The Complexity of Ethical Thinking and Decision Making (Part 2)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

In Part 1 of this series I looked at the importance of Deep Thinking. In Part 2, we’ll consider the Context. No matter how much effort it takes to understand the context, we can’t expect to make an ethical decision without taking that step.

Understanding the Context

Without seeing the context – a broad and sweeping view of the issue we are discussing or trying to resolve and factors in the environment that affect it – we are just describing or trying to solve a SUBSET of the real issue. We are not seeing the whole issue. To use ethical thinking and decision-making, we must remind ourselves that the SUBSET is not the whole. 

If you drive a sports car on a crowded city street with your eyes closed, people are going to get hurt (including you). Making decisions without understanding the context is similarly risky. 

A clear understanding of the context is an important part of staying ethically aware and competent, and both are necessary qualities for responsible leadership. Ethical leaders know that there can be no ethical awareness without understanding the context, and without awareness, competence and responsibility are also out of reach.

    — Linda Fisher Thornton, Ethical Leaders Understand the Context, Leading in Context Blog 

It’s easy to find one or two pieces of information about an issue and think we understand it. In Context Matters: What We’re Learning About Food I explored what happens when we think about nutrition by looking at individual nutrients without considering the context. That example drives home the point because most of us have probably gone through life thinking about nutrition as a collection of individual nutrients.

“Applying the ‘food matrix’ concept we learn that we can’t accurately assess nutritional impact based on breaking down individual nutrients in isolation from the whole. We have to consider what we added and what we left out. In other words, context matters.”

Linda Fisher Thornton, Context Matters: What We’re Learning About Food, Leading in Context Blog

Understanding the context helps us make choices that “work” ethically in the particular setting and it prepares us to adapt to a changing world.  What is ethical in one context may not be in another.

Context Helps us See the Bigger Meaning 

Some people may feel that it’s wrong to hold someone accountable now for an ethical violation when the same action was not punished in the past. Considering the context helps us see that this change is not a result of “inconsistent” treatment, but of increasing expectations and accountability for ethical behavior.

“Full accountability – holding people accountable for ethical problems that were previously overlooked – may appear on the surface to be inconsistent and unfair. But when you take a closer look at the trends, you will discover an important reason why people are more frequently being held fully accountable. It is because ethical expectations are increasing and expanding.”

Linda Fisher Thornton, Full Accountability for Ethics: The New Normal, Leading in Context Blog

Context is an important element in ethical decision making. 

What Ethical Thinkers and Leaders Don’t Do

  • Assume they already know the context
  • Ignore new research or the informed opinions of others outside of their groups
  • “Save time” by ignoring the context so they can make a quick and decisive decision

What Ethical Thinkers and Leaders Do

  • Ethical thinkers and leaders take time to understand the context
  • They look outside of their own groups to see what others are learning about the issue
  • They carefully consider the context before making decisions or taking action
  • They adjust their thinking as new credible information emerges

Leaders who ignore the context frustrate those they lead and serve. Why? Ignoring the context and making a quick decision often leads to costly and time-consuming fixes later. The fallout from decisions made in a vacuum can be severe and leaders can miss critical ethical issues. Taking the time to understand the context, we more easily make decisions that fall within the ethical zone. 

Watch for Part 3, when I’ll explore the importance of embracing complexity

 

Click the cover to read a free preview!

LeadinginContext.com  

©2019 Leading in Context LLC

 

About Linda Fisher Thornton
Linda Fisher Thornton is Founder and CEO of Leading in Context, and author of the award-winning book 7 Lenses. She teaches as Adjunct Assoc. Prof. for University of Richmond SPCS. She is leading a movement to help leaders and organizations Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership.

Join the Conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: