How were you taught to make decisions? Think about it for a moment. Was it an active process where someone – often a parent, maybe a teacher – taught you how to think through choices in life, or was it a more passive process where you stumbled your way through on your own? Chances are it’s the latter, but any references to decision making probably focused on personal satisfaction, financial gain, and/or avoidance of discomfort. This is a pretty typical experience for many people, so count yourself as fortunate if you’ve received formal direction on how to make decisions!
With so many people having to make difficult decisions lately, it might be beneficial to have a framework for doing so. Remember that when your brain is overwhelmed and you are under chronic stress, basic cognitive functions such as planning and decision making become much more challenging. Add to that the societal impact of various choices during the pandemic, and this is certainly an anxiety-provoking time for many people. Because of this, it can be helpful to have a set of standards to refer to in order to help the process. Beyond that though, having a framework can assist with more than just making a decision – but making an ethical one.
First, let’s talk about what ethics are and what they are not. Ethics are often used interchangeably with morals and values, and while they share similarities and are definitely related, they are not necessarily the same. Ethics are often associated with professional standards, and indeed many careers have their own set of ethical guidelines (which may sometimes conflict with those of other professions!). However, ethics can also be considered as the broader set of behavioural standards expected by a society in order to be accepted. These are the unwritten rules we follow that aren’t laws but are generally known to everyone within that circle as to how to avoid being offensive. In contrast, morals are the general principals of right or wrong which often guide ethical standards. I suppose a good way to think of ethics is that they are the action portion of moral standards; they’re what we do when our core principles are put to the test. Values are what we care about personally and tend to have a more individualistic quality.
The way to understand these from the individual level to the societal level looks like this:
Values ---> Morals ---> Ethics. Values are how we prioritize what we care about personally, morals come from slightly more collective guidance (often faith or culture), and ethics are how a person conducts themselves in the greater sphere of society. Since all of these aspects are unique to the person/culture/society, does this mean that they can change depending on who or where you are? YES! Absolutely! Values, morals, and ethics vary widely from person to person, location to location, and culture to culture. It is so important to recognize this, because much disagreement comes about from not understanding that these concepts are relative.
So, how does this relate to decision making exactly? Great question, especially during a pandemic! When there is a collective crisis – i.e., something that affects everyone (or many people) simultaneously – then there is more of a focus on the ethical component of decisions and less of a focus on the individual aspect of it. In times of crisis, it is necessary to ensure that your decisions contribute to the greater good...however that may be conceptualized where you are living. This is when you are asked to prioritize your values (what matters to you), scrutinize your morals (what is right and wrong), and enact your ethics (how you behave in times of moral ambiguity). And yes, people will probably pass judgment no matter what choice you make.
I wish there were one easy formula for ethical decision making, but there is not. And understandably so because these are not constants across all people and cultures. There are many models for ethical decision making available which are easily accessible by a quick internet search. I’m not going to choose a specific one to present to you today, but I will however help guide you towards some generally acceptable standards in order to develop and intentional decision making process. Let’s start with a few things to consider.
Here are my recommendations for thinking through difficult decisions during this pandemic and beyond, with a focus on integrating an ethical component:
Write a list of your values. This is where you’ll want to consider things such as autonomy vs. compliance, collective vs. individual care, authority vs. autonomy, equity, justice, how you rank health needs, what you want your children to learn in the process, etc.
Consider the expert advice you have available to you. What trustworthy resources are there to aide in decision making? Ask yourself if there is information you may be missing to make fully informed choices.
Ensure that you are your loved ones are safe. This is where it’s okay to be a little selfish, because personal safety is definitely a key aspect of decision making. And frankly, making decisions at the expense of your own well-being is rather reckless. So, think about what is needed for your own safety and the safety of those you love.
Choose your potential course(s) of action. This is not your definite decision yet, just some options.
Think about your moral absolutes. Are there things you must include or will not consider on the basis that they are right or wrong?
Think about practical needs.
Identify who might be impacted by your choice and how this might affect them. Be sure to include those who could be indirectly affected as well.
Consider the risks and benefits of each potential choice, to yourself and to others. Also consider if there could be consequences to making (or not making) a specific choice.
Highlight any barriers which might need to be overcome in order for each choice to be feasible.
Make the decision which is reasonable and accomplishes the greatest good, with the least amount of potential harm.
Ethical decision making always contains a component of undergoing a conscious, intentional selection process and a commitment to taking the course of action which leads to good outcomes – even if it is challenging. Many times people find that just the act of intentionally thinking through their options leads them to surprising conclusions, just because they took the time to think through this in a meticulous way. You might find that thoughts or scenarios pop up during this process which you had not previously considered, which then alters your plans. That’s okay if this happens! There is also an aspect of evaluation – once you’ve made your decision, if there is new information introduced or if the outcome isn’t as expected, the ethical decision maker will evaluate options again as needed. These are not the only questions to consider when faced with difficult decisions, but this should be a good place to start.
Remember that this is just a basic overview and not a deep philosophical perspective on the issue of decision making. If you’re curious about something a little more in depth, consider reading this detailed description from Brown University. Ethical and intentional decision making can feel daunting at first, but with practice it can be both exciting and empowering. Because there are varying perspectives involved in the process, different people can ask themselves the same questions and arrive at different answers. Perhaps that will be helpful to be mindful of as we all go about our discussions about decisions lately, as some of those can get pretty heated when disagreements arise! The wonderful part about having a framework or set of questions to ask yourself is that intentional decision making both helps to ensure you are happier with your choice regardless of the outcome, and provides you the benefit of being able to explain your stance should you choose to do so at any time.
Hopefully this has given a few points of consideration as you navigate the many challenging choices that will no doubt continue to come your way during this time. I hope you found this to be beneficial, and if this process made something easier for you – be sure to let me know!