EMSC 302
Orientation to Energy and Sustainability Policy

A Seven Step Process for Making Ethical Decisions


If acting with integrity was simply a matter of following the rules, we wouldn't need to devote a whole lesson to it. The fact is, however, that potential ethical challenges in the energy field are too diverse and complex to be codified exhaustively. This point is acknowledged by Exelon, a leading provider of energy in the US, in its Code of Conduct: "The Code does not cover all situations where questions of ethics may arise. That would be virtually impossible to do" (Exelon 2006, p. 5).

This lesson has stressed that moral reasoning is the key to ethical behavior. Exelon's Code of Conduct also includes a guide to ethical decision making. The guide, which appears on page 38 of Exelon’s Code, appears in the box below.

Employees may find it helpful to ask the following questions before taking action in specific situations:
  •     Is your action honest in every respect?
  •     Will your action comply with the intent and purpose of the Code?
  •     Does it conform to Exelon’s policy?
  •     Could you defend your action in front of supervisors, fellow employees, the general public and your family?
  •     Do you feel comfortable taking the action?
In judging the appropriateness of any action, employees should be able to answer yes to each of these questions. If you are still unsure or uncomfortable with your course of action, please seek assistance.

Here, we consider the philosopher, Michael Davis' seven-step guide to ethical decision-making. Davis believes that students and professionals who rely on a guide tend to demonstrate stronger "moral reasoning skills" than those who do not use a guide. A key feature of Davis' approach is his emphasis on identifying multiple (more than two) options for responding to ethical challenges. Another is the series of tests presented in Step 5.

Seven-step guide to ethical decision-making (Davis 1999)

  1. State the problem.
    • For example, "there's something about this decision that makes me uncomfortable" or "do I have a conflict of interest?".
  2. Check the facts.
    • Many problems disappear upon closer examination of the situation, while others change radically.
    • For example, persons involved, laws, professional codes, other practical constraints
  3. Identify relevant factors.
  4. Develop a list of options.
    • Be imaginative, try to avoid "dilemma"; not "yes" or" no" but whom to go to, what to say.
  5. Test the options. Use some of the following tests:
    • harm test: Does this option do less harm than the alternatives?
    • publicity test: Would I want my choice of this option published in the newspaper?
    • defensibility test: Could I defend my choice of this option before a congressional committee or committee of peers?
    • reversibility test: Would I still think this option was a good choice if I were adversely affected by it?
    • colleague test: What do my colleagues say when I describe my problem and suggest this option as my solution?
    • professional test: What might my profession's governing body for ethics say about this option?
    • organization test: What does my company's ethics officer or legal counsel say about this?
  6. Make a choice based on steps 1-5.
  7. Review steps 1-6. How can you reduce the likelihood that you will need to make a similar decision again?
    • Are there any cautions you can take as an individual (and announce your policy on question, job change, etc.)?
    • Is there any way to have more support next time?
    • Is there any way to change the organization (for example, suggest policy change at next departmental meeting)?