Approaches to Ethical Decision Making in Schools

Ethical decision-making is essential in understanding and demonstrating values in educational institutions. Philosophical, social and moral principles and values accentuate ethical decision-making and shape the foundation for understanding the relationship between an individual’s values and decisions made in educational institutions. Administrating what an individual knows is right is not always straightforward, and determining what is right is often difficult (Beckner, 2004).

An exact collection of ethical principles and moral concepts in decision-making does not exist. An understanding of ideas, values, or concepts should guide one’s decision-making and demonstrate what an individual believes to be the best for students and other stakeholders in an educational institution. Individuals should prepare to utilize logical and applicable methods in decision-making, predominantly in situations where an obvious right-and-wrong answer does not exist (Beckner, 2004). The following treatise will identify, compare, and contrast three approaches to making ethical decisions within an educational institution: consequentialism, mixed-consequentialism, and deontologism. These three approaches to ethical decision-making, present a method for differentiating between right and wrong actions (Odell, 2001).


In consideration of the consequential approach, individuals should do whatever brings about the best results in a situation. This idea relates to common sense in the logic thinking that if individuals know the results of a specific action will be better than the results of another, then the individual should choose the action which will have the best outcome (Uglietta, 2001). In consequentialism theory, an individual ought to maintain the ability to foresee the consequences of an action. To a consequentialist, the decision that generates the most benefit to the most individuals is the decision that is ethically acceptable (Beckner, 2004).

One advantage of this ethical approach is that an individual can evaluate comparable results and use a point system to establish which decision is more beneficial to the most individuals (Rainbow, 2002). A weakness of this approach includes the involvement of predicting the future. Some individuals may be able to use life experience to predict results, but there is no certainty to this practice. This in turn, may lead to unexpected results, which may be unethical since the choice may not benefit many individuals. For example, if an individual starts a fire in the fireplace to warm other individuals, and the fire burns down the house because there was creosote buildup that caught on fire, the consequentialist has selected an unethical decision since the decision did not benefit many individuals (Rainbow, 2002).


In mixed consequential, consequential thinking is mixed with deontology thinking to form a single approach to ethical decisions. Consequently, a decision may be deontological when there is an assumption of justice, and consequentialistic when there is an assumption of utility or good (Nandi, 2006). Individuals should use this approach when there is an assumption of justice and utility of good (Beckner, 2004).


In consideration of the deontological approach, consequences of actions are not significant when it comes to determining what is right and wrong. In this view, the most important aspect to remember is that consequences do not make a difference when determining if an action or individuals are moral or immoral, the end does not justify the means. A standard of morality determines if an action is right and if individuals are good. Moral standards must always be kept no matter what the consequences (Beckner, 2004).

Deontologist individuals unite responsibilities and obligations when evaluating ethical decisions. A deontologist will always keep promises and always follow the law, individuals who follow this approach will produce consistent decisions since they base decisions on set responsibilities (Rainbow, 2002). Deontology contains many positive features, but also contains weaknesses. One weakness of this approach is that there is no justification or logical basis for determining an individual’s responsibilities. For example, if an individual decides to always be on time, one does not know why this individual has chosen to make this his or her responsibility. Another fault is that an individual’s responsibilities may conflict and individuals are not concerned with the well being of other individuals. For example, for the person whom is running late, speeding to arrive on time will not maintain the law; however, arriving late breaks the individuals responsibility to be on time. Consequently, there are conflicting obligations and there is no clear decision. Deontology does not offer guidance when an individual encounters conflicting responsibilities (Rainbow, 2002).

Compare and Contrast

Consequetionalists support a common, yet all encompassing, insight: the single rationalization of any moral practice is to make the world a better place. Consequently, an individual’s actions or moral standards would be immoral if the concluding effect was to make circumstances worse for all individuals affected by the act or moral standards. In contrast, in the deontology view, morality is not simply a matter of what results from an individual’s actions or character (Uglietta, 2001; Elliot, 1993). In an action-based approach to consequential, because an action has no moral value, any activity is capable of becoming moral. In contrast, the deontological approach contends that some actions can have moral value of their own, neglecting to act on the principle present in such actions represents an immorality of some sort. For deontologists, specific actions possess fundamental moral worth. These actions are then worth accomplishing for their own purpose and not for the resulting good or advantage (Elliot, 1993).

