Moral Decision Making -- An Analysis >
By Chris MacDonald

1.0 What is Morality?

Generally, morality is a system of rules that modifies our behaviour in social situations. It's about the doing of good instead of harm, and it sets some standard of virtuous conduct.

1.1 Where Does Morality Come From?

When asked about morality, many people respond like this: "Oh, that's all just a matter of personal opinion anyway, right?" But if you look at the way in which moral values actually work in our everyday lives, you'll see that this is not the case. Personal intuitions are important, of course. But morality generally comes into play when people interact with each other. This suggests that morality is a system of "shared" values which "justify" actions. As such, morality is about deciding on best courses of action in all situations. As you'll see, there are quotation marks around the words "shared" and "justify" for a reason.

1.1.1 "Shared" Values

Moral values are generally shared values. If we did not have an values in common, it would be exceedingly difficult to agree on any one course of action. But since there is often disagreement as to what is the right thing to do in any situation, we can see that in fact, various values are shared to a greater or lesser extent. On some values there will be nearly unanimous agreement. On others, there may be considerable disagreement.

1.1.2 Points of Agreement

There are a number of moral values on which there is extremely wide agreement. For example, all cultures that I know of place value on truth-telling, and place strong restrictions on lying. As another example, all cultures of which I am aware have rules against doing unnecessary harm to other people (although they vary regarding what constitutes "unnecessary harm"). Other such shared values include (among many others) loyalty, justice, and promise- keeping.

1.1.3 Room for Disagreement

Of course, if everyone agreed on the importance of these values, there would be no problem. However, even if we all agree on which values are important, we may still disagree over the relative importance of the various values. For example, you and I may both agree that telling the truth and avoiding harming others are important. But which is more important, when these conflict? For example, if faced with lying to protect someone's feelings, which value should take priority? It is on questions like this that we are most likely to differ. Why not just agree to differ, then? Well, as suggested above, morality is in some sense social. As a result, we are going to need to justify our actions to each other.

1.2 The Meaning of Moral "Justification"

The word "justification" is commonly used in two different senses, one positive and the other negative.

The negative sense is the one which is typically accompanied by an accusation that the justifier is being insincere. It is in this sense that fast-talkers are sometimes accused of being able to "justify" anything and everything. This use is typified by statements like, "Justify your behaviour however you's still wrong!" It suggests that the "justifier" is merely coming up with excuses for her behaviour, excuses that even she doesn't believe.

The positive sense of justification, on the other hand, involves bringing others to see our actions as reasonable. In this sense, a course of action is justified if there are better reasons in favour of it than there are against it. Preferably, these reasons should be ones that other people could agree are good ones. It is this sense of justification that is important for morality. Moral justification, then, means showing that there are more or better moral reasons weighing for a course of action than against it.

1.3 The Importance of Context

There probably is no generally correct answer to questions like, "Which is more important, telling the truth or preventing harm?" A lot depends on context. In some cases, it is probably more important to tell the truth. In others, it is probably more important to prevent harm. A number of factors make up the context, including factors of time and place, the type and nature of the relationships involved, other people's reasonable expectations, and the relevant history of the situation. A standard example of a context in which it seems right to lie is this: you are a citizen of Nazi Germany, 1940. You are hiding a family of Jews in your attic. The German police come to your door and ask whether you know the whereabouts of that particular family of Jews. This seems a clear case in which preventing harm seems more important than telling the truth.   

A contrary case might be the following: Imagine that an acquaintance of yours reveals that she has committed manslaughter and that she's very remorseful about it. You are called into court to testify. You know that if you tell the truth, she will go to jail (i.e. suffer a harm). The remorse she shows suggests that she will never commit another crime if she is not sent to jail. Our instincts probably tell us that you should nonetheless tell the truth in such a case, even if it seems likely to do more literal harm than good. This decision might be made on the grounds that truth telling is part of supporting a system of justice that we think overall fair and very valuable.

1.3.1 The Importance of Relationships

To a large extent, morality is about relationships. Our rights and obligations spring largely from the relationships which we have with people and institutions. These include (among others) our relationships to our family, friends, clients or patients, our students, our workplace, our profession, our religious or cultural traditions, our fellow citizens, and our nation. These relationships can give us important moral reasons for certain kinds of actions. For example, your relationship with certain children -- your own children -- means that you have moral duties to them (namely to feed, cloth, and nurture them) that you don't have to other people's children. Another example might be the obligations one has to other members of one's professional group. It is important in this respect to think not just of the fact that a given relationship exists, but also about the nature and history of that relationship, and about the legitimate moral expectations that go along with it.

1.4 Moral Questions are not Distinct

Moral problems are not limited to any particular kind of situation. Morality is not a separate, special domain which needs to be consulted only on rare occasions. Moral issues surround us all the time. Many decisions we make have moral importance: often, the challenge is just a matter of recognizing that fact. Morality is best seen as involving the 'best choice overall,' once matters of prudence, economics, and technical (e.g., medical) appropriateness have been taken into consideration, and balanced against other sorts of values.

1.5 The Importance and Place of Moral Theory

If morality is about 'shared values,' then why do we need moral theory? Why should we care what philosophers and ethicists have to say? Why not just take an opinion poll and figure out exactly what our shared values are?

Moral theory seeks to introduce a degree of rationality and rigour into our moral deliberations. Our moral sentiments on any given topic will be less convincing to others if they are based on poor reasoning or factual inaccuracies. Moral philosophers also attempt to single out moral beliefs which are either self-contradictory or mutually exclusive. This is not to say that all our moral beliefs must be strictly rational, but rather that our beliefs are better for being considered beliefs, rather than knee-jerk reactions to individual issues.

There is also something to be said for the very process of theory-building. Sitting down to work out a coherent theory that explains our moral beliefs can illuminate existing contradictions, and can help us to find patterns of moral thought that are more stable and which will be easier to learn and teach.

2.0 Moral Decision Making

There is no formula or algorithm for moral decision making. It is not a process which can easily be based on a determinate set of rules. It is also important to see that good moral decision making involves more than just acting on hunches or intuitions, though these, too, are important. Good moral decision making involves a) knowing the facts of the situation, and b) careful consideration of the moral values (some call these principles) that are relevant to a given situation. Importantly, it involves sensitivity to the moral dimensions of everyday situations, and an awareness of the range of interests involved in specific decisions.

2.1 Getting the Facts Straight

Any attempt to make a good decision has to begin with getting the facts of the situation straight. In some cases which seem at first quite difficult, additional facts are enough to make the correct course of action apparent. If, for example, we wish to decide how much of our forests should be cut down now, and how much left for future generations, we need first to establish some facts about the rate at which forests regenerate. These facts might be ascertained through science, or just through the experiences of people who have observed forests over long periods of time.

2.2 The Importance of Moral Sensitivity

The primary skill involved in making good moral decisions is sensitivity to the moral issues involved in so many of our everyday activities. Quite often we may act in an morally questionable manner just because we were insensitive to the moral nature of the situation. Of course, sometimes we may do the right thing just by instinct, without reflecting at all on what we are doing. For any number of trivial decisions, this is entirely appropriate. For example, most of us do not require intensive moral deliberation to avoid lying in most cases. But that is not always the case. Often, making the right decision requires a real sensitivity to the moral dimension of a situation, as well as to the range of interests involved.

2.2.1 Sensitivity to Moral Aspects of Decisions

As was suggested above, moral issues surround us all the time. Many decisions we make have moral importance: often, its just a matter of recognizing that fact. This is crucial, since the first step in problem solving is always identifying the problem.

Sometimes, due to the technical nature of a problem, we fail to recognize that it also has an moral dimension. We may think that the decision can be made based on purely technical criteria, and therefore we may be blind to the moral significance of the situation. It is crucial to be sensitive to the fact that many technical questions have important moral components. The decision of which medicine to prescribe for a particular condition, for example, involves making not just a technical decision about efficacy, but also a value judgment concerning the relative acceptability of various side effects and various risks.

Sometimes the moral importance of a situation may also be covered up by statements like, "There's nothing immoral about it: it's just a matter of economics." As suggested above, the morally best course of action in any situation takes matters of economics and technical appropriateness into account, but is not overridden by these.

2.2.2 Sensitivity to a Range of Considerations

Once a problem has been identified as having moral importance, the first and perhaps most important step in resolving the problem lies in identifying the range of considerations which should be taken into account. This includes an awareness of the various parties who will be affected by the decision taken, sensitivity to the range of values or principles which might be applied to the question at hand, as well as sensitivity to other contextual or historical factors which might justifiably influence the decision. Sometimes, just laying all of these factors out explicitly can help to define or clarify the issue.

2.3 The Role of Discussion in Morality

If, as suggested above, morality is primarily about shared values, then discussion takes a central place in moral decision making. We seldom make decisions in a vacuum. Other parties are generally involved, and there are a number of reasons to include others in our decision making processes.

2.3.1 Discussion as a Means of Consensus-Building

One good reason for giving discussion a central place in moral decision making is that it is often important that others around us agree with -- or at least understand -- our decisions. Professionals, in particular, are often part of a team. Also, it is often the case that others will have to carry out, or help to carry out, the decisions we make. If all interested parties play a role in decision making, they will feel better about their involvement in carrying out that decision. It is often important to us -- both psychologically and morally important -- that others "buy-into" our moral decisions.

2.3.2 Discussion as a Way of Learning from Others

There are at least two ways in which we can learn from discussing moral questions with others. The first is a short-term gain in terms of the range of considerations brought to bear on the question. As the saying goes, "two heads are better than one." Involving others in our moral decision making means that these others can provide insight or experience which is different from our own.

The second way in which we can learn from discussing moral questions with others is a long-term gain in moral understanding. We can come to understand a general class of problems better by seeing other people's points of view. As in any other kind of reasoning, we can improve the quality of our moral decision making by listening to the sorts of reasons provided by others. We can often learn much from persons who we see as being particularly wise, or as making particularly good moral decisions with some consistency.

It should be noted, of course, that issues of privacy and confidentiality will sometimes limit possibilities for discussing particular problems with others.

3.0 A Guide to Moral Decision Making

As stated above in Section 2.0, there is no formula for moral decision making. This should not be surprising: neither are there formulae for making good medical diagnoses, or for giving good legal advice. All of these involve significant elements of experience and sensitivity. However, it is possible to establish helpful guidelines that will aid us in the process. One such set of guidelines is presented in my Guide to Moral Decision Making. These steps absolutely will not guarantee that a good decision is made, but they should at least help assure that decisions are not made in an overly hasty manner, or without sufficient consideration of the subtleties of the problem.

Reference source:

Chris MacDonald

Chris MacDonald, Ph.D., Department of Bioethics, Dalhousie University, October 19, 1995.   McacDonald: Moral decision making 1995