Module 2: Methods of Ethical Analysis



Module 2: Methods of Ethical Analysis


Application of Ethical Theories

Methods for Ethical Analysis


Application of Ethical Theories

In module 1, we acquired a foundation in classical ethical theories. In this module, we will learn how to apply this knowledge to ethical challenges in today’s business world and, more specifically, to the area of information technology.

As we learned in module 1, the main traditional ethical theories tend to be either rule-based (deontological) or consequentialist (teleological). Both types of theories provide a framework for deciding whether actions are right, depending upon the consequences that result from the action (consequentialist) or whether the action follows the relevant rules for ethical behavior (deontological). Traditional ethical theories were intended to apply universally to ethical dilemmas and obviously didn’t factor in issues such as marketplace competition, stockholders, and today’s ever-changing world of information technology. Today’s IT manager needs to be able to address ethical issues and to find resolutions in concrete business terms rather than engage in a philosophical ethical debate. However, we can use those theories to guide our ethical decision-making process.

In addition to the ethical theories already presented, business ethics attempts to take traditional ethics and apply them practically to a business context. The normative theories of business ethics (NTBE), introduced to the information systems community in large part by Smith and Hasnas, provide three basic approaches to ethical problems: stockholder, stakeholder, and social contract theories (Smith, 2002). In this section, we will introduce those theories as well as make connections to classical theory.

Normative Theories of Business Ethics

As its name indicates, the stockholder theory of NTBE focuses on making ethical decisions that benefit stockholders. According to this theory, because stockholders have invested in the company for their own profit, actions taken by the company should be focused on benefiting the bottom line. A manager or employee has a responsibility to use corporate resources in ways that do not take away from the stockholders’ benefits. Stockholder theory instructs managers to act within legal constraints. It does not instruct or encourage managers to ignore ethical constraints.

Stakeholder theory expands a manager’s responsibility beyond the stockholders to include anyone with an interest in the firm. This could include employees, customers, stockholders, and potentially even competitors. Given that there is a potential conflict among the interests of the various stakeholders, the manager’s challenge is to balance those interests and to provide the best possible solution that does not substantially infringe on any individual stakeholder group.

According to social contract theory, businesses have ethical obligations to benefit society by fulfilling customer and employee interests within the generally accepted rules or codes. If there were a hypothetical contract between society and a group of individuals who wished to establish a business, what would the latter need from society—and what would society expect in return? The terms of this hypothetical contract would outline both those sets of expectations. Therefore, in giving the group of individuals rights to act as an organization, use resources, and hire employees, a society would have expectations related to fair treatment of employees, appropriate uses of natural resources, and so on. (Smith, 2002).

Figure 2.1 illustrates the various links between business ethics and traditional ethical theories to show the continuing relevance of the latter. To find out more about the connections between NTBE and traditional ethics, click on the titles under Normative Theories of Business Ethics and read the information contained in the pop-up.

Figure 2.1

Linkages between Traditional Ethical and Business Ethics Frameworks

(Adapted from Smith, H. J. (2002). Ethics and Information Systems: Resolving the Quandaries. The DATABASE for Advances in Information Systems (Summer 2002), p. 5.)

As you can see from the dotted lines in figure 2.1, the modern and traditional elements do have connections and relationships despite their various origins and applications. As you become more familiar with each of these areas, the similarities and differences will become clearer.


Try This 2.1: Booksellers, Inc – Please go to My Tools -> Self Assessments-> to complete this self assessment.


Methods for Ethical Analysis

Now that you’ve had some practice in working through an ethical decision-making scenario, let’s look at various structured approaches for addressing such situations. There are several ways to systematically approach an ethical dilemma. Each has merits, and each will result in an ethical decision if straightforwardly and honestly applied. As you will see, the various approaches are similar yet have somewhat different slants.

Reynolds Seven-Step Approach

George Reynolds uses a seven-step ethical decision-making approach that is summarized in table 2.1.

Table 2.1

Reynolds’ Seven-Step Ethical Decision-Making Approach

Steps Description
1. Get the facts Before proceeding, ensure that you have assembled the relevant facts regarding the ethical issue that

you’re addressing.

2. Identify the stakeholders Identify who is impacted by this situation and its subsequent resolution. Define what their role is as well as

what would be the best-case outcome for each stakeholder group.

3. Consider the consequences What are the benefits and/or harm that could come from your decision to you individually, the stakeholders,

and the organization as a whole?

4. Evaluate the various guidelines, policies, and principles First look to any applicable laws, then to any existing corporate policies, ethical codes, and

individual principles. Look at the application of traditional ethical theories as well as Normative

Theories of Business Ethics.

5. Develop and evaluate options You may identify several possible solutions and may

find it useful to support each with key principles that support the recommendation.

Your chosen solution should be ethically defendable and, at the same time, meet the stakeholder

and organizational needs and obligations.

6. Review your decision Review your decision in relationship to your personal and the organization’s values. Would others see

this as a good and right decision?

7. Evaluate the results Did the final outcome achieve the desired results? This is an important step to help develop and

increase your decision-making abilities.

(Adapted from Reynolds, G. W. (2003). Ethics in Information Technology, pp.115-118.)

Kidder’s Nine-Steps

In his book How Good People Make Tough Choices, Rushworth Kidder presents a similar process; however, he defines four dilemmas by which various moral issues could be categorized (Kidder, 1995, p.18).

· Truth versus loyalty

· Individual versus community

· Short-term versus long-term

· Justice versus mercy

Kidder’s Nine-Steps are:

1 Recognize that there is a moral issue.

2 Determine the actor (whose moral issue is it?).

3 Gather the relevant facts.

4 Test for right-versus-wrong issues.

5 Test for right-versus-right paradigms (what sort of dilemma is this?).

6 Apply the resolution principles (ends-based, rule-based, or care-based).

7 Investigate the “trilemma” options (look for common ground or compromise).

8 Make the decision.

9 Revisit and reflect on the decision. (Kidder, 1995, p. 183-187)

Kidder places “recognize that there is a moral issue” as the first step in the analysis for two reasons. First, it helps to ensure that issues receive the attention required. Secondly, it encourages a person to adequately address moral questions and distinguish moral issues from other situations involving social conventions or contradictory values that could be “economic, technological, or aesthetic” rather than moral issues (Kidder, 1995, p. 183). After evaluating for legal compliance, Kidder advocates some common sense checks such as “How would you feel if what you are about to do showed up tomorrow morning on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers?” Then, he evaluates the issue to identify which of the four dilemmas listed above apply to gain better clarity around the dilemma, identifying the conflict at hand. (Kidder, 1995, p. 184).

Spinello’s Seven-Step Process

Richard Spinello provides a similar seven-step process for ethical analysis designed specifically for IT professionals, and it is geared toward development of public policy and law. His sixth step entails adding an original normative conclusion: what should happen? His seventh step includes the questions: “What are the public-policy implications of this case and your normative recommendations? Should the recommended behavior be prescribed through policies and laws?” This approach can be useful for IT organizations seeking to better structure and define policies and procedures (Spinello, 1997, p. 45).

Here are all Seven-Steps:

1 Identify and formulate the basic ethical issues in each case. Also, consider legal issues and whether ethical and legal issues are in conflict.

2 What are your first impressions, your moral intuition about the problem?

3 Consult appropriate formal guidelines, the ethical and/or professional codes.

4 Analyze the issues from the viewpoint of one or more of the three ethical frameworks.

5 Do the theories lead to a single solution, or do they offer competing alternatives? If competing, which principle or avenue of reasoning should take precedence?

6 What is your normative conclusion—what should happen?

7 What are the public-policy implications of this case and your normative recommendations? Should the recommended behavior be prescribed through policies and laws?

Many common business activities, such as process improvement, problem solving, and project management, have defined approaches to support their process. To effectively make ethical decisions, it also is extremely useful to have a structure to approach the problem. As a beginning step, have an understanding of the available methodologies for approaching the issue in an objective manner. Eventually, skill and experience in applying the process will enable you to explain your process and subsequent recommendations to other stakeholders.

One of the challenges for those working in IT is the lack of precedence in some situations. The more you can apply a well-grounded methodology when faced with a new or ambiguous ethical dilemma, the greater the likelihood that you can come to an ethical solution that will effectively balance individual, organizational, and/or social concerns with good business.

Ultimately, you need to use an analytical approach that works for you and for your organization. It may be one of the approaches we’ve discussed, or it may be a hybrid. Individual values will also drive the approach. In addition to these theories, corporations and professional associations have attempted to provide guidance through corporate codes of conduct or professional codes of ethics. Corporate codes of conduct typically are intended to apply to all employees and, therefore, do not specifically address IT issues. However, some IT organizations establish additional policies related to software use and so on. Professional associations, such as the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), have established code of ethics for its members to help guide their activities.

Many of the ethical issues that arise within the field of information technology fall into similar areas. Richard Mason, a professor in Management Information Systems, has identified four ethical areas in the Information Age that have been widely accepted as key issues (Mason, 1986):

· Privacy

· Accuracy

· Property

· Accessibility

These will be discussed in more detail in module 3.

Try This 2.2: Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics – – Please go to My Tools -> Self Assessments-> to complete this self assessment.

With the information presented in this module, you should be able to apply a structured approach to an ethical dilemma. The scenario presented below under Try This 2.3 will provide you with an opportunity to do just that. When you’ve completed that exercise, you’ll be ready to move on to the Self-Assessment.

Try This 2.3: BuyItHere Ethical Dilemma – Please go to My Tools -> Self Assessments-> to complete this self assessment.


Barquin, R. C. (1992). Ten commandments of computer ethics. Retrieved August 19, 2005, from

Kidder, R. M. (1995). How good people make tough choices: Resolving the dilemmas of ethical living. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Mason, R. O. (1986). Four ethical issues of the information age. Management Information Systems Quarterly, 10, (1), 3.

Reynolds, G. W.  (2003). Ethics in information technology. Boston: Thomson Learning, Inc.

Smith, H. J. (2002). Ethics and information systems: Resolving the quandaries. Database for Advances in Information Systems, 33, (3).

Spinello, R. A. (1997).Case studies in information and computer ethics. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Return to top of page

Report broken links or any other problems on this page.


Copyright © by University of Maryland University College.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *