Last week I had the pleasure of hearing Mayor Megan Barry speak to the senior engineering class about ethics in engineering projects. She established that there are three primary approaches for ethical dilemmas–– rules-based, relationship-based, and consequence-based.
When an ethical quandary is approached from the rules-based perspective, the decision maker focuses on what hard and fast rules or protocols are being violated with little concern for the personal situations and motivating factors of those involved. Think about former classmates in middle school or high school who would tell the teacher on you for a minor deviation from the class rules. Conversely, a person operating from the relationship-based point of view prioritizes the people in the situation to justify actions that go against laws. This kind of person would steal medicine to help her sick child. Lastly, there are Consequentialists who typically answer ethical dilemma questions with ‘It depends.’ People who focus on the severity of the consequences for each side of an ethical argument try to minimize the damages to all involved in a particular conundrum.
Ultimately, there is no right or wrong approach to an ethical dilemma which is what necessitates the field. We live during a turbulent time in politics and entertainment where prominent figures are ousted with increasing regularity. It is important to be able to justify your actions not only to yourself but to most anyone who would question them. Everyone will face an ethical dilemma sooner or later so it is important to understand the different methods for approaching problems.