Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

The Complexity of Ethical Decision Making

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

The Complexity of Ethical Decision Making

Article excerpt


While often presented as the simplistic choice between right and wrong, ethical decision making can be far more complicated. Increased understanding of why individuals engage in unethical behavior reveals that ethical decision making is not necessarily intuitive. In this regard, the research has begun to provide some possible explanations for the ethical breaches, including considerations of profit motives and competition. The contemporary context also reflects the fact that issues associated with access to information and with technology may enhance the temptation and ease of making unethical choices.

And the importance and complexity of ethical decision making have been emphasized by those in a range of academic disciplines, as evidenced by the increasing emphasis on academic preparation with ethics in the curricula of business schools, following the high-profile ethics cases of the early 2000s, and in other disciplines supported by professional education, including library and information science.

Professional and managerial decisions in libraries range from those involving resources, personnel, facilities, and technology to governance, users, and competition. This article addresses the complexity of ethical decision making, considering the cognitive and intellectual processes associated with the ways in which individuals' knowledge bases develop and how ethical dilemmas are evaluated in the context of those knowledge bases and in relation to pressures, expectations, and norms, to contribute to the broader understanding of managerial and professional decision making in library and information services.

Ethical Decision Making

There is tremendous interest in better understanding managerial and professional decision making. The research on decision making is extensive, addressing the quality of decisions, the sources of information consulted, the time involved in making decisions, consistency of decisions, and transparency of decision making processes, among other issues. Although the research regarding the number of decisions that managers make on a daily basis is incomplete, in daily life, individuals face a seemingly overwhelming number of decisions. For example, the research suggests that individuals make 226.7 food decisions per day, on average (Wansink and Sobal). In the professional realm, "The average classroom teacher will make more than 1,500 educational decisions every school day. In an average 6-hour school day, that's more than 4 decisions every minute" ("Too Many Tasks, Not Enough Day").

The types of decisions that managers make can vary:

Managers may make relatively minor decisions that are primarily operational or tactical in nature. For example, a manager may need to decide which type of napkins to stock in a restaurant. In contrast, managers may make more strategic decisions that involve larger outlays of capital. Such strategic decisions may include, for example, potential acquisition targets or host countries for foreign direct investment [Certo, Connelly, and Tihanyi, pp. 113-114].

In the context of library management, as well, the types of decisions range from the routine to the unusual and the complex, in areas from resources to personnel, facilities, and technology, to governance, users, and competition.

Obviously, many managerial and other organizational decisions have an ethical component, as reflected in the discussion of professional ethics in the research and professional literature. Many of the most highly publicized cases of ethical abuses, such as Enron, Tyco, Worldcom, and Arthur Andersen, have focused on senior management. However, the research has begun to indicate that issues were not nearly limited to senior executives. According to The Cheating Culture, published in 2004, managers and other employees "steal $600 billion from their companies each year" (Winik, p. 20). Using a recent year as an example, in 2011, ethics cases across industries and sectors included coal mining companies that hid safety issues and racked up safety violations (Tavernise), the use of questionable surveillance and research techniques and illegal payments to law enforcement officers, by media outlets (Hall; Robinson; Lyall; Hughes), and cheating scandals, implicating teachers and administrators, in public school systems (Hall; Severson). …

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