EM SC 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. Exelon's Code of Conduct acknowledges this: "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. In the previous page I shared with you Exelon's guide to ethical decision making. Here we consider Michael Davis' seven-step 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 problem.
    • For example, "there's something about this decision that makes me uncomfortable" or "do I have a conflict of interest?".
  2. Check facts.
    • Many problems disappear upon closer examination of situation, while others change radically.
  3. Identify relevant factors.
    • For example, persons involved, laws, professional code, other practical constraints ( e.g. under $200).
  4. Develop list of options.
    • Be imaginative, try to avoid "dilemma"; not "yes" or" no" but whom to go to, what to say.
  5. Test options. Use such tests as the following:
    • harm test: Does this option do less harm than alternatives?
    • publicity test: Would I want my choice of this option published in the newspaper?
    • defensibility test: Could I defend choice of option before congressional committee or committee of peers?
    • reversibility test: Would I still think choice of this option good if I were adversely affected by it?
    • colleague test: What do my colleagues say when I describe my problem and suggest this option is my solution?
    • professional test: What might my profession's governing body for ethics committee say about this option?
    • organization test: What does the company's ethics officer or legal counsel say about this?
  6. Make a choice based on steps 1-5.
  7. Review steps 1-6. What could you do to make it less likely that you would have to make such a 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)?


Davis, Michael (1999) Ethics and the University, New York: Routledge, p. 166-167.