Consequentialism contends that all individuals long for and seek happiness and all actions are endeavors to attain happiness. In addition, consequentialism recognizes the importance of not following rules without question when they are no longer suitable; deontology does not. Deontology proposes objections to comparing what is with what ought to be as usefulness becomes indistinguishable to integrity and reality becomes confused with importance. The determination of good may turn out to be a matter of opinion or popular consensus (Elliot, 1993). Consequentialism cannot determine one good that is both essential and adequate for human success. Human success is determined by an assortment of goods, and sensible, ethical individuals may differ in their evaluation of which goods are significant (Beckner, 2004). There is no possible way to determine all the consequences of an action beforehand regardless of the relative value of those consequences. In the deontology approach, individuals are objective and their main beliefs are not dependent upon individual explanation for validity. Consequently, the main beliefs are quite simple to comprehend and follow, particularly because the main beliefs develop from human need and right and wrong are not difficult to recognize. Consequestionalists reject rules because consequentialism contends that following rules, when an individual can get better results by breaking them, is irrational. (Uglietta, 2001).

Deontology has various strengths, in the most extreme form the contention is that morality has nothing to do with the consequences of decisions. However, mixed consequetionalists consider consequences when judging the rightness or wrongness of a decision (Uglietta, 2001). Deontology and consequentialism do not differ over whether morality rejects a focus on the consequences of actions or not. The two approaches differ over the essence of this focus. Consequentialism, maintains the view that morality is fundamentally about the encouragement of some good, and therefore, always about the consequences of one’s actions. Deontology rejects this idea and maintains that some actions can be morally right even though they do not encourage some good (Uglietta, 2001). The fundamentals of consequentialism are therefore, revealed by concentrating on what is involved in the concept of promoting some good. Consequetialism now becomes the observation that all necessary moral decisions are those that encourage some essential moral value. In contrast, deontology becomes the observation that decisions need not endorse an essential moral value (Uglietta, 2001).

Another important aspect of deontology and consequentialism to compare is that deontology is agent-relative whereas consequentialism is agent-neutral. An approach that is agent-neutral employs the same set of definitive goals and agent-relative does not (Portmore, 2005). Consequentialism also contends that every act is either acceptable or unacceptable exclusively in virtue of its affirmative or unhelpful inclination to encourage value. The deontology approach refutes this premise. In deontology, some acts are right or wrong, independent of the value of the outcome. Of course, a deontological approach can contend that some acts are acceptable in virtue of their good consequences, like the telling of a harmless lie, but this approach does not contend that all acts are acceptable in virtue of their good or bad consequences. When this occurs, the mixed consequentialism approach is essential. Mixed consequentialism will take the best attributes from both deontology and consequentialism and discard the questionable sections of each approach. This approach agrees with an individual’s logical instincts (Portmore, 2005). Consequentialism by itself, is not a complete approach upon which to base ethical decisions that can guide individuals to make decisions that are right and why. However, consequentialism does provide a structure that is recognizable and establishes a set of substantive moral theories. Deontology is deficient in this structure, but recognizes moral reasons that do not rest on the significance of value (McNaughton & Rawling, 1998).


The approaches to ethical thinking emphasize different aspects of an ethical dilemma and guide individuals to the most ethically acceptable decision according to the guidelines within the ethical approach (Rainbow, 2002). Individuals should use deontology for decisions when the situation is clearly right and wrong, and straightforward. One must not ignore justice and individual rights in the interest of legal or organizational interests. Individuals should use consequentialism for decisions when right and wrong are not apparent. Individuals ought to consider the consequences and what decision will generate the most good. Individuals should use mixed consequentialism when there is an assumption of justice and utility of good (Beckner, 2004).
Educational leaders must utilize some effective plan to assist in making the best decisions in difficult situations. In addition, educational leaders must and be able to attain an inference about the best way to proceed in these situations. Educational leaders should use personal, professional, and social discretion when encountering situations in educational institutions. This includes recognizing one’s substantive responsibility as well as a procedure for managing that responsibility (Starratt, 2004; Mills, 2006).
Educational leaders should also recognize ethical and moral dilemmas in a situation and identify his or her responsibilities to the situation. Educators should contemplate their ethical role of establishing and maintaining a learning environment that permits students to develop into productive members of society (Gorman & Pauken, 2003).


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