On Thinking Ethically

Are you trained to think ethically? Most toxicologists are taught how to think ethically. This framework may help.

I remember my last research ethics “class” quite vividly. I was at Michigan State University working on my Ph.D. And a very senior scientist who worked in research administration was lecturing us on what was and what was not ethical behavior for a scientist. This was very much unlike any ethics course I’d ever taken before, or after.

Good ethics classes are focused on teaching you how to think ethically. They help you see the shortcomings in your thought process. They help you understand other people’s thought processes. And ultimately, they make you better and more ethical thinkers.

Lecturing people on what is and isn’t ethical behavior doesn’t actually do much. It’s a check the box exercise. In fact, we were told at the start of the “class” that the lecture was a check the box exercise “imposed” on the University by funding agencies. That’s not a great way to make students excited about the subject matter.

What I find more useful than lectures is to help people actually think ethically.

We need to empower scientists to examine ethical challenges critically, rather than tell people how they should think. When we tell others what they should think, we are imposing our will on them. When we empower people to critically analyze and ask questions, we are enabling them with free will.

So in this post, I’m going to introduce you to the Applied Ethics Framework that I use in my work and with my clients.

Ethics Is Not a Bright Line

I have heard from numerous scientists, who should know better, that “you’re either ethical or you’re not.” That statement is not only wrong, it’s insulting.

Think about it — a bright line statement that says people are either ethical or they’re not is the same as saying that “if you don’t conform to my worldview on ethics, then you are not ethical.” That’s completely unacceptable and untenable.

It also diminishes the difficulty of finding ethical solutions to some challenges. If ethics were so simple, then we wouldn’t have arguments about some very fundamental ideas.

Sure, there are certain subjects where ethics has pretty bright lines. For instance, it is generally unethical for soldiers in peace time to murder civilians. I don’t think there’s much debate there.

But is it ethical to perform experiments on animals? There’s no bright line here. Different people can come to different ethical stances depending upon what they believe is or is not ethical.

A Framework for Ethical Thinking

This is the framework for applied ethics that I like to use. It’s based on the Applied Ethics Framework developed at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center. I like it because it parallels the Critical Thinking Framework that I also use in my work and that I teach to others.

Step 1: Identify the Ethical Issue

This first step is all about framing the issue and identifying if it’s actually a moral question or not.

Applied Ethics deals with actions that one may take. Thoughts are neither ethical or unethical. Only actions are ethical or unethical. And specifically, in Applied Ethics we are concerned with whether or not an action or inaction is moral. If there is no moral question, then Applied Ethics probably isn’t the right framework.

So the first question is: Are we talking about an action(s) that can be taken? If not, then this isn’t an ethics issue.

Next, we ask: What is the ethical issue here? Does this deal with morality or not? If not, then this isn’t an applied ethics issue.

Step 2: Get the Facts

Now we need to get the facts. Generally, we are dealing with a specific case. There are specific facts that will be unique to the case. For instance, let us imagine we are dealing with a case where a company wants to create cultivated meat that tastes like human flesh. There are a lot of facets to this case that we need to understand. Here are just a few (you might come up with more and different ones):

  • What is the source of the cells used to create this cultivated meat?
  • How does the company know what human flesh would taste like?
  • Is the company assuming that the cultivated meat will taste like human flesh without actual knowledge of what human flesh would taste like?
  • Is there a virtue to creating cultivated meat that tastes like human flesh?
  • Would creating cultivated meat that tastes like human flesh decrease the likelihood that people will eat other people?

Also at this stage we generally identify alternative actions. Here are a few alternative actions that we might consider:

  • Not creating a cultivated meat that tastes like human flesh
  • Creating a cultivated meat that replaces a more common protein source (and each of these could be a specific alternative, such as specific fish species, specific bird species, specific types of cattle, etc)

Step 3: Apply the Ethical Lenses and Evaluate Alternative Actions

At this point we would examine each of the alternative actions using the 6 applied ethics lenses. These lenses are:

