Inquiring into Experience

Let’s take another look at the conceptual frameworks that help us understand the best way to reflect on our past experiences and learning.

In ORGL 4690, we focus on the whole process of the various reflective theories, the parts that involve awareness of your own assumptions and habits of thinking, and developing the ability to change those habits when you are in new situations or when they do not work for you any longer.

Notice how Fiddler & Marienau’s description of the aspects of reflection are associated with different elements of inquiry. Fiddler and Marienau describe how having to make a difficult decision forces you to take a step back and re-evaluate your assumptions. For instance, if you are faced with an ethical dilemma, how would elements in the table below help you address the issue? Are some elements more helpful than others?

Elements of Reflection and Reflective Practice(s): Inquiring into Experience
Elements of InquiryAspects of Reflection
Requires active participationWith attention to “What’s getting my attention?” With an expanding repertoire of “attention” skills and sensitives
Often initiated or triggered by unusual or perplexing event or situationFocused by: What was salient in the event? What might interest me? What am I curious about? What emotions or feelings am I aware of?
Involves examining and interpreting one’s beliefs, responses, assumptions, and habits in light of the situation at handMost expansive when considering multiple possibilities; actively seeking disconfirming evidence of one’s beliefs and assumptions; drawing on the ideas and voices of self and others Place theories and ideas-one’s own and others’-in the position of being interpreters and explainers of experiences and observations
Results in integration of a new understanding of one’s experiencesIncreases the likelihood of learning from the “next event” Expands the possibilities for what one may notice “the next time” Leads to decisions for action with increased conviction Converts information to knowledge and connects the “old” to the “new”

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Fiddler & Marienau: Events Model

Events Model of Learning from Experience

Experience involves Feedback… from Event… to Attention… to Experience… to Reflection… to New Learning.

Here is another diagram from Fiddler and Marienau that shows how our previous learning is always already influencing and shaping how we see new experiences.

We may have a new Event, like the manager who has a new truck, but isn’t sure who should get the new truck or what criteria should be used in making the decision. The manager may have certain preferences for certain employees, or certain social pressures about trying to please the higher managers to whom he answers or who watch his decision-making ability. These elements shape his Experience; and, therefore, he focuses on some things more than others. The manager may have a certain set of assumptions or biases, but he has to engage in self-evaluation and recognize the limits of his own beliefs as he makes his decision. He may find his own assumptions and beliefs have to be adjusted because of the Event and the Experience.

What gets your attention in a new experience?

Attention triggers may be

ambient – related to your immediate surroundings;

salient – things that are most important to you

focalized – concentrating on a main point of interest.

Flowchart moving from Events to Experiences to Reflection to Meaningful Learning

Diagram  Description automatically generated

Ethical Decision-Making

Decisions have consequences. The various reflective frameworks provide a foundation for making better decisions. An interesting next question is: How does ethics fit into your decision-making process?

Ethics may be defined simply as “the social norm.” Or, an internal guiding principle of what is right and wrong. Or, doing no harm. Or, harming the least. Or, helping the most. Or, treating people fairly. Defining ethics is not easy.

Ethics is a delicate balance between making choices and emphasizing values – yours, your culture’s, your profession’s, or society’s. We make ethical choices daily. Sometimes we struggle with an ethical dilemma unconsciously. Remember the ORGL case study about the Habitat for Humanity volunteer who learned that the organization uses products reputed to harm the environment? The case study drives home the point that our decisions have consequences, sometimes unintended.

Whether you are in the business world, academics, healthcare, law enforcement – whatever – your interpretation of ethics influences decisions you make. Likely you have studied ethics in courses for the ORGL degree. If you have an area of specialty, say healthcare administration, then there are published codes of ethics by national/state/international professional organizations. They are usually easily available via Internet searches. If you are going into public administration, check out the American Society for Public Administration website.

Preparing for the Module 2 Discussion

For this module’s discussion, you will define ethics according to your career field. You are to locate ethical standards for your own career field or area of concentration.

Below are a couple of academic websites which discuss ethics and provide general guides for making ethical decisions. Use these sources to initiate your own research.

