Developing ethical reasoning and/or ethical decision making

Author: Robert J. Sternberg, Cornell University

Why this Learning Objective Matters

Colleges and universities today, in their testing and even their teaching, place great emphasis on academic content knowledge, as they should. But when one considers the causes, later in people’s lives, behind failed job performance, failed relations with friends and colleagues, and even failed marriages, one is likely to find the root cause of the failure to lie not in content knowledge or even academic reasoning but rather in ethical reasoning (1).

One can have a degree in business, medicine, law, psychology, or education, and be familiar with the knowledge base of the profession, but nevertheless act in an unethical manner that undermines the utility of that knowledge. For example, if one looks at four huge and widely publicized business failures by CEOs (Kenneth Lay at Enron, Bernard Ebbers at Worldcom, Conrad Black at Hollinger International, Dennis Kozlowski at Tyco), all were related to ethics (2). Some of the CEOs took their business down with them. Then there are the huge scientific frauds, such as that of experimental psychologist Diederick Stapel, who simply made up his data (3), and even frauds in education, including Corinthian Colleges (4), which deceived students regarding graduation and job-placement rates. There are even severe ethical violations in the ministry, as shown by the denials and cover-ups of child-abuse that have made headlines over the years (5). Much of this ethically-compromised behavior starts early, when students are in school. In one survey, 86% of high school students agreed that students cheat at some point in their high-school careers (6). Great professionals, citizens, and leaders in any field of endeavor are ethical people (7). They need to learn to reason ethically before they go out in the work force and start influencing and even controlling the fate of others (8).

Colleges should teach ethical reasoning rather than just ethical principles. Ethics is a set of principles for what constitutes right and wrong behavior. These principles are generally taught in the home, through religious training in a special school, or through learning in the course of one’s life. It is challenging (although certainly not impossible) to teach ethics directly in a secular school, because different religious, cultural, and other groups have somewhat different ideas about what is right and wrong under different circumstances. There are, however, core values that are common to almost all these religions and ethical systems that schools do teach and reinforce, for example, reciprocity (the golden rule), honesty, sincerity, compassion in the face of human suffering. In addition, many professions have codes of ethics that professionals are encouraged to follow, and sometimes, are bound to follow by contract or law. But even when given a set of ethical precepts to follow, be they personal/religious or professional, knowing what to do in a particular situation is not always clear. For instance, many professions have a code of ethics that discourages conflict of interest between personal and organizational activities. But exactly what constitutes a conflict of interest is not always apparent. Is having lunch with someone who seeks to influence you a conflict of interest? In some situations, it might be. But in other situations something more egregious, such as receiving a large gift, might be necessary to be considered a violation. So the problem is not usually in knowing the precepts but in knowing how to apply them. This is especially true when there are conflicting demands being made upon one’s actions, such as one person wanting you to do one thing and another wanting you to do something else. That is why instruction in ethical reasoning is of paramount importance over just teaching a set of ethical precepts.

Ethical reasoning is how to think about issues of right or wrong. Processes of reasoning can be taught, and the college or university is an appropriate place to teach these processes because so often it is taught no place else, and because it is essential for a successful adulthood. Although parents and especially religious institutions may teach ethics, they do not always teach ethical reasoning. Academic courses are the logical place to teach the cognitive process of reasoning especially as ethical issues relate to the content of a particular discipline. No matter how knowledgeable one is about their profession, if the knowledge is not backed by ethical reasoning, long-term success in the career is likely to be severely compromised.

Can ethical reasoning actually be taught with any success? Apparently so. Richard Paul (9), of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, devised a program whereby principles of critical thinking were applied specifically to teaching ethical reasoning to young people Robert DeHaan and colleagues at Emory University successfully taught ethical reasoning to high school students (10). Catherine Myser of the University of Newcastle and her colleagues have successfully taught ethics to medical students (11). And James Weber of Marquette University found that teaching ethical awareness and reasoning to business-school students can help their ethical reasoning, although the improvements are not always long-term (12).

