Ethical Decision Making

I think of four areas when I'm trying to analyze a moral problem or even propose solutions to a moral problem.

Factual Information: Data

(1) Obviously, you want to begin with a database of factual information. Because the more hard data you have on which to base your eventual decision, the more informed, the more responsible, the more careful that decision is likely to be. The problem is that facts are elusive and values or value judgments are often smuggled in as if they were facts. We see this in the abortion debate. The rhetoric about the unborn child and the unborn child having full human rights from the moment of conception represents a whole series of beliefs or value judgments, rather than factual information. But the rhetoric is used as if we had hard facts about when personhood begins or emerges in the developmental process.

One has to be very careful. The media tend to propagate information that may or may not always be factual. It's hard to sift through it. Certainly, one has to look at it with a critical eye. And in the area that we've been talking about this morning, there is really a lot of uncertainty. We don't have a whole lot of hard factual information on which to base tough policy decisions. I think the most honest thing we can do is admit our areas of ignorance and our areas of uncertainty, and where we need to push for more reliable data than we actually have before jumping too quickly to conclusions on the basis of suppositions, presumptions or hypotheses.

So, start with factual information--but it's hard to get. Even when you have it, you cannot be sure that you've got the latest. I see this over and over in medicine. A journal article will come out one week describing the findings of a group of scientists with respect to whatever the phenomenon is and it may very well be contradicted the next week by a different group, who looked at similar data but have drawn different conclusions. Even the experts differ. When the experts differ, that doesn't leave the rest of us with a lot of firm ground on which to stand.


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