Applying Defence Ethics

47. Before considering, in the next two sections, defence ethics in relation to the individual and the organization, this section provides general guidelines for ethical decision-making and suggest approaches for dealing with ethical dilemmas.

Ethical Decision-Making

48. It is important to stress immediately that there is no single and universally accepted rule, or set of rules, that is guaranteed to produce the ethical solution for the major ethical issues that we encounter in the workplace. However, as a general check on whether a particular decision, option, or course of action is ethically acceptable, we can ask ourselves if the intended action violates any of the general principles or ethical obligations in the Statement of Defence Ethics. If this ethics check reveals anything of importance that has not been factored into the decision or how it will implemented, then we should at least review the decision-making process. On the other hand, if the ethics check reveals that the proposed course of action seems to violate one or more of the general principles or ethical obligations in the Statement of Defence Ethics, then we should consider the proposed option as ethically questionable. Persistence with the proposed course of action is permissible only if it can be justified by a reasoned appeal to a stronger ethical principle or, in the case of an ethical obligation, to at least one other ethical obligation that is considered more binding in the particular situation. In many cases, just asking a question is sufficient to trigger our perception of something ethical in a situation. Without the question: “Is there anything ethical about what we are deciding to do or in how we are planning to carrying it out?”, the idea that the decision or action in question involves anything ethical would not come to mind at all. Once it has been “screened” by a conscientious response to the question, the resulting decision or action, even if unchanged, has the benefit of having received some form of ethics check.

49. For many complex ethical decisions and situations, doubts as to what was ethically the right course of action may persist long after action has been taken, including action based on the advice of experts. It is the nature of complex issues that they lend themselves to more than one acceptable way of dealing with them. This implies that an alternative option that another individual would have selected could potentially serve as the basis for challenging the option that we have selected. In addition, any action will produce unforeseen and unforeseeable effects that may themselves serve as the basis for others, and for ourselves, to doubt the wisdom of the action taken. The only recourse in such circumstances is the personal conviction that one has done a good job of thinking things through and has adopted the most humane course of action available.

50. A simple model of the decision-making process has proven to be a useful tool to assist in thinking through difficult situations with ethical components. By using such a model, we contribute to the completeness of our analysis and increase the consistency of our decision-making. From the point of view of the social sciences, every decision-making process is basically the same, whether it involves situations that have ethical components or are ethically neutral. In very generalized terms, a basic cognitive decision-making model has four interrelated stages: (1) perception; (2) evaluation; (3) decision; and (4) implementation of the decision.

51. The first stage in the process necessarily involves perception. Perception refers to everything we observe in a situation and to our interpretation of it. Thus, if we do not perceive anything ethical in a situation, then for us, at least, there are no ethical factors associated with the situation. It is in this stage that we must ensure that we have clearly articulated what must be decided. In the second stage, evaluation, the individual focuses only the situation itself. Thus, once an individual has grasped the ethical component of a situation, he or she must analyse the situation to identify all other important and relevant factors. Finally, the individual exercises judgement by formulating courses of action that resolves to the extent possible all of the competing factors belonging to the situation itself. The evaluation tends to be carried out impersonally since the individual does not know yet whether or not the possible courses of action will affect him or her personally. In the third stage, decision, judgement is again exercised by selecting a preferred course of action. However, it is at this stage that personal factors may introduce themselves, sometimes forcefully. In this stage, individuals are now in a position to consider the full impact and the potential consequences of a preferred course of action on themselves or on others. This stage may require individuals to return to the evaluation stage to formulate an alternative course of action that resolves, one way or another, all of the competing factors, both impersonal and personal. The final component of the decision-making model is implementation of the decision. In a world of perfect knowledge, implementation would simply involve overseeing and monitoring the action required to make the decision a reality. However, implementation often forces us to deal with the way reality presents us with unforeseen and unforeseeable difficulties in actually implementing our chosen courses of action. In some cases, we may not have fully appreciated the full strength of the resistance people would exercise to the chosen course of action. In other cases, reality itself seems to takes control and obstacles spring up that make it impossible to carry out the decision. The risk of resistances and obstacles increases when the decision requires a lot of time to implement. Thus, it may be that a new human resources policy is about to be promulgated, or some essential resource is not fully available, or a member of the individual’s immediate family suddenly becomes seriously ill. In all such cases, we are required to step back to a previous stage and go through the decision-making process again. It is worth noting that a fifth stage is often added to these four stages: learning. To the extent that decisions of the past impact on decisions of the future, there is no doubt that learning from our past decisions is an essential part of improving future ones. Although a decision-making model assists us in better understanding what is involved in decision-making and although practice in the use of a model has been demonstrated to improve the effectiveness of ethical decision-making, it is important to remember that it is only a tool.

