Ethical Decision Making

Lesson Plan: Ethics and Decision-Making

I have created materials that allow for an assortment of approaches to teaching these ethics modules. Basically, the first module on ethics is designed as a stand-alone module where students learn about the various approaches to ethics. I have incorporated many questions into the slideware presentation that can be removed or changed as needed. Using my own test slides, I covered all the material and most of the discussion questions. While I did skip over a few questions that I thought had been touched on while discussing other topics in the class, I have intentionally incorporated more questions than necessary so that you can decide which ones to keep. My goal was also to assess whether I could cover all of the material in one 75-minute class session. Which I did.

Obviously, adjust the slides as you see fit, based on your own individual lecture style.

The second module is intended to describe many of the features that go into decision-making. In the introductory video I stress how ethics are essentially decisions that are also guided by rhetorical and informational choices. I.e., doing research on a problem makes it possible to make better decisions, but how we frame a problem also influences how we look at it, etc. Most of the topics on the list are basic decision-making concepts taught in courses called "Decision-making."

My ultimate goals in the two modules are for students to:

  1. Understand the various ethical frameworks, be able to apply them in various situations, and become more aware of their own ethical orientations and ethical decision-making strategies.
  2. Understand that the ethical frameworks are decisions.
  3. Understand that decision-making is a complicated process that is informed by research, and the ethical approach that we take, as well as by other situational, cultural, economic, etc. variables.
  4. For students to understand that by learning how people make decisions, we can make better decisions ourselves. And also, for students to understand how to help others make good decisions.
  5. For students to understand ethics and decision-making, and learn that by identifying the ethical frameworks, dominant incentives, etc. of others, we can become better group decisions makers and better organizational members.

The final part of the module is the incorporation of a simulation/role-playing activity that students do in class. I updated the topic of the simulation for this module, but in the past, I have used a similar simulation to teach how to understand ethics and how to identify the ethical positions of others. The module can be used as a stand-alone activity, or it could be incorporated into the lecture from Module II. I used the module II lecture (minus the discussion questions) and did the simulation in the same day, but typically I do two weeks on ethics and would cover codes of ethics first, ethical orientations second, decision-making third, and the ethical activity on the last day. However, assuming the students have done their reading, both modules and the simulation can be done in two class periods.


Module Overview

Module 1

Understanding ethics takes more than simply memorizing some definitions. A genuine understanding of ethics also includes an appreciation for ethics and an understanding of what guides our own, and others’ ethical positions. Often, ethics are seen as obscure or complicated, rather than as tools for making thoughtful decisions and ensuring positive action. Lesson One defines ethics, discusses the difference between ethics and religion, provides explanations for nine basic ethical orientations, and finally, provides a case study of how ethics fit into the real world. It describes a case study of an organization called the Long Now, that is focused on the next millennium, and teaching people to make ethical and longterm decisions.

Module 2

Ethics are often reduced to tools or principles useful for helping professionals make difficult decisions. However, people are rarely asked to explain what ethical principles inform their own actions, the actions of others, or help individuals to make ethical choices. To better understand the basic ethical principles in the previous lesson, Lesson Two briefly describes the steps involved in group decision-making. It also describes a number of decision-making concepts and principles that inform how people make decisions and the relationship between ethics and decision-making, as well as offers a case study of the concept of fair division. The ultimate goal is to show that important decisions can be informed by ethics, provided decision-makers understand that other decision-makers also have ethically guided preferences, and are often willing to ignore ethics for expediency. Understanding both areas can help teach skills for ethical decision-making.

The lesson plan also includes a role playing activity intended to bring together both sets of concepts (ethics and decision-making) from the two lessons and help the participants to understand how to figure out the preferences of others, and make predictions about the potential actions of participants.

Citations & Resources

Lesson 1

Bitzer, L. F. (1968). The rhetorical situation. Philosophy & Rhetoric 1(1), 1–14.

Buber, M. (1970/1923). I and thou, W. Kaufmann (Trans.) New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Burke, K. (1966). Language as symbolic action: Essays on life, literature, and method. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Etzioni, A. (1993). The spirit of community: The reinvention of American society. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Lopreato, J. (1981). Toward a theory of genuine altruism in homo sapiens. Ethology and Sociobiology 2, 113–126.

Rogers, C. R. (1992/1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 60, 827–832 (original work published 1956).

Weiss, P. (1993). Feminism and Communitarianism: Exploring the relationship. In, P. Weiss, Gendered Community: Rousseau, Sex, and Politics. New York: New York University Press.

Lesson 2

Brams, S. J. (2003). Negotiation Games: Applying game theory to bargaining and arbitration (Vol. 2). New York: Routledge.

Brams, S. J., & Taylor, A. D. (1996). Fair Division: From cake-cutting to dispute resolution. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Dawes, R. M., Faust, D., & Meehl, P. E. (1989). Clinical versus actuarial judgment. Science 243, 1668–1673.

Hallahan, K. (1999) Seven models of framing: Implications for public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 11 (3), 205–242.

Janis, I. L. (1982). Groupthink: Psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes (second edition). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Module Developer

Michael Kent

Dr. Michael Kent

Professor of Public Relations, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Michael L. Kent (Ph.D.) is a Professor of Public Relations, in the College of Communication and Information, at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Kent has been teaching for more than 25 years and has taught more than 45 different courses in communication and public relations, and in several countries. Kent conducts research on Dialogue, New Technology, Mediated Communication, International Communication, and Web Communication. Kent consults on public relations, research methods, message design, mediated communication, and journalism. Kent has published more than 100 articles, books, book chapters, and other publications. In 2006, Kent spent the fall semester in Riga, Latvia on a Fulbright Scholarship. Kent received his Doctorate from Purdue University, his Master’s from the University of Oregon, and his Bachelor’s from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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