Setting Impossible Standards: The Model of Ethical Decision-Making Associated with the New Zealand Psychologists' Code of Ethics

By Williams, Tim | New Zealand Journal of Psychology, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Setting Impossible Standards: The Model of Ethical Decision-Making Associated with the New Zealand Psychologists' Code of Ethics


Williams, Tim, New Zealand Journal of Psychology


Ethical decisions are usually made with incomplete information, insufficient resources, and limited time. While some ethical decisions are about unusual and high-risk situations and draw on considerable resources, the majority are largely routine and these are often made with little or no explicit deliberation. The model of ethical decision-making offered with the recently published New Zealand Psychologists' Code of Ethics is like many other such models in that it demands cognitively explicit, linear, rational decision-making. This paper brings together literature from various sources to challenge this as the only view of how ethical decisions are made or how they should be made, and offers a range of solutions based on current psychological knowledge of how decisions, including ethical decisions, can be effectively made using both rational and non-rational explanations.

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Decision-making in general has been a subject of research in psychology for many years and it has been found to be a complex process. Ethical decision-making has been less researched but, when it has been, it has been found to be highly complex and influenced by a range of internal factors, such as emotion and mood, and personal values, and it is also influenced by external factors such as interpersonal factors in the work place, organisational structure, and the ethical standards demonstrated by the employing company (Hollander, 1995; Singer, 1997; Singer, 1999; Trevino, 1986; Williams 2002). Many models of ethical decision-making have the goal of assured, optimal decisions but the reality is that such decisions are usually marked by complexity and uncertainty.

Historically ethical decision making has been taught as a logical, linear and cognitively explicit process, typically based on methods from moral philosophy and classical decision theory. In the event of formal complaints or legal action, this same construct of the process of decision-making is used as the test to adjudicate on the quality of a practitioner's ethical behaviour. In such legalistic processes it is presumed that the practitioner had an explicit intent of which they were aware and which they had deliberated on for each action they have taken. A practitioner who cannot give an apparently deliberated and apparently a priori logical explanation will have trouble defending their actions.

In what is a significant work on decision-making, Janis and Mann (1977 cited in Lipshitz, 2000, p757), prescribed the following as an outline of the ideal decision-making process:

1. Thoroughly canvass a wide range of courses of action;

2. Survey a full range of objectives and values;

3. Carefully weigh all known positive and negative consequences;

4. Search for new information intensively;

5. Re-examine all alternatives and considerations before making the decision;

6. Make detailed implementation plans, and prepare for potential contingencies.

This style of thinking has been put forward for ethical decision-making by health professionals in a diverse range of literature, typical examples of which are shown in Table 1.

Either implied, or explicitly stated, in these models is the goal of an optimal or 'best' decision being made. Simon (1991) illustrated the possible negative consequences of seeking the optimum when he wrote that "searching for the best can only dissipate scarce cognitive resources; the best is the enemy of the good" (p361).

Beach and Lipshitz (1993) describe the historical origins of classical decision theories within utlitarian philosophy and Jeremy Bentham's philosphical model of the ideal 'Economic Man'. They suggest that, as a philosophical model, it had validity in the era in which it was developed as there was no attempt to attribute real world explanatory or predictive power to it. Such a frankly theoretical perspective allowed the 'Economic Man' to be both omniscient and 'computationally omnipotent'. …

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