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Leaders Making Ethical Decisions

What Are The 4 Ethical Frameworks and What Do They Mean?

Here at Ethix, we – for obvious reasons – talk a lot about ethics. The ethics of production, the ethics of raw materials, the ethics of logistics. We want to improve the world around us, support local communities and producers, reduce carbon emissions, and generally do our part to fight climate change, contribute to human justice, and fight oppression around the world.

What does it mean to be ethical, though?

There’s no singular objective definition of ethics. It’s also often difficult to evaluate the ethics of a given scenario.

Take the trolly problem, for example. While it’s something of an internet meme at this point, the trolly problem started out as an ethical thought experiment. It places you as an individual in a position where doing nothing will lead to the deaths of several people, but taking action can minimize those casualties, sacrificing one person for the salvation of many.

What’s the ethical move in that scenario?

  • If you do nothing, you personally are not necessarily responsible for the deaths of the people whom the trolly hits; no action you took caused their end.
  • If you take action, you save several lives, but you’re also directly responsible for the loss of one. Is that better or worse?

Depending on your view of ethics – the ethical framework you use to make decisions – both of these may be the better option. The first option absolves you of sin and guilt, for you did not take any action to result in tangible harm. Inaction is not considered in such a framework because, truly, there’s no way that you can ever find the best possible action to take to fight the largest amount of injustice and harm in the world, and therefore, every action you could take would be a less ethical choice and would lead to paralysis.

On the other hand, other ethical frameworks place the decision not to participate as a decision itself, and inaction as another form of action. Pulling the level and sacrificing one for the good of the many becomes the most ethical choice. In the absence of other options, minimizing the greatest amount of harm is the more ethical choice.

A third path in some frameworks would be to evaluate the system. To rise above the trolly and look at why the trolly doesn’t have its own safety systems or who put the people in the tracks in the first place. Systemic injustice is, after all, often much more significant and much larger and more important to address than any individual change you could make. After all, maybe you take action or don’t in the trolly problem, but in millions of other trolly problems happening around the world every day, your singular action does very little against the sum total of all trollies.

To be clear, there’s no right answer here. The trolly problem is an intentional thought experiment that takes many forms and has been broadly discussed and analyzed for decades; it’s not meant to be solved. But it is reflective of your personal ethical stance and the framework you use to make your own decisions in your own life.

Defining Ethical Frameworks

Ethical frameworks are basically ways of codifying your own ethical and moral feelings. Some frameworks are more personal, while others are more social. There are also, depending on how you define them, way more than four or less than four. Let’s talk about some of them.


The Blachard-Pearle ethical framework came from a book published in 1988 called The Power of Ethical Management. It’s perhaps the simplest possible ethical framework, and it derives much of its perspective on ethics from the society in which you live. Essentially, it poses three sequential questions.

Blanchard-Pearle Questions

First: Is it legal? Is the action you wish to take legal for your federal, state, and local laws and within compliance with the bylaws of your business or organization? If you have to violate laws to take an action – or to not take an action, such as not reporting an observed crime – then it fails the first test and is not ethical.

Second: Is it fair? Would the decision you make be considered fair and equitable, or does it treat different individuals or groups differently and hand preferential treatment to some over others? If the decision you make would obviously benefit one group over another, it’s often a biased and unethical decision, though the context here can also matter.

Third: How does it make you feel? Gut feelings can also be important, not just your own, but those of others. Making the most objectively ethical decision can still be a negative if the court of public opinion disagrees.

There are, obviously, many problems with this framework. One of the largest is that the first filtering question relies on society’s laws and your company’s bylaws to be fair and ethical. This is very rarely true. After all, for a long time, it was legal to own other human beings in this country; slavery would pass the first question during that time period. Ideally, the second question would mitigate that impact, but realistically, social and cultural mores meant it didn’t.

Markkula Frameworks

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics is a branch of Santa Clara University and has developed this rundown of ethical perspectives, some of which are much older than the center itself. It identifies six “lenses” through which one can view and analyze an ethical situation.

Markkula Frameworks

These lenses include:

  • The Rights Lens. This lens focuses on the ability to protect the moral rights of everyone affected by a decision. A decision that infringes on another’s ability to live their lives freely is an unethical decision. Humans have the right to make their own choices, to have privacy, to be free of injury from others, and so on. This lens has many questions, though, including what moral rights exist and if non-humans have rights as well. It’s a very individualistic and independent moral framework divorced from greater society.
  • The Justice Lens. This framework is based on the idea that each individual should be given what they are due, in fair and equal treatment across the board and throughout society. People should be treated as equals, but equitable distribution of resources and attention may be necessary. The popular illustration of equality vs equity is an example of how unequal treatment can still be the more ethical choice. The Justice lens recognizes more nuance, including retributive justice, social justice, and restorative justice.
  • The Utilitarian Lens. This is one of the oldest ethical frameworks and stems from the works of John Stuart Mill, building on the work of Jeremy Bentham, along with many others. Utilitarianism is an ethical framework that promotes the greatest objective benefit and the minimum objective harm of any action or inaction. It’s like performing a cost/benefit analysis of every element and decision you make. It’s also one of those frameworks that sounds good until you get down to the details, such as how far your analysis goes, how granular your decisions are, and what is considered a positive or negative impact.
  • The Common Good Lens. This framework abandons the good of the individual in favor of the good of the community. To go back to the trolly problem, the common good framework pulls the lever every time. The sacrifice of one to save many serves the most common good in that scenario. It’s also a good framework for evaluating systemic issues like clean air, clean water, public education, and other elements of society, which can transform a small investment into a great common good. However, this framework does have limits and edge cases where it clashes with personal morality. The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas is an excellent story that covers the concept.
  • The Virtue Lens. This is a lens that comes from ancient society and mythology, the idea that there are core virtues, like honesty, courage, compassion, fairness, and love, and that living up to those virtues is the basis of ethical behavior. It’s a very individualistic form of ethics, with the idea that if everyone acts to the peak of their virtues, society as a whole is virtuous. The area in which it falters, then, is that no individual virtuous act is going to be the one that purifies the air for everyone else; it doesn’t consider social good as much as individual good.
  • The Care Ethics Lens. This lens is a nuanced and individual framework relying heavily on individual morality, empathy, and doing the most good for individuals such that it allows them to uphold interdependence and social contracts. It’s typically very holistic but can get very bogged down with details when larger issues need addressing.

Some people consider each of these lenses to be individual frameworks in and of themselves, and in many cases, they are. Utilitarianism is a prime example. Markkula’s framework, meanwhile, is a series of questions that have you run through each of the lenses and evaluate each decision not just in terms of any one lens but in a broader overview across them all.

The Issue-Contingent Model

Another framework, created in 1991, was developed as a response to the other ethical frameworks and their shortcomings.

Essentially, this framework takes the work of previous frameworks but addresses the simple fact that different actions can have consequences on different levels. To refer again to the trolly problem, the “math” may change in moral and ethical terms if the one person on the lone track is a billionaire philanthropist on the cusp of solving world hunger, while the many people on the other track are all murderers and assorted criminals. While many frameworks would sacrifice the one to save the many, the “moral intensity” of the loss of the philanthropist would be a much greater loss.

Leadership Recognizing and Identifying Issues

This model follows a four-step process. First, you recognize and identify the issue you’re evaluating. Next, you make a judgment about where you stand ethically on the issue. Third, you establish the moral intent behind your decision. Finally, you engage in the behavior as you desire.

Each of these steps takes your overall ethical framework into consideration, but modifies it with moral intensity. Thus, the act of buying a t-shirt from a less ethical producer might not be as morally intense as a more direct action in other spheres.

One area where this framework can falter is the fact that you need to be well aware of your own biases in evaluating moral intensity. If you as an individual don’t much care for people outside of your country, you might not evaluate morality objectively when it involves third-world exploitation, for example.

Picking the Right Ethical Framework

So, how do you pick the right ethical framework?

Truthfully, you can’t. Ethical frameworks are useful tools for thinking about issues in ways you otherwise might not consider them and identifying the far-reaching ramifications of decisions. They’re useful for looking at situations in different lights.

Picking an Ethical Framework

In practice, though, often your actions aren’t driven by ethical consideration, they’re driven by habit or more practical considerations. You also often can’t take the most ethical path, and getting bogged down in identifying the most ethical option you can still manage can be detrimental in other ways.

All of this is why, as a company focused on ethical production, we aren’t trying to follow one specific framework. Instead, we take the best option we can at every turn for social and environmental justice, progressive movement, and the support of communities both locally and abroad. Ethics isn’t something you can determine once and run with; it’s an ongoing process and a way you navigate life. We do what we can to provide you with a more ethical option when presented with products you might want but which rely on the exploitation of people around the world or damaging environmental practices to create. It’s up to you to use your own ethical evaluation to decide to go with our options over others. And hey, maybe we aren’t the best option available to you. If that’s the case, please let us know so we can strive to do better as well.