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Ethical Guidelines and Ethical Thinking


Ethical Guidelines or Principles

  • GOLDEN RULE — Are you treating others as you would want to be treated?
  • THE GUT-FEELING TEST — Body reactions such as a gut-feeling often indicate the need for more thought. Intuition can give a sense of right and wrong before our brains have thought it out.
  • PUBLICITY — Would you be comfortable if your reasoning and decision were on the front page of tomorrow’s newspapers or on the TV news?
  • KID-ON-YOUR-SHOULDER — Would you be comfortable if young children were observing you? Are you practicing what you preach? 
  • THE ROLE-MODEL TEST — What would a person you respect think or feel about a decision you are proposing?

Other approaches:

  • WORST-CASE SCENARIOS - It is sometimes helpful to consider the worst case scenario. This may highlight consequences or possibilities you had not thought of before.
  • CHANGING GOALS/METHODS - Consider whether ethically questionable conduct can be avoided by modifying goals or methods.
  • CONSULTATION - Consider consulting with those likely to be affected in order to get their input or consent. This may avoid unethical options all together.


Ethical Thinking

Three types of ethical thinking...

  • Ends-based thinking - deciding to do whatever provides the greatest good for the greatest number. This is known as the principle of utilitarianism. It relies on being able to predict the consequences of different actions.
  • Rule-based thinking - deciding what to do based on a rule that you believe should be a general principle that is always followed. Rule-based thinking acknowledges that you can never really know all the consequences of your actions and that it is better to stick to one's principles.
  • Care-based thinking - deciding what to do based on the idea that this is what we would want others to do to you. This is known as the principle of reversibility and is at the center of most religious teachings.


Be on the lookout for rationalisations that try to justify un-ethical behaviour.


Making ethical decisions is not about applying just one of these ways of thinking, nor is it about applying all of them and choosing the action that wins the majority. It is about creative and reflective thinking to become aware of the complexity and possibilities of an ethical issue.  It is about using heart and head - hopefully also with the wisdom of the soul.

Thinking ethically is not a purely logical rational process. In the final analysis intuition might be a deciding factor in making a decision.


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Page last updated: 08-Aug-2002