Ethical Decision Making for Professionals

Solving Ethical Problems

It’s not always clear which of the points of the Joint Standards — or any organization’s code of ethics — should be prioritized when a dilemma involves more than one of them. Likewise, different ethical principles can be in tension with each other. The need to respect client autonomy can conflict with a commitment to animal welfare, for example. The principles aren’t a hierarchy, so what do you do when it seems like one course of action satisfies one principle and the alternative satisfies another? 

Here are some resources to help you think about ethical dilemmas that help you bring out the most important points and reach a solution.

Your community

One resource is your community of peers. Talking to others about ethical issues is an important way to share accountability and access different ways of thinking. All the subscribing organizations of the Joint Standards have closed discussion groups like Facebook groups or email lists, where members can ask questions about current cases and issues in their work, and feel confident that they will be dealt with respectfully. Furthermore, the Joint Standards means that you have access to a larger community of professionals who are bound by the same code of ethics. If you have friends in other organizations, you can seek their advice and feel confident that you’re working with the same framework. 

Written guides 

As well as assistance from others, a clearly laid out guide to identifying the issues you’re facing and then determining how best to act on them can be very helpful. This one is adapted from Robert Bailey and Mary Burch’s “Ethics for Behavior Analysts.”


  1. Is the situation covered by my Code of Ethics? 
    • This is only valid if you’re a member of an org with a Code of Ethics!
  2. Who are the players in this issue?
    • You 
    • The client
    • Other people
  3. What are some contingency plans for how you can solve the problem?
    • Plan A – the best option
    • Plan B – what you’ll do if plan A doesn’t work out 
    • Etc
  4. What “skills and clout” do you need to make something happen? 
    • Skills are interpersonal abilities, relevant subject knowledge, etc
    • Clout is authority, power, knowledge of the right people to appeal to—will people listen to you, what do you have to do to get them to pay attention?
  5. The implementation
    • Where is the best place to do whatever it is
    • When is the best time to do this
    • What else do I need to do to arrange the antecedents for maximum chance of success
  6. The evaluation
    • How did it go? 
    • If plan A didn’t work, why didn’t it work? 
    • Do I need to improve my skills? 

Another way to think about a problem is to use a set of filters, which help you identify which of a set of possible actions might be the most ethical. The Ethics and Compliance Institute’s website uses a set of filters called PLUS, for example.

P – Policies. Is the potential solution in accordance with my professional organization’s Code of Ethics? 

L – Legal. Is the solution possible under all applicable laws? 

U – Universal. Does the solution conform to the values and principles my organization represents? 

S – Self. Does the solution satisfy my personal conception of right or good? 

When you’re faced with solving an ethical problem, you should apply these filters at every stage, from thinking of all possible solutions right through to deciding how to implement the solution. 

Burch and Bailey’s steps integrate well with the PLUS filters—you can apply the PLUS filters when you’re defining your contingency plans, when you’re looking at the implementation of your plans, and when you’re evaluating.

Different tools and techniques to make good decisions exist; for more information see our links and readings page.