Ethics Stupid, Swimsuit Edition

Published: February 10, 2010

By Jim Lichtman
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Okay, I’ll confess to a little shameless self-promotion. But before you consider burning me at the alter of Gloria Steinem, let’s take a moment to think about this in the context of ethics.

What if… ethics was fun…

where the only difficult decision is a choice between which swimsuit model you want to wrap a towel around, and the only responsibilities you had were… wait, that’s just it!  We all have responsibilities even if we’re on a fantasy vacation – from how long to stay, to how we treat others. In fact, even if you’re perched on a mountaintop with a pile of money for all your needs, you’d still have to face issues of respect and responsibility to the folks who handle the details of those needs.

On any given day, most of us face decisions of right and wrong.  They may not rise to the level of whistle-blowing, but they’re there.

What if… you’re in a group in which someone tells an offensive joke.  Are you responsible to speak out?  What if it’s your boss who tells the joke… and you’re up for a raise?  If we all want to do the right thing, how do we determine what that right thing is when faced with competing interests?

One way we can make clearer ethical decisions is to adopt what ethicist Michael Josephson calls the Five Steps to Principled Reasoning:

1. Clarify – Determine precisely what must be decided.  Formulate and devise the full range of alternatives (things you could do).  Eliminate patently impractical, illegal and improper alternatives.  Force yourself to develop at least three ethically justifiable options.  Examine each option to determine which ethical principles and values are involved.

2. Evaluate – If any of the options require the sacrifice of any ethical principle, evaluate the facts and assumptions carefully. Distinguish solid facts from beliefs, desires, theories, suppositions, unsupported conclusions, and opinions, which might generate rationalizations.  Take into account the credibility of the sources of information and the fact that self-interest, bias, and ideological commitments tend to obscure objectivity and affect perceptions about what is true.  With regard to each alternative, carefully consider the benefits, burdens and risks to each stakeholder.

3. Decide – After evaluating the information available, make a judgment about what is or is not true, and about what consequences are most likely to occur.  If there is an ethical dilemma, evaluate the viable alternatives according to personal conscience, prioritize the values so that you can choose which values to advance and which to subordinate and determine who will be helped the most and harmed the least.

It is sometimes helpful to consider the worst-case scenario.  In addition, consider whether ethically questionable conduct can be avoided by modifying goals or methods or by consulting with affected people to get their input or consent.  You may want to resort to three “ethics warning systems”:

– Golden Rule — are you treating others as you would want to be treated?

– Publicity — would you be comfortable if your reasoning and decision were to be publicized (how would it look on the front page of tomorrow’s paper?

– Kid-on-your-shoulder — would you be comfortable if your kids were observing you?  Are you setting an example for others?

4. Implement – Once a decision is made on what to do, develop a plan on how to implement the decision in a way that maximizes the benefits and minimizes the costs and risks.  Remember, any decision or act, no matter how intrinsically ethical that is accompanied by a sanctimonious, pious, judgmental or self-righteous attitude, is bound to be less effective, if not counterproductive.

5. Monitor and Modify – An ethical decision-maker should monitor the effects of decisions and be prepared and willing to revise a plan, or take a different course of action, based on new information.  Since most decisions are based on imperfect information and “best efforts” predictions, it is inevitable that some of them will be wrong.  Those decisions will either fail to produce the consequences anticipated or they will produce unintended and/or unforeseen consequences.  The ethical decision maker is willing to adjust to new information.

Clearly, Josephson does not mean for us to put every decision we face through the five point evaluation.  But the more we raise our awareness of ethics in the decisions we make, the better able we will be to navigate the more difficult territory of decisions that will test our character as well as our courage.

Oh, and just in case some of you would like to see a little more of Sports Illustrated’s Brooklyn Decker… I’m the one, just out of camera range, holding the washcloth.


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