We introduced the importance of ethics in governance earlier in this Unit, however its importance cannot be understated.

Ethics is intimately concerned with the notion of ‘right’ conduct.

You are constantly making choices through the personal application of your values and principles – in governance, you are doing so on behalf of the organisation and its stakeholders.

As the Greek philosopher Socrates asked, “What ought one to do?”

You might think that just because we live in a well-developed society that the legal and regulatory system we already have in place is enough. Yet as we have seen laws and policies cannot cover every single contingency. Making decisions always involve an ethical aspect.

Making ethical choices requires the ability to make distinctions between competing options.

Here are seven steps to help you make better, ethical decisions:

1. Stop and think: This provides several benefits. It prevents rash decisions, prepares us for more thoughtful discernment, and can allow us to find and connect with our values.

2. Clarify goals: Before you choose, clarify your short-term and long-term aims. Determine which of your many wants and “don’t wants” are most important. The big danger is that decisions that fulfil immediate wants and needs can prevent the achievement of our more important, long-term goals.

3. Determine facts: Be sure you have adequate information to support an intelligent choice. To determine the facts, first resolve what you know, then what you need to know. Be prepared for additional information and to verify assumptions and other uncertain information.


  • Consider the reliability and credibility of the people providing the facts; and
  • Consider the basis of the supposed facts. If the person giving you the information says he or she personally heard or saw something, evaluate that person in terms of honesty, accuracy, and memory.

4. Develop options: Once you know what you want to achieve and have made your best judgment as to the relevant facts, make a list of actions you can take to accomplish your goals. If it is an especially important decision, talk to someone you trust so you can broaden your perspective and think of new choices. If you can only think of one or two choices, you’ve probably not thought hard enough.

5. Consider the consequences: Filter your choices to determine if any of your options will violate any core ethical values, and then eliminate any unethical options. Identify who will be affected by the decision and how the decision is likely to affect them.

6. Choose: Make a choice. And if the choice is not immediately clear, try:

  • Talking to someone whose judgment you respect.
  • Thinking of a person of strong character that you know or know of, and ask yourself what would they do in my situation.
  • Ask, if everyone found out about your decision, would you be proud and comfortable?
  • And if all else fails, follow the Golden Rule: treat others the way you want to be treated, and keep your promises.

7. Continually improve: Ethical decision-makers monitor the effects of their choices. If they are not producing the intended results, or are causing undesirable results, they re-assess the situation and make new decisions.

Think of a particularly difficult decision you recently had to make, and now regret.

What process did you follow?

Was the process satisfactory? Were you rushed? Should you have consulted more widely?

Would following a process have made the decision easier?

And, what would you help you to make a better decision next time?

In the last and final topic of this unit, we will look at the particular ethical conundrum that is ‘conflict of interest’.

Source: Jefferson Institute for Ethics