Ethical reasoning is hard because there are so many ways to fail. Ethical behavior is far harder to display than one would expect simply on the basis of what we learn from our parents, from school, and from our religious training (13). To intervene, individuals must go through a series of steps, and unless all of the steps are completed, they are not likely to behave in an ethical way, regardless of the amount of training they have received in ethics, and regardless of their levels of other types of skills.

Consider the skills in this model and how they apply in an ethical dilemma—whether a student, James, should turn in a fellow student, Ben, whom he saw purchase answers from an upcoming examination from an ethically compromised Internet site:

  1. Recognize that there is an event to which to react.
    James has to observe Ben purchase the answers and decide that it is a situation in which he potentially might have some role other than being a passive observer.
  2. Define the event as having an ethical dimension.
    James has to define the cheating as unethical. Students do not always see cheating—such as purchasing answers in advance of a test–as unethical. Many students do so; but some others may see it as a practical or utilitarian matter. On this view, it is ok if Ben or anyone else can get away with it.
  3. Decide that the ethical dimension is significant.
    James has to decide that Ben’s purchasing the answers for the test is a big enough deal that it is worth James’s paying attention to it. Some students may see Bens’ purchase of the answers as an ethical issue, but not as one of sufficient importance that it is worth their doing anything about it.
  4. Take personal responsibility for generating an ethical solution to the problem.
    James may decide that there is an ethical problem here, perhaps even a major big one, but that the problem is not his concern. For example, James may view it as the teacher’s responsibility, not his, to do something about Ben. Or James may believe that he cannot be responsible for the behavior because he doesn’t really know or care much about Ben.
  5. Figure out what abstract ethical rule(s) might apply to the problem (including any codes of ethics relevant to the situation).
    What rule applies? If there is no honor code, is there an institutional rule by which James should turn in Ben? Is he under any obligation? Perhaps James believes, on the contrary, that the rule is to mind his own business, or to avoid cheating himself, but not to turn in Ben. Or James may believe that student solidarity takes precedence over turning in cheaters.
  6. Decide how these abstract ethical rules actually apply to the problem so as to suggest a concrete solution.
    Perhaps James believes that, in general, one should turn in cheaters, but that he cannot apply the rule in this situation, realizing that he could not prove that Ben cheated. After all, what if the supposed answers are not really answers to the test? Or what if some of them are wrong? Or perhaps he does not want to try to prove Ben cheated, feeling he has more important things to do with his time.
  7. Prepare to counteract contextual forces that might lead one not to act in an ethical manner.
    James may be reluctant to turn in Ben because he believes that other students, including but not limited to Ben, will shun him or retaliate against him for being a “snitch.” And of course, he may be right. Acting ethically often comes at a cost.
  8. Act.
    In the end, what matters is not how one thinks, but rather what one does. It can be very difficult to translate thought into action. Nevertheless, the ultimate test of ethical reasoning is not just in how one thinks, but also in how one acts. James may believe he should turn in Bill but just not get up the guts actually to do it.

This model applies not only to judging others but to evaluating one’s own ethical reasoning. When confronted with a situation having a potential ethical dimension, students can learn literally to go through the steps of the model and ask how they apply to a given situation. For example, suppose James himself committed an ethical transgression and now regrets it. What can he do to make amends or otherwise set things right?

Applying this Learning Objective in the Classroom

Ideally, ethics is taught not just in a course on ethics but in any course in which ethics might potentially apply. Otherwise, there is the risk that what the students learn will be inert—that students will not see how to apply it outside the one course on ethics. Students need to learn how to apply ethical principles, as well as being inoculated against pressures to behave unethically, by being confronted with ethical problems in a variety of domains.

How does one actually teach ethical reasoning in the classroom? The most effective way to teach ethical reasoning is through the case-study method, but it is important that students generate their own case studies from their own experience as well, and then apply the steps of the model to their own problems. They need to be actively involved in seeing how the steps of the model apply to their own individual problems.

