A Uniform Set of Stages
that the best minds in applied ethics will never agree on a uniform set of
steps and sub-steps for their heuristic decision-making procedures. We all have our creative differences, we all
build our procedures for different audiences, and we all use our methods to
address the different problems and issues.
However, at a higher level of abstraction, it may be possible to reach
consensus on a uniform set of stages. As a step in that direction, I propose the
- The Preparing Stage.
During this earliest stage, we cultivate moral awareness and sensitivity,
clarify our value system and worldview, observe human nature, engage in ethical
behavior ourselves, learn some ethical theory, and prepare to avoid ethical traps.
- The Inspecting Stage.
We now face a possible problem situation, so we attempt to define the problem
by noting facts, participants, groups, roles,
relationships, events and actions. At
this stage, we make no effort to determine what is morally relevant, only what is factually
relevant, and we try to produce a list of uncontroverted facts that would be
acceptable to all parties. Finally, we
determine whether the situation is truly a problem, one that requires further
attention and action.
- The Elucidating Stage.
Here we identify facts that are missing, and either develop these new facts or
make assumptions to cover them. We clarify technical, ambiguous or vague
concepts, and we try to eliminate biased and emotionally charged language. We isolate key factors in the situation,
including especially factors that set this situation apart from otherwise
similar cases. We identify the
difficulties and obstacles that may hinder analysis. We do epistemological legwork, trying to assess the reliability
of our sources and the validity of our information. We try to determine the
immediate antecedents of the problem, how the situation came to be. We discriminate between primary and
secondary participants, and we determine which parties are affected by actions
of other parties. Potentially, these
affected parties are the stakeholders, but we do not make that association
until the Focusing Stage.
We consider all the lists we have made, and eliminate from these lists any
items that do not meet some minimum threshold for significance. Given all this, we try to estimate whether
this is a short-term problem that can be resolved quickly, or a long-term
problem that requires sustained effort.
Finally, in a very preliminary way, we begin to frame possible issues:
“Is it true that X should do Y assuming Z?”
- The Ascribing Stage.
We begin to infer and specify the values, goals, ideals, interests, ideologies,
priorities and motives that are most likely responsible for creating the
dynamics of the problem. We ascribe
these biases, tendencies and proclivities to various participants or to
- The Optioning Stage.
We brainstorm to list all possible courses of action that are (or were)
available to the participants. This
list may include actions that are ill-advised and actions that are contingent
on other actions.
Once we know the full range of alternatives, we try to eliminate from the list
those actions that are clearly not feasible or that fail to meet some threshold
for relevance. We do not exclude an
option because we think it is wrong.
- The Predicting Stage.
For each remaining option, we list potential consequences, including
consequences that would result if no action were taken. We discriminate between short- and long-term
effects, between likely and unlikely consequences, and between results that are
intended and unintended. We associate
these consequences with specific participants or with ourselves, either as a
risk or as a benefit.
- The Focusing Stage.
We consider all affected parties and identify those who are sufficiently
affected to be elevated to stakeholder status.
We note the rights that are claimed, or could be claimed, and we
identify the responsibilities or duties that correspond to those rights. We determine which facts are morally
relevant, which actions have moral consequences, which values are moral values,
which questions are moral questions, and which issues are moral issues. We take special note of virtues, values,
rights, priorities and ideals that appear to be at risk, or that appear to be
in conflict. We eliminate all factors
that are morally irrelevant or insufficiently relevant. Based on all this analysis, we identify and
define the core ethical issue, which is often expressed as a dilemma: “Should X do or not do Y assuming Z?”
- The Calculating Stage.
Some decision-making procedures attempt to quantify risks, costs, benefits,
burdens, impact, likelihoods and even relevance. These weights and numbers, if required, are generated at this
stage. Later, at least in theory, it
will be easy to determine which option produces the most probable
morally relevant benefit, with the least probable morally relevant risk.
- The Applying Stage.
This is the stage where most of the critical work of applied ethics is
done. Ideally, each possible
stakeholder/action pair is considered separately and sympathetically.
Reasons for and against particular actions are cataloged, then ranked. Morally
required actions are distinguished from those that are morally permitted but
not required. Values are weighed
against other values. Sometimes entire
value systems are weighed against competing systems. Short-term benefits are weighed against long-term risks. In similar fashion, long-term benefits are
weighed against short-term risks.
Various ethical theories may come into full play -- and into full
conflict. Like and unlike cases are
considered and compared. We construct
moral analogies and dis-analogies, examples and counter-examples. Best- and worst-case scenarios are
elaborated. Diverse ethical principles
are applied, and we note whether their advice is conflicting or convergent. Options are evaluated according to the
virtues they promote, or the rights they respect, or the obligations they
satisfy, or the values they maximize, or the principles they obey. Philosophical arguments are constructed,
deconstructed and evaluated. Laws,
policies, ethical codes, and professional literature are reviewed for
parallels. Associates, supervisors,
mentors, trusted friends, advisors and stakeholders (if willing and available)
give the decision-maker the benefit of their opinions.
Results may be convergent but typically are conflicting, contradictory or
inconsistent. Since conflicts are so
common, special strategies are invoked to resolve them. When the dust settles, we hope the problem
has been reduced to a coherent set of pivotal considerations. If this happens, the long list of options
produced in Stage 5 can be shrunk to a much shorter list of promising
options. For these remaining options,
full justifications are prepared.
- The Selecting Stage.
An option is chosen, and that decision is confirmed by applying a series of
informal, commonsense ethical tests (e.g., the Reversed Roles Test or the
Public Scrutiny Test). As a
double-check, we may perform a “sensitivity analysis” to identify those
situational factors that, if altered, would greatly alter our decision. We would then revisit our analysis of those
All things considered, we may not be 100% comfortable with our decision. Even so, we should reach a settled state of
“wide reflective equilibrium.” If not,
we may decide to re-start the analysis at an earlier stage, time permitting.
- The Acting Stage.
We plan exactly what is to be done step by step, and who is to do it. We try to
ensure due process for all stakeholders.
We may construct a
timeline to sequence individual actions. We identify the means to be
employed. We gather the necessary resources. We develop indicators of success
and failure, including some early indicators.
Finally we take action, and we take responsibility for the consequences.
- The Reflecting
In this final stage, we monitor the decision as it is implemented with special
attention to the effects it is having on stakeholders. We assess the results as
they unfold using the indicators developed in the previous stage. If, by those early
indicators, the decision is failing, we
may re-implement the decision, and if that also fails, we may abort and start
over, circumstances permitting.
Otherwise we live with the decision and learn from it.
When finished monitoring, we may recommend new policies to address particular
issues. We may review and evaluate the
decision procedure itself with an eye toward process improvement. Did the procedure work as intended? Were the steps in the correct order? Finally, we may consider what could have
been done in the first place to prevent the problem and, where appropriate,
take steps to prevent recurrence.