas over who would pay for earlier fixes for the planes, Convair decided not to act on the memo and did inform McDonnell Douglas, in case they would be held liable for paying for these alterations on the cargo door. For more information about this case study, see Fielder, John H and Douglas Birsch, The DC-10 Case: a study in applied ethics, technology, and society. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Adapted from 2003 EAC Workshop handout by Michael Davis, Center for Study of Ethics in the Professions, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago. Copyright 2003.