Dealing with Ethical Dilemmas

52. For most decisions and situations related to our roles in the service of the public, the principles and obligations in the Statement of Defence Ethics can help separate what is ethical from what is ethically questionable or clearly unethical. The following specific guidelines are based on the Statement of Defence Ethics and are provided as procedural aids to making sound ethical choices and resolving ethical dilemmas. They describe decision-making that incorporates the hierarchical aspect of the three general principles and suggest ways of dealing with the six equally weighted ethical obligations when they contribute to producing competing claims.

53. Three general types of ethical dilemmas will be encountered, if we leave aside situations that involve a choice between doing what is right and doing what appears to be clearly wrong. They may be described as: (1) the uncertainty dilemma, (2) the competing obligations dilemma, and (3) the harm dilemma. The uncertainty dilemma is the most general in nature because it involves any situation in which we are uncertain about what is the right thing to do, although we are certain that we do not have a simple choice between a right and a wrong. Since many situations relating to the accomplishment of our responsibilities do not represent black and white options, examples of an uncertainty dilemma can readily be found in situations that involve degrees of doing the right thing in accordance with an obligation. In such situations, we have no problem intuitively assessing it as: “this is a case of honesty”, or “…fairness”, or some other obligation. For example, a potential for this kind of dilemma is provided by the conflict of interest guidelines on gifts and hospitality. To ensure fairness in the treatment of all suppliers of government services, the guidelines state that only gifts of a “nominal” value may be accepted (which includes lunches) from suppliers. However, since the guidelines do not categorically state that no gift may be accepted, then judgement must be exercised to establish what is “nominal”, and there will be cases where you will be (or should be) uncertain as to what is the ethical thing to do.

54. The second type of dilemma is the competing obligations dilemma. These are cases where more than one decision, option, or course of action are consistent with different core ethical values and obligations. These courses of action are said to involve competing obligations because satisfying the demands of one obligation does not allow us to fully satisfy the demands of one or more other obligation. For example, a situation may arise that challenges both our resolve to be loyal to our commitments to the Canadian Forces and Department of National Defence and the requirement to be fair and honest with the people we are dealing with. To resolve conflicts among the values and obligations themselves, the general rule is to refer to the general principles in the Statement of Defence Ethics and adopt the course of action that is most consistent with this hierarchy. Thus, if the conflict is between one obligation that involves primarily Principle I (Respect the dignity of all persons) and obligations that involve either Principle II (Serve Canada before self) or Principle III (Obey and support lawful authority), then the conflict should normally be resolved in favour of Principle I which usually takes precedence. In some circumstances, we may be able to provide a justification which, by exception, would allow an override of Principle I. However, closer analysis would probably reveal that these are cases where Principle II or Principle III is also involved in important ways. Thus, if the situation involves respecting the dignity of more than one group of people, there are good chances that principles II and III are involved. But even in cases of override, in working out means of dealing with the consequences that are likely to result from the override, the respect for the dignity of persons must be given priority. With similar logic, if the conflict is between obligations that refer in one case to Principle II and in another to Principle III, the conflict should normally be resolved in favour of Principle II which should take precedence.

55. The third type of dilemma is the harm dilemma. This dilemma identifies those difficult situations, especially in a military environment, where any action taken will result in harm or injury to others. In such cases, the first requirement is to re-examine the options available and try to identify any non-harmful alternatives. If every reasonable option has been exhausted and possible injury is unavoidable, the appropriate course of action is usually the one that causes the least harm or injury. However, it must be borne in mind that if such a course of action is implemented, there will be negative psychological effects to those involved resulting from such action or policy. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an example of a negative psychological effect that victimises personnel carrying out assignments. Therefore, measures should usually be taken to offset or mitigate these additional harmful effects.

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