A Framework for Ethical Decision Making

Five Steps to Better Ethical Decision Making

We all have an image of our better selves—of how we are when we act ethically or are “at our best.” We probably also have an image of what an ethical community, an ethical business, an ethical government, or an ethical society should be. Ethics really has to do with all these levels—acting ethically as individuals, creating ethical organizations and governments, and making our society as a whole more ethical in the way it treats everyone.

What is Ethics?

Ethics refers to standards and practices that tell us how human beings ought to act in the many situations in which they find themselves—as friends, parents, children, citizens, businesspeople, professionals, and so on. Ethics is also concerned with our character. It requires knowledge, skills, and habits.

It is helpful to identify what ethics is NOT:

Ethics is not the same as feelings. Feelings do provide important information for our ethical choices. However, while some people have highly developed habits that make them feel bad when they do something wrong, others feel good even though they are doing something wrong. And, often, our feelings will tell us that it is uncomfortable to do the right thing if it is difficult.

Ethics is not the same as religion. Many people are not religious but act ethically, and some religious people act unethically. Religious traditions can, however, develop and advocate for high ethical standards, such as the Golden Rule.

Ethics is not the same thing as following the law. A good system of law does incorporate many ethical standards, but law can deviate from what is ethical. Law can become ethically corrupt—a function of power alone and designed to serve the interests of narrow groups. Law may also have a difficult time designing or enforcing standards in some important areas and may be slow to address new problems.

Ethics is not the same as following culturally accepted norms. Cultures can include both ethical and unethical customs, expectations, and behaviors. While assessing norms, it is important to recognize how one’s ethical views can be limited by one’s own cultural perspective or background, alongside being culturally sensitive to others.

Ethics is not science. Social and natural science can provide important data to help us make better and more informed ethical choices. But science alone does not tell us what we ought to do. Some things may be scientifically or technologically possible and yet unethical to develop and deploy.

Six Ethical Lenses

If our ethical decision-making is not solely based on feelings, religion, law, accepted social practice, or science, then on what basis can we decide between right and wrong, good and bad? Many philosophers, ethicists, and theologians have helped us answer this critical question. They have suggested a variety of different lenses that help us perceive ethical dimensions. Here are six of them:

The Rights Lens

Some suggest that the ethical action is the one that best protects and respects the moral rights of those affected. This approach starts from the belief that humans have a dignity based on their human nature per se or on their ability to choose freely what they do with their lives. On the basis of such dignity, they have a right to be treated as ends in themselves and not merely as means to other ends. The list of moral rights—including the rights to make one’s own choices about what kind of life to lead, to be told the truth, not to be injured, to a degree of privacy, and so on—is widely debated; some argue that non-humans have rights, too. Rights are also often understood as implying duties—in particular, the duty to respect others’ rights and dignity.

(For further elaboration on the rights lens, please see our essay, “Rights.”)

The Justice Lens

Justice is the idea that each person should be given their due, and what people are due is often interpreted as fair or equal treatment. Equal treatment implies that people should be treated as equals according to some defensible standard such as merit or need, but not necessarily that everyone should be treated in the exact same way in every respect. There are different types of justice that address what people are due in various contexts. These include social justice (structuring the basic institutions of society), distributive justice (distributing benefits and burdens), corrective justice (repairing past injustices), retributive justice (determining how to appropriately punish wrongdoers), and restorative or transformational justice (restoring relationships or transforming social structures as an alternative to criminal punishment).

(For further elaboration on the justice lens, please see our essay, “Justice and Fairness.”)

The Utilitarian Lens

Some ethicists begin by asking, “How will this action impact everyone affected?”—emphasizing the consequences of our actions. Utilitarianism, a results-based approach, says that the ethical action is the one that produces the greatest balance of good over harm for as many stakeholders as possible. It requires an accurate determination of the likelihood of a particular result and its impact. For example, the ethical corporate action, then, is the one that produces the greatest good and does the least harm for all who are affected—customers, employees, shareholders, the community, and the environment. Cost/benefit analysis is another consequentialist approach.

