Ethical Decision Making: Right vs. Right

I mentioned in my back to school post a couple of weeks ago that I am taking an ethics class this semester. This class is one of the required classes for my behavior analysis master’s program. The class has been pretty interesting so far and each class has been filled with plenty of good discussions and debate.

Recently we read a book chapter by Rushworth Kidder called “The Ethics of Right versus Right.” (If you’re interested, the full chapter is actually available for free.)

Tough choices and ethical dilemmas are often very hard to make. What makes these decisions hard, according to Kidder, is that they are often choices of “right” vs. “right.” Both possibilities have value and merit, yet one must be picked over the other. (Now, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t still right vs. wrong choices. These just aren’t ethical decisions.)

The most interesting part of this chapter was that Kidder names four basic paradigms that encompass most of these ethical dilemmas, the right vs. right choices. Ethical choices often involve decisions between:

  • Individual versus community
  • Truth versus loyalty
  • Short term versus long term
  • Justice versus mercy

These four basic paradigms can be useful for analyzing ethical choices and realizing what has created the conflict. If you have a better understanding of a choice, then you should be better prepared to solve it.

Ethical questions arise all the time in both animal training and in animal rescue work. I’ve been thinking recently of some of the ethical questions I’ve run into and how they fit into these four paradigms. For instance, many decisions in animal rescue work deal with how to allocate scarce resources. Many of these questions are often questions of “individual versus group” or questions about “short term versus long term.”

For example, should a rescue spend a significant amount of money to save an animal that needs extensive medical care, when the same amount of money could provide vaccinations and basic health care for half a dozen other animals? Or, during training, is it okay to do something that is very unpleasant for the animal for the short term if it will have long term benefits for both the animal and owner? And so on.

Of course, there are no “right” answers to any of these questions. Solutions often depend on the specifics of a certain situation and the personal values of the people involved. Still, I think it’s pretty interesting to think about what underlying decision makes something a hard ethical choice. If someone breaks a well known rule, should you provide the appropriate consequences or show the person a bit of mercy? Have you had to choose between something that would benefit an individual as opposed to something that would be better for a larger community or group?

What do you think about these paradigms? If you find this interesting or would like to see more examples, I encourage you to check out the link to the chapter toward the top of this post. Now, the book does focus entirely on examples that deal with people. I’d love to hear what sorts of ethical and moral decisions have you come across while working with and training animals. For example, I think many people run into ethical decisions regarding how to act and what to say when interacting with people who train in ways that differ from how they train.

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