A famous, perhaps now classical, case study for teaching ethical reasoning is the following (14):

A train has gone out of control and is hurtling down the tracks toward four people who are strangers. You are too far away, so that if you call out to the people, they will not hear you, and you definitely cannot get them off the tracks. However, it is in your power to pull a lever that will divert the train. But there is a problem. There is a person on the tracks onto which you would divert the train. This person will be killed if you divert the train. Thus you can touch the controls and divert the train, resulting in the death of one person; alternatively, you could not touch the controls, and four people will die. What should you do?

Consider other more realistic problems:

  1. Your friend Jack confides to you that he has a drug problem. He begs you not to tell anyone. He says he just needs someone in whom to confide. He does not plan to stop using drugs but wants you to know in case things go badly for him. What are possible courses of action for you? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each one?
  2. You have just found out that there is a school prize for which you are eligible. For some reason, the prize has not been well publicized. You know that your best friend Jane is also eligible. You also know that if she applies her chances of winning the prize might be better than yours. You are debating with yourself whether to tell her about the prize. What are possible courses of action for you? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each one?
  3. You are really interested in your best friend’s significant other. The significant other has just confessed to you a secret interest in you. What are possible courses of action for you? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each one?

Through grappling with these kinds of issues through case studies, students apply ethical principles and ethical reasoning. If students are not explicitly given these kinds of ethical dilemmas to confront, they will not learn to apply process of ethical reasoning. You would not just tell algebra students about a formula for solving some mathematical question, and then move on to the next topic. You would get them to apply, to use, that formula to solve multiple problems to ensure they understand it and can use it. Likewise, it is the process of applying ethical reasoning that is the primary outcome here. Because of this, the conclusions students come to are often less important than their reasoning processes in coming to those conclusions.

There are no easy answers to any of these problems, but that is the point: Teaching ethical reasoning is not about teaching what one should do in particular circumstances, it is about teaching students how wisely to make very difficult decisions involving ethical considerations where the answers are anything but clear cut. Students need actively to discuss problems, possible solutions, and the advantages and disadvantages of these potential solutions. Then they have to decide how they would act.

Through the use of ethical case studies, students discuss various solutions to cases as well as the advantages and disadvantages of various courses of action. This can be done through structured classroom discussion, written assignments, or presentations. Using this method, students are invited to critique each other’s ideas constructively and to improve on each other’s ideas. In addition, always ensure that some of the cases are built around problems the students themselves pose. In this way students can see how what they learn is relevant not only to other people’s problems, but also to their own.

Students will enter different occupations and will need to learn the particular code of ethics for their occupation as well as how to apply that code. For example, the National Education Association Code of Ethics (15) contains two main principles: commitment to the student and commitment to the profession. The first obligation to the student is that the teacher “shall not unreasonably restrain the student from independent action in the pursuit of learning.” In higher level courses in a major, these codes can be explored and applied to case studies. In lower level courses, because students will go into different professions, it will not be possible to take account of all codes. But it would be useful, in class, to take at least one code of ethics, and use it to examine problem cases. Using the National Education Association Code of Ethics, for instance, students could explore how well the teachers they have had fulfilled the code? Where, specifically, did they succeed or fail? What could they have done better? What can the student learn from the code that would apply to his or her own life? See the list of discipline-specific codes in the resources section below.

Applying this Learning Objective Online

Teaching ethical reasoning online presents its own particular challenges. Learning how to reason ethically is a dialectical, back-and-forth process. Simply delivering content through lectures and readings are at best supplementary forms of instruction. The primary form of instruction needs to be interactive because students need to present ideas, get feedback on those ideas, and then try out re-formed ideas that themselves will be subject to further modification. So because learning ethical reasoning requires active, not passive learning (16), particular care must be given to ensuring that online courses are designed with opportunities for rich interaction between students as well as between students and instructors. Discussion boards appear to be the most common way of achieving these interactions, but doing so requires particular attention to certain dynamics:

  • Learning is asynchronous in most cases. There is a difference between the immediacy of a classroom discussion and the asynchronous responses in an online discussion. But given that responses are not immediate, as they are in a face to face classroom, online responses have time to “mature.” Students can think through what other students have said, and hopefully, provide more thoughtful, well-reasoned responses. So delays may actually help students do the deeper and sometimes more time-consuming reasoning that ethical problems require in comparison with many other kinds of problems.
  • The feeling of anonymity may lead some students to be less careful in what they say. Anyone who has dealt with online trolls knows that people often feel anonymous over the Internet, whether they are or not. Avoid this by ensuring such online discussions are not setup for anonymity, and remind students about “netiquette” in your course. You may also devise your own guidelines for appropriate, and constructive, online discussions in this context. You should identify yourself in all threads and remember that there is a record of these threads.
  • With discussion of ethical issues, responses can often get into matters of unreasoned opinion quite easily. In order to keep students focused on the application of ethical reasoning, and avoiding pure, personal opinion, construct online discussions deliberately with specific guidelines on what kind of responses are expected. Rubrics are often used for this purpose so that students have a clearer understanding of what is expected and how they will be graded.
  • Some students may be afraid to divulge much about their own ethical challenges because their statements become part of an identifiable written record. You should emphasize that one best can cope with ethical challenges if one is willing to share those challenges and solicit feedback. But students should also be informed that, if they are uncomfortable sharing something, they just should not share it.
  • Students may be uncomfortable sharing thoughts on ethics with people they do not know. To facilitate this, be sure to include introductory, group-building exercises early in a course.

Assessing this Learning Objective

Ethical reasoning is best evaluated through essays or oral examinations in response to specific ethical problems. They do not lend themselves well to multiple-choice or short-answer assessments. For example, a simple ethical problem is, “James saw Ben purchase answers for an exam from an Internet site. What should James do? Please give alternative courses of action for James, and the potential advantages and disadvantages of each course of action.” A strong essay in response to this problem might look like this:

“James has to decide what to do in response to Ben’s having cheated. Ben could do several things:

  1. James could turn in Ben. The advantage is that he has not let Ben get away with unethical behavior. The disadvantage is that Ben will almost certainly get mad at James and may also turn friends against James. James could turn him in secretly but that seems sleazy—like James does not want to take responsibility. Another disadvantage is that James may have thought Ben cheated but it might turn out he didn’t cheat after all.
  2. James could do nothing. The advantage is that James stays out of the whole thing and does not get anyone, including himself, into trouble. The disadvantage is that he has failed to respond to an ethical challenge, burying it instead.
  3. James could talk to Ben and tell him what he saw and that if he sees it again he will turn Ben in. The advantage of this course of action is that James does not do anything to hurt Ben’s future. The disadvantage is that Ben may be offended, may deny everything, and may turn against James, just as he would have if James had turned him in.
  4. James could seek advice from a faculty member. The advantage is that James gets the opinion of someone with more experience than he has. The disadvantage is that after a delay, he still has to decide what to do and faces the same problems as before. The second disadvantage is that if James mentions Ben’s name, James’s options may be foreclosed by the faculty member.
  5. James could tell Ben that unless Ben does some specific thing for James, James will turn him in. This solution has no advantages. The disadvantage is that he compounds Ben’s unethical behavior with unethical blackmail of his own.

In the end, I would suggest James tell the faculty member exactly what he saw and then leave it to the faculty member to decide what to do. Ben is hurting not only himself by the cheating, but everyone else, and he ought to learn sooner rather than later not to cheat.”

Use ethical dilemmas that address those issues that are more applicable to your particular discipline and address the ethical codes of behavior most salient in your discipline (see the list of resources below for discipline-specific ideas). When using discipline codes of ethics, you should ask three questions:

  1. How does this ethical guideline apply to behavior on the job?
  2. How am I applying the guideline or not applying it?
  3. If I am applying it, how can I do better?

For example, an ethical guideline for a health-care professional might be “Building relationships of trust with patients is fundamental to ethical practice in medicine.” Now you ask first if the ethical guideline applies to your behavior on the job. Certainly it does for any health-care professional. Second, are you applying the guideline? If you are spending the time with patients that they need, if you are listening attentively to them and answering their questions, if you are keeping their information confidential, and if you are giving them the very best treatment you can, you might say that, yes, you are applying the guideline. But what could you do better? Perhaps you are not always as willing to discuss very difficult issues with patients as you should be, whether for lack of time or for lack of enthusiasm to engage in difficult conversations, such as in planning for serious side effects of medication or even death. In that case, you might work on this issue in order better to apply the guideline.