(For further elaboration on the utilitarian lens, please see our essay, “Calculating Consequences.”)

The Common Good Lens

According to the common good approach, life in community is a good in itself and our actions should contribute to that life. This approach suggests that the interlocking relationships of society are the basis of ethical reasoning and that respect and compassion for all others—especially the vulnerable—are requirements of such reasoning. This approach also calls attention to the common conditions that are important to the welfare of everyone—such as clean air and water, a system of laws, effective police and fire departments, health care, a public educational system, or even public recreational areas. Unlike the utilitarian lens, which sums up and aggregates goods for every individual, the common good lens highlights mutual concern for the shared interests of all members of a community.

(For further elaboration on the common good lens, please see our essay, “The Common Good.”)

The Virtue Lens

A very ancient approach to ethics argues that ethical actions ought to be consistent with certain ideal virtues that provide for the full development of our humanity. These virtues are dispositions and habits that enable us to act according to the highest potential of our character and on behalf of values like truth and beauty. Honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, tolerance, love, fidelity, integrity, fairness, self-control, and prudence are all examples of virtues. Virtue ethics asks of any action, “What kind of person will I become if I do this?” or “Is this action consistent with my acting at my best?”

(For further elaboration on the virtue lens, please see our essay, “Ethics and Virtue.”)

The Care Ethics Lens

Care ethics is rooted in relationships and in the need to listen and respond to individuals in their specific circumstances, rather than merely following rules or calculating utility. It privileges the flourishing of embodied individuals in their relationships and values interdependence, not just independence. It relies on empathy to gain a deep appreciation of the interest, feelings, and viewpoints of each stakeholder, employing care, kindness, compassion, generosity, and a concern for others to resolve ethical conflicts. Care ethics holds that options for resolution must account for the relationships, concerns, and feelings of all stakeholders. Focusing on connecting intimate interpersonal duties to societal duties, an ethics of care might counsel, for example, a more holistic approach to public health policy that considers food security, transportation access, fair wages, housing support, and environmental protection alongside physical health.

(Our essay elaborating further on the care ethics lens is forthcoming.)

Using the Lenses

Each of the lenses introduced above helps us determine what standards of behavior and character traits can be considered right and good. There are still problems to be solved, however.

The first problem is that we may not agree on the content of some of these specific lenses. For example, we may not all agree on the same set of human and civil rights. We may not agree on what constitutes the common good. We may not even agree on what is a good and what is a harm.

The second problem is that the different lenses may lead to different answers to the question “What is ethical?” Nonetheless, each one gives us important insights in the process of deciding what is ethical in a particular circumstance.

Making Decisions

Making good ethical decisions requires a trained sensitivity to ethical issues and a practiced method for exploring the ethical aspects of a decision and weighing the considerations that should impact our choice of a course of action. Having a method for ethical decision-making is essential. When practiced regularly, the method becomes so familiar that we work through it automatically without consulting the specific steps.

The more novel and difficult the ethical choice we face, the more we need to rely on discussion and dialogue with others about the dilemma. Only by careful exploration of the problem, aided by the insights and different perspectives of others, can we make good ethical choices in such situations.

The following framework for ethical decision-making is intended to serve as a practical tool for exploring ethical dilemmas and identifying ethical courses of action.

A Framework for Ethical Decision Making

Identify the Ethical Issues

Could this decision or situation be damaging to someone or to some group, or unevenly beneficial to people? Does this decision involve a choice between a good and bad alternative, or perhaps between two “goods” or between two “bads”?

Is this issue about more than solely what is legal or what is most efficient? If so, how?

Get the Facts

What are the relevant facts of the case? What facts are not known? Can I learn more about the situation? Do I know enough to make a decision?

What individuals and groups have an important stake in the outcome? Are the concerns of some of those individuals or groups more important? Why?

What are the options for acting? Have all the relevant persons and groups been consulted? Have I identified creative options?

