Approaching Ethical Dilemmas

Approaching Ethical Dilemmas in Earthquake Risk Reduction

This systematic approach to the study of complex ethical dilemmas was developed by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. It has been modified for use in this website and can be used to assist readers in evaluating the case studies. What it asks us to do is to open our minds to alternative solutions beyond those which are obvious at first glance.

Recognize a Moral Issue
It is important to recognize in the beginning whether there is an ethical issue in the given situation.

  1. Is there a conflict (personal, interpersonal, or institutional) or a question that arises either at the level of thought or of feeling?
  2. Is the question a moral or ethical question? Why?

Begin Your Decision Making
Before we start with an ethical analysis, we must be sure that there is an ethical conflict or problem. If there is not, the problem may still require resolution, but it will not require an ethical analysis of the kind we see in Questions 5 through 9.

  1. What are the pertinent facts of the case (e.g., which interests are at stake)?
  2. What alternative actions are available?

Evaluate the Alternative Actions from Various Moral Points of View
Now it is time to bring ethical considerations to bear on the matter. These five questions closely parallel the five ethical principles on which this approach is based. We are not looking for the one rule or approach that “fits.” Rather we are trying to look at this complex dilemma from a number of different ethical viewpoints with the hope that one or more will illuminate the problem and will help guide our eventual decision.It is at this stage of the approach that the importance of an open mind is greatest. You cannot search for facts if, having already made up your mind, you are “right.” This is perhaps the most difficult part of this entire approach. Even if you are able to give up your overt position on the matter, you still come into the analysis with your paradigm, including all of its biases, assumptions, etc.

  1. Which alternative best protects the moral rights of individuals?
  2. Which alternative would be most just?
  3. Which alternative would lead to the best overall consequences?
  4. Which alternative best promotes the common good?
  5. Which alternative would help one develop and maintain a virtuous state of character (e.g., be a person of courage or compassion)?

Make a Decision

  1. Considering these various points of view, which of the alternative actions would be the best?We should not expect that the answer to this question would be unambiguous. We hope, however, that we will have enough information to pick a specific alternative. If we cannot do this with confidence, we may need to go back through Questions 3 through 9.
  2. What would other people with good judgment think of the justification of your decision?

Consider Your Action in Retrospect

  1. In retrospect, was the action — and its results for others as well as your own moral character — the best action?
  2. What do other people with good judgment think of the action and its results?

See how this approach can be applied to case studies by going to the Ethical Dilemmas: Case Studies page.