In assessing quality of ethical reasoning, the key principle for instructors to remember is that you should score for quality of reasoning, not for agreement with the conclusions the student reaches. We tend to like people who are similar to, and who agree with us (17, 18), which can introduce bias into grading. So as teachers, we have to be scrupulous to make sure we are grading for quality of reasoning, not for agreement with our set of values or perspectives. What matters is how well students reason, not the exact content of what they say.

When students have written essays showing their ethical reasoning, there are some general attributes of the essays to look for, and some specific attributes as well. The general attributes are those that would apply to essays of almost any kind including how logical, coherent, organized, and persuasive the essay is. The specific attributes are relevant in particular to ethical reasoning.

  • The first attribute is the number of alternative solutions to an ethical problem that the student proposes. How many different solutions can the student find? It is a bad sign when a student can see only one possible solution and a good sign when the student can see multiple possible solutions.
  • The second attribute is the student’s evaluations of the quality of each of the solutions. Can the student differentiate better solutions from poorer ones, or does the student fall into the trap of viewing all solutions as roughly equal in quality; or worse, does the student see poorer solutions as being better ones? As noted above, you are looking not for your agreement with the student’s evaluations but rather the quality of argument for the evaluations of the potential solutions.
  • The third attribute is the student’s overall evaluation of what to do. Did the student well use his or her own analysis of the ethical problem to reach a high-quality solution to the ethical problem?

The sample essay above is a strong one, because it presents four alternative solutions as well as a fifth that is recognized as unethical, and it considers both the advantages and disadvantages of each potential solution.


  1. Sternberg, R. J. (2012). A model for ethical reasoning. Review of General Psychology, 16, 319-326.
  2. Investopedia (2013). 5 most publicized ethics violations by CEOs. Forbes.
  3. Bhattacharjee, Y. (2013). The mind of a con man. New York Times.
  4. Nasiripour, S. (2015). Corinthian Colleges files for bankruptcy. Huffington Post.
  5. Tchividjian, B. (2014). Startling statistics: Child abuse and what the church can begin doing about it. Religion News.
  6. Educational Testing Service (1999). Cheating is a personal foul.
  7. Sternberg, R. J. (2003). WICS: A model for leadership in organizations. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2, 386–401.
  8. Antonakis, J., Cianciolo, A. T., & Sternberg, R. J. (Eds.). (2004). Leadership: Past, present, and future. In J. Antonakis, A. T. Cianciolo, & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.) The nature of leadership (pp. 3–15). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  9. Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2005). Critical thinking: Tools for taking charge of your learning and your life (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  10. DeHaan, R., & Narayan, K. M. (Eds.) (2007). Education for innovation. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers.
  11. Myser, C., Kerridge, I. H., & Mitchell, K. R. (1995). Teaching clinical ethics as a professional skill: bridging the gap between knowledge about ethics and its use in clinical practice. Journal of Medical Ethics, 21(2), 97-103.
  12. Weber, J. (1993). Exploring the relationship between personal values and moral reasoning. Human Relations, 46, 435-463.
  13. Sternberg, R. J. (2009a). A new model for teaching ethical behavior. Chronicle of Higher Education, 55(33), April 24, B14-B15.
  14. Foot, P. (1978). The problem of abortion and the doctrine of the double effect in virtues and vices. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.
  15. National Education Association. Code of Ethics.
  16. Sternberg, R. J. (2009). We need to teach for ethical conduct. The Educational Forum, 73 (3), 190-198.
  17. Sternberg, R. J. (1987). Liking versus loving: A comparative evaluation of theories. Psychological Bulletin, 102, 331–345.
  18. Sternberg, R. J. (1998). Cupid’s arrow: The course of love through time. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Further Online Resources

Discipline-specific Codes of Ethics and Resources