Ethical Frameworks for Academic Decision-Making

Ethical action and decision-making has always undergirded higher education practice. For example, issues such as academic freedom and how to balance financial realities with the need for quality both have an ethical dimension.

“Ethics comes out in small decisions as well as big ones,” says Nancy Matchett, director of the Institute of Professional Ethics at the University of Northern Colorado.

Matchett works with applied ethics, and she seeks to educate her colleagues in education about three main ethical frameworks that people use to make decisions. Understanding these frameworks can help people understand their own decisions, as well as how others think about ethical issues.

The Consequences Framework
In the Consequences framework, the thinker focuses on the future effects of the possible courses of action, considering the people who will be directly or indirectly affected. This person asks him or herself about what outcomes are desirable in a given situation, and this person considers ethical conduct to be whatever will achieve the best consequences. The person using the Consequences framework desires to produce the most good.

This ethical framework has some definite advantages and disadvantages. It is a pragmatic way of viewing an issue, focusing on the results of an action. It works well with issues that involve large numbers of people, especially those that might involve trade-offs between good consequences for some and bad consequences for others.

On the other hand, it is not always possible to predict the consequences of an action, so some actions that are expected to produce good consequences might actually end up harming people. Additionally, people sometimes react negatively to the pragmatism embraced by this framework, and they recoil from the implication that the end justifies the means. It also does not include a pronouncement that certain things are always wrong, as even the most heinous actions may result in a good outcome for some people, and this framework allows for these actions to then be ethical.

The Duty Framework
In the Duty framework, the thinker is focused on the duties and obligations that people have in a given situation, and the thinker considers what ethical obligations he or she has and what things he or she should never do. Ethical conduct is defined by doing one’s duties and doing the right thing, and the goal is performing the correct action.

This framework has the advantage of creating a system of rules that has consistent expectations of all people; if an action is ethically correct or a duty is required, it would apply to every person in a given situation. This even-handedness encourages treating everyone with dignity and respect.

This framework also focuses on following moral rules or duty regardless of outcome, so it allows for the possibility that one might have acted ethically, even if there is a bad result. Therefore, this framework works best in situations where there is a sense of obligation or in those in which the thinker needs to consider why duty or obligation mandates or forbids certain courses of action.

However, this framework also has its limitations. First, it has no way of explaining how one should act if the “moral” or duty-driven action will have a bad result. It also does not explain whether an action can still be moral if it is known that something bad will result. It also does not help distinguish between conflicting duties, and it can be rigid in applying the notion of duty to everyone regardless of personal situation.

The Virtue Framework
In the Virtue framework, the thinker tried to identify the character traits (either positive or negative) that that might motivate people in a given situation. The thinker is concerned with what kind of person he or she should be and what his or her actions indicate about character. The thinker defines ethical behavior as whatever a virtuous person would do in the situation, and he or she seeks to develop his or her character.

Obviously, this framework is of great use in situations that ask what sort of person one should be. As a way of making sense of the world, it allows for a wide range of behaviors to be called ethical, as there might be many different types of good character and many paths to developing it. Consequently, it takes into account all parts of human experience and their role in ethical deliberation, as it believes that all of one’s experiences, emotions, and thoughts can influence the development of one’s character.

Although this framework takes into account a variety of human experience, it also makes it more difficult to resolve disputes, as there can usually be more disagreement about virtuous traits than ethical actions. Also, because the framework looks at character, it is not particularly good at helping someone to decide what actions to take in a given situation or determine the rules that would guide one’s actions.

Excerpted from Understanding Ethical Frameworks for E-Learning Decision-Making, December 1, 2008, Distance Education Report.