Sustainable Health and Ethical Decision Making

Ethical decision making is the process of choosing actions based upon a determination of right vs. wrong.  When we say that a certain act is “not ethical” we are saying that “one ought not to do” the act because it is wrong.   Of course, ethics is not an objective science because it is based on subjective values,  therefore, your ethics have to be defended using logical arguments and value judgments that can be agreed upon to guide the behavior of a group.

Religion also deals with right and wrong conduct, but it allows intuition and revelation to supersede logic.  This approach is also necessary because sometimes logic and the ‘gut’ may disagree.  Ethical decision making  works in synergy with religious principles.

There does not appear to be a force that strictly imposes ethical standards in the universe and therefore it is up to us to figure out how to make the universe a more ethical place.  This is quite an astronomical task given the vastness of the universe and our confinement to planet earth.  Perhaps earth is our proving ground.

The occurrence of actions that are clearly ‘wrong’ demonstrates the lack of enforcement of ethical standards in the universe.    For example, Jeanne Clery was a 19-year-old college  student  sexually abused and murdered  in her dorm room in 1986.   Any sane person agrees that ‘wrong’ acts such as this should never happen.  This ‘wrong’ act can never be reversed, but it could have been prevented had Josoph M. Henry (the murderer) followed an ethical decision making process.

There are various different approaches to ethical decision making, and it is a skill that should be taught early on in school.   We spend much time in school teaching and acquiring technical skills and knowledge as if they alone could solve all of our problems.  But in reality we have a huge deficit in ethical decision making that must be reduced if we are to survive as a species.

In this post we explore the application of a 4-step process of ethical decision making to the issue of sustainable health.

4-Step Process for Ethical Decision Making

A 4-step process is explained in “Thinking Like an Engineer,”  3rd Edition,  by Elizabeth A. Stephan, et al.  The steps are:

  1. What are the issues?  Who are the stakeholders?
  2. Consider possible courses of action from three perspectives
    • Consequences – how is each stakeholder affected if I do this
    • Intent – how would you like each stakeholder to be affected
    • Character – would a person of good character do this
  3. Correlate perspectives, assign weights, choose course of action
  4. Act – Do I have the courage to do what is right?

Example Application – Should you buy solar panels

Step 1)  What are the issues?  Who are the stakeholders

Issues:   We are polluting the earth by using fossil fuels for heating, transportation, and electricity generation.  This compromises our health and the health of future generations.  The energy consumption choices of the average citizen results in  10 metric tons of CO2 per year per person.  With population growing and more countries adopting high-energy lifestyles,  air quality will be reduced, breathing related illnesses will increase, and temperatures will increase due to global warming.

Question:  Should I invest in solar panels to reduce the use of fossil fuels in my home even if it is financially challenging?

Stakeholders:  home owners, home owners immediate family, neighbors, immediate ecosystem, electric company, natural gas company, town, state, country, world

For this analysis I will focus on the primary stakeholders in boldface above.  These are the stakeholders that would have the highest weight given the expected extent of the impacts of the action under analysis.

Step 2) One possible course of action is to install solar panels.

  • Effect on homeowner
    • consequences of installing solar panels
      • debt that may be difficult to pay off
      • savings from lower natural gas expenses
      • improved respiratory health due to improved air quality
      • satisfaction of reducing carbon footprint
    • intent of installing solar panels
      • savings from lower natural gas expenses
      • increasing energy independence
      • improved respiratory health due to improved air quality
      • satisfaction of reducing carbon footprint
      • knowing this is something that everyone should do
    • Character
      • A person of good character would do this if there is a way to limit the debt burden
  • Effect on immediate family
    • consequences
      • improved respiratory health
      • financial restrictions due to expense of solar panels
      • education regarding sustainable health
    • intent
      • education regarding sustainable health
      • improved respiratory health
      • lifelong commitment energy independence
    • Character
      • a person of good character would do this
      • some financial restrictions are OK in order to achieve sustainable health and lower carbon footprint
  • Effect on Neighbors
    • consequences
      • provide an example for neighbors to follow
    • intent
      • provide an example for neighbors to follow
      • serve an educational role in the community for sustainable living
    • character
      • a person of good character would do this

Step 3) Correlate perspectives

Based on the above analysis there are some possible unintended consequences of the proposed action to install solar panels.  That is, debt that is difficult for the homeowner to pay off and financial restrictions on family members due to the incurred debt.   This indicates that further analysis is required so that the consequences and intents can be brought into alignment.  However, the effect on all three primary stakeholders indicates that the action of installing solar panels should be initiated if the alignment is feasible.

Step 4)  Act

I should further evaluate the cost and debt burden associated with the installation of solar panels and seek ways to decrease this financial burden.  If this effort is successful I should not hesitate to move forward with the installation of solar panels because it is an ethically correct action.

I challenge you to try this ethical decision making process on an issue related to your sustainable health.  Let me know if it helps you to improve the quality of your ethical decisions, and I will keep you posted on our solar panel progress.

 

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