Evaluate Alternative Actions

Evaluate the options by asking the following questions:

Which option best respects the rights of all who have a stake? (The Rights Lens)

Which option treats people fairly, giving them each what they are due? (The Justice Lens)

Which option will produce the most good and do the least harm for as many stakeholders as possible? (The Utilitarian Lens)

Which option best serves the community as a whole, not just some members? (The Common Good Lens)

Which option leads me to act as the sort of person I want to be? (The Virtue Lens)

Which option appropriately takes into account the relationships, concerns, and feelings of all stakeholders? (The Care Ethics Lens)

Choose an Option for Action and Test It

After an evaluation using all of these lenses, which option best addresses the situation?

If I told someone I respect (or a public audience) which option I have chosen, what would they say?

How can my decision be implemented with the greatest care and attention to the concerns of all stakeholders?

Implement Your Decision and Reflect on the Outcome

How did my decision turn out, and what have I learned from this specific situation? What (if any) follow-up actions should I take?

This framework for thinking ethically is the product of dialogue and debate at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Primary contributors include Manuel Velasquez, Dennis Moberg, Michael J. Meyer, Thomas Shanks, Margaret R. McLean, David DeCosse, Claire André, Kirk O. Hanson, Irina Raicu, and Jonathan Kwan. It was last revised on November 5, 2021.

Five Steps to Better Ethical Decision Making

Feelings can put a check on rationalizing.

Posted July 13, 2012 |  Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

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Step one in making an ethical decision is to gather the facts. Try to be as neutral as possible in describing those facts, bearing in mind how inclined we all are to distorting information to benefit ourselves, so you have a tendency to overlook, distort, or stretch the facts to suit ourselves. But if the facts are wrong to begin with, our moral judgment is going to be clouded and lead us down the wrong path.

It is impossible to know all the facts about a situation. Consider how difficult it is to know the subject to which you are closest—yourself. It is amazing how others are able to point out things that you never see about yourself. So, imagine how much more difficult it is to really know another person or an event about which you don’t have direct knowledge.

Yet, you have to fill in the blanks as best you can when confronted with an ethical problem. You have to rely upon reasonable assumptions. For example, you may not know all the details about conditions in a factory, but you can make an educated guess based upon what we know about factories in general and what you know about the area in which the plant is located.

Facts by themselves mean little; they need interpretation. You want to understand what such facts mean in light of your own values, but you also want to understand what the facts mean to the other people involved.

Consider the following situation. Joseph is married to Sabrina, but he is sleeping with Elizabeth. An important value for you may be sexual fidelity, but if Joseph lives in a polygamous society, you need to understand what his sleeping with Elizabeth means to Sabrina. It may mean something quite different from what you first supposed.

Step two is to make a prediction — a guess — about the future. A prediction is based on facts that are relevant to the situation at hand. If you do this, you increase your chances of reaching the desired results. You can never know the future for certain, but some things are more probable than others.

For example, if you hit someone, you are more likely to get hit back than if you smiled at that person, everything else being equal. Of course, there is always an element of uncertainty. The person you smiled at may be paranoid, for example. Yet, you have to take a guess and select the action that you think is most likely to cause good or most likely to avoid harm.

Step three is to identify your feelings. Some people call it intuition; some call it conscience. When our feelings have been cultivated by compassion, they sometimes highlight what our rational and conscious minds have overlooked. Feelings are one way to check to see whether you are rationalizing.

Step four is to ask whether you could live with yourself if you made that particular choice. Would you be willing to let other people know what you did? Would you feel worse or better about yourself? Would you feel guilty or ashamed? Or would you feel proud and wish that others would do the same under similar circumstances? Would you want everyone to act the way you did?

Step five requires that you be able to explain your reasons to other people and be willing to engage with others in a moral conversation about your choice. This is similar to the method scientists use as a way of advancing knowledge. They develop a hypothesis, then test it, reach a conclusion, and finally submit it to others in their field for scrutiny. You should be willing to do no less with your ethical judgments. Unlike science, however, the field of morality isn’t confined to higher study. Like it or not, you are engaged in many moral situations in business. While scientists advance knowledge about the world by using the scientific method, you advance your moral knowledge by employing a sound process in making ethical judgments.

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