  • Rights lens: focuses on examining whether an action respects the moral rights of the impacted parties. Some human rights include: the moral right to be told the truth, the moral right to be allowed to live the life they wish, the moral right to be left alone, the moral right to privacy, the moral right to not be injured. There are some who argue that the environment and ecosystems, as well as animals and plants, have moral rights. Not everyone will agree to the same set of moral rights. One quick way to identify moral rights is to ask how you would want to be treated. Do you believe that you have a right to not be injured? Do you believe you have a right to privacy? If you believe you have a moral right, then it’s moral to extend that same right to others.
  • Justice Lens: Justice tends to focus on the idea that everyone should be treated fairly and equally. However, equal treatment does not mean everyone gets treated the same in all circumstances. The Principle of Equity states that sometimes we need to give people a hand up depending upon their circumstances in order for them to achieve equal and fair treatment.
  • Utilitarian Lens: This is the lens that is best illustrated by Mr. Spock’s death in Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn. At the end of the movie, Spock and Captain Kirk have an exchange where they share the thought that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. That is utilitarianism in a nutshell. The Utilitarian Lens is most focused on what action will create the most benefit when compared to the harm. Depending upon your particular view of utilitarianism, you may consider not only those most closely associated with the challenge at hand, but you may also consider secondary and tertiary benefits and harms — you may even take this out as far as the environment. When I was at the Army, it was fairly common for us to consider economic and environmental impacts beyond just those on warfighters and equipment when wargaming options.
  • Common Good Lens: Under this lens we consider the impacts of an action on communities, and the common good created for our communities to exist, including welfare impacts on clean air, water, and soil, our public utilities, our resilience to disasters, and our laws.
  • Virtue Lens: The Virtue Lens is focused on taking those actions that help us meet certain ideals of virtue — in other words, we take those actions that make us appear as virtuous. Boy Scouts are taught this when they are told to live by the Scout Law — a set of 12 virtues, or laws, that all Scouts must live by and will ultimately be judged by in their everyday life. The key question here is, “would I be living up to the virtues I hold dear if I take this action?”
  • Care Lens: The Care Ethics Lens is focused on our caring relationships with others, and ensuring that we are taking actions that most benefit these individuals. Care ethics sees people as ends in themselves, not as a means to an end. Care ethics also forces us to act in the way someone else would want us to act on their behalf. Care ethics also tends to focus on the whole person and impacts on the whole person, as opposed to just specific parts of a person’s life.

Importantly, some lenses will have less to “say” with some applied ethics problems than others. For instance, in our cultivated meat that tastes like human flesh example, care ethics will likely have less influence (unless you take the case way out into actual cannibalism, then the Care Lens will definitely play a very significant role).

Ultimately, when all of the lenses are focused together, we should get clarity.

Step 4: Choose an Action and Evaluate It

Once you’ve applied all the lenses and have clarity on the most ethical option you get to execute. That’s right — it’s now time to put that action into practice.

And because you’re a lifelong learner, you’ll evaluate your action. In your After Action Review you’ll review if your action is ethical or not. If your action isn’t ethical, then you’ll want to stop it, evaluate what happened, and most importantly, re-examine each step of the Applied Ethics Framework to see where we were deficient.

Was the challenge/problem not framed correctly in Step 1?

Did we not get all of the right facts in Step 2? Did we miss some potential actions?

Did we make a mistake, omission, or get blindsided by an unknown unknown when applying the lenses in Step 3? Were we not honest with ourselves? That also happens, and it’s okay.

Drop Your Ego and Take Ownership

One tip I’ll give you in closing that works for Ethical Thinking and Critical Thinking alike — drop your ego and take ownership. At the end of the day, if we try to protect our ego and use the Applied Ethics Framework or a Critical Thinking Framework we are going to fail. Protecting our ego is all about emotion. And emotion is good for some things, but ultimately we protect our ego out of fear.

And fear is a very powerful emotion. But it also blinds us. It blinds us to objective thinking. It blinds us to logical thinking. Fear opens us up to committing logical fallacies. Fear opens us up to faulty thinking. And if we are trying to protect our egos, we are not likely to apply all of the lenses openly and honestly. And ultimately, we will talk ourselves into actions that aren’t optimal, aren’t the most ethical, but those actions that protect our egos.

Why go through all that work if you want to protect your ego?

By dropping your ego, and taking ownership of your actions, you’ll find your After Action Reviews will be more productive, more honest, and most of all will lead you to making better ethical and well thought out decisions.

Lyle Burgoon
Lyle Burgoon
Dr. Lyle D. Burgoon is a toxicologist, biostatistican/data scientist, and risk assessor. He has over 15 years of experience as a government risk assessor, senior science and policy advisor, and as a private consultant. He is currently the President and CEO of Raptor Pharm & Tox, Ltd.

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