Cognitive Model of Ethical Reasoning

We tend to think that the easy thing is to act ethically and that the hard thing is to act unethically, because unethical action must entail an extra step—that is, we come up with the ethical solution in response to a situation and then we think about how we might depart from that solution.  I have proposed an eight-step model of ethical reasoning that suggests the opposite is true—that it is difficult to act ethically because there are at least eight steps involved in ethical reasoning and if any one of them is omitted, the chances are that one will act unethically.  The eight steps are:

1.  recognize that there is an event to which to react;

2.  define the event as having an ethical dimension;

3.  decide that the ethical dimension is of sufficient significance to merit an ethics-guided response;

4.  take personal responsibility for generating an ethical solution to the problem;

5.  figure out what abstract ethical rule(s) might apply to the problem;

6.  decide how these abstract ethical rules actually apply to the problem so as to suggest a concrete solution;

7. prepare for later possible repercussions of having acted in what one consider an ethical manner;

8.  enact the ethical solution.

In this model, there are a number of critical junctures at which it is not unlikely that one will depart from a chain of reasoning that might otherwise lead to ethical action.  First, one may fail even to observe a situation—for example, someone who needs our help but we just are too “busy” to encode it.  Second, we may encode the situation, but not see it as having an ethical dimension.  For example, a genocide may be written off merely as a civil war.  Often, the perpetrators go out of their way to make it appear as though a genocide is something much less serious.  Third, we may decide that the situation is not serious enough to merit a response, with the result that an unethical act is committed and no one does anything about it.  Fourth, we may decide that unethical behavior is going on, but that it is someone else’s problem, as happened in Nazi Germany, Cambodia, and Rwanda.  Fifth, we may suspect that someone is acting unethically, but fail to find any rule of ethics that we are comfortable applying.  Or sixth, we may identify a rule but be unable to apply it, for example, deciding that genocide is wrong but feeling that there just is nothing we have in our power to do about it.  Seventh, we may be preparing to act and then reconsider because the consequences for us may be so adverse, such as losing a possible promotion, one’s job, or even one’s life.   Finally, we may have done all the reasoning that would enable us to act ethically, and then stop just short of action. 

In sum, ethical action needs to be preceded by eight steps, and without all of them, it is unlikely to occur.  Thus, ethical action often is difficult rather than easy to accomplish.



Key References

Sternberg, R. J. (2009).  Ethics and giftedness.  High Ability Studies, 20, 121-130.

Sternberg, R. J. (2009).  We need to teach for ethical conduct. The Educational Forum, 73 (3), 190-198.

Sternberg, R. J. (2010). Teaching for ethical reasoning in liberal education. Liberal Education, 96(3), 32-37.

Sternberg, R. J. (2012).  Ethical drift.  Liberal Education, 98(3), 60.

Sternberg, R. J. (2012).  A model for ethical reasoning.  Review of General Psychology, 16, 319-326.

Sternberg, R. J. (2012). Teaching for ethical reasoning. International Journal of Educational Psychology, 1(1), 35-50.