[Some of this analysis has been adapted from Making Ethical Decisions by Character Counts. is a Character Counts “Six Pillars Partner“]


If we analyze the process of making principled decisions, we’ll improve the chances of making effective decisions that will satisfy our needs and stand the test of time. The answers to several questions that will help us make a well thought out decision are outlined below. The questions overlap and reinforce each other. People usually intuitively answer these questions. There is no particular order in which the questions are addressed. The mind often skips several questions, especially when the answer to one clearly shows that a course of conduct leads to results we cannot accept. In that case, we’ll look for another way to achieve the goal or abandon the effort.

1. What Do We Value in Life? People value many different things. Values can include: acting in an ethical manner, getting rich, having a happy family life, buying a new car, being popular, wearing the right clothing, fitting in, having an enjoyable sexual experience, having children; building a satisfying career; having a good marriage; eating well; traveling; having a good reputation; being healthy, etc. These “values” are not listed in any particular order

Values involve how we deal with others. Some people value nurturing (for example teachers, social workers, ministers). Some value being a leader while others want to intimidate people. Still others want to be respected. To one extent or another, everyone values acting ethically towards people, animals and the environment (for example, The Six Pillars of Character). Often, the values that we ignore in our haste to satisfy some short-term need are ethical values.

Values are often in conflict and everyone has a way in which they rank what they value. The rankings are often intuitive and not necessarily logical or well thought out. They are personal and unpredictable. For some values, we don’t even know that we have them until something happens that brings the value to our attention. For example, without thinking much about it, a professional thief may risk his life by diving into a river to save another person from drowning. An honest man may not be able to make himself take the risk of jumping into the water.

It’s not always easy to know what we really value. We must be honest with ourselves and perceptive about how we will feel about the consequences of our actions, now and in the future.

2. Why is Acting Ethically an Important Value? People live together on one planet with other people and animals. Our most important focus in life is the people we associate with, our families, friends, fellow students or workers, and our larger community. Any action we take, like a stone thrown into a pool of water, has effects which ripple out in many directions, affecting others and sometimes the Earth itself. Every person or animal affected by a decision that we make, including ourselves, is called a “stakeholder”. To be able to determine if we really want to do something, we need to think about how it will affect the stakeholders and what they value in their lives.

It can be said that people act ethically because they feel good about themselves when they do and bad about themselves when they don’t. However, it’s much more than that. Acting ethically involves how we view our fundamental relationship with the Universe. Many people believe that a Supreme Being has prescribed ethical rules of conduct. Others believe that the Supreme Being has supplied some general principles and left the rest for us to work out. Some, both religious and non-religious, have come to believe that personal relationships, work and professional relationships, and society as a whole, all work better when people act ethically. (We have come to believe that true morality always has a spiritual component. This spiritual component does not have to be religious in the sense of belief in a Supreme Being, but it must contain a sense of the relation of the person to others and to the Universe.) Interestingly enough, the ethical principles in most cultures have many similarities. These “consensus” values have several formulations. uses the Six Pillars of Character.

Associating ourselves with people who act ethically will lead to a better and more fulfilling life. Who wants to live with people who are dishonest and think only about themselves? Can selfish people who have no principles establish strong and loving relationships with others? Experience shows that they cannot. In the long run, people who are nurturing and who act in loving, responsible and trustworthy ways, will sever or restrict their associations with people who are deceptive or selfish.

The strength of individuals and their ability to attain their goals in any endeavor are enhanced when they act in a way that is consistent with their relationship to the Universe. Consistent actions are joyful and we can focus our full energies on what we are doing. Acting ethically, also affirms our relationships with our loved ones, coworkers, and friends. Consistent actions liberate energy within us whose source is beyond us because it furthers everything we deeply and truly believe in. Acting ethically is, therefore, a liberating and empowering experience.

Conversely, there are severe negative consequences for people who act in ways that violate their relationship with the Universe. Not only will they spend their mental and emotional energy contending with pangs of guilt and in an effort to justify their conduct; not only will they alienate themselves from their loved ones, co-workers and friends (losing that source of strength); people who don’t act in conformity with their view of their own relationship with the Universe lose the source of their own strength and deny themselves the source of strength that comes from outside of themselves.

It has been said that a person’s primary duty is to live a fulfilled life. A truly fulfilled life is a life in which a person has satisfying personal relationships and acts consistently with his relationship to the Universe. As we have seen above, this means that they must act in an ethical manner.

Acting ethically also involves preserving the environment. It is, after all, part of the Universe. Where are we going to go if we spoil the Earth? If pollution continues to increase, at some point it will have a momentum and force all its own and it will overwhelm us. Whether living beings have a mystical relationship with the Earth or whether we simply need the Earth as a place to live, ruining it doesn’t work in the long run.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Human beings are animals. In that sense, the other animals on the planet are our fellow creatures. Most of the higher level animals, dogs, cats, pigs, cows, chickens, and fish, feel pain and pleasure. Many of the mammals feel affection, rejection, and love for their offspring. Many of these animals mourn if their young are taken away from them or lost. What they value, to the extent that we can understand it, is worthy of our consideration when we decide what we are going to do. Caring for animals has a place in any ethical framework.

Actions which align ourselves to our source of strength in the Universe and unite us with the people in our lives will be actions which honor what we value. For that reason, when we assess the values involved in any decision that we make, the ethical component is very important.

3. What will be the Effect of our Actions on What We Value? In order to know how our actions will affect what we value, we need to make a prediction about what will happen as a result of our conduct. We need to learn the facts as best we can, check assumptions, and forecast consequences. Experience, logic and imagination are needed for this task. We call this the “test of effectiveness.”

4. Ethical Testing: How will Our Decisions Affect Other People, Animals and the Environment? Experience has shown that if we apply the following ethical tests to our actions we’ll know how a proposed action will affect our relations with others, animals and the Earth. For the vast majority of us whose view of the Universe requires that people act in ways which nurture, protect and refrain from harming others, these tests will help us determine how satisfying a decision will be in the long run.

A. The Golden Rule (“How would I like it if someone did it to me?” or “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”);

B. Accepted principles of ethical conduct, for example, the Ten Commandments or the Six Pillars of Character;

C. The Rule of Universality (“How would it be if everyone did it?”);

D. The Rule of Disclosure (“How would I feel if the whole world knew what I was doing or going to do, especially my family and school or business associates?”)

E. The Rule of the Most Honoring Choice. When there is a conflict between our own values or between our values and those of others affected by the decision, we should then choose the alternative which honors the most important long-term values for the most stakeholders (people, animals, the environment), giving reasonable priority to the stakeholders to whom we owe duties of obligation or loyalty. This is the heart of the ethical analysis. It involves accurately forecasting what will occur, a clear understanding of what we and others value, the ranking of those values, and balancing the possible good against the possible harm.

5. Am I falling into one of the common rationalizations used to justify ignoring ethical values? (If there is no positive ethical rule like the Golden Rule or one of the Six Pillars of Character that calls for the action and I’m thinking any of the thoughts described below, I’m probably not making a principled decision.)

i.    if it’s necessary its ethical (the ends justify the means);
ii.   if it’s legal and permissible, it’s proper;
iii.  it’s just part of the job (“it’s business, nothing personal”);
iv.   it’s all for a good cause;
v.    I was just doing it for you;
vi.   I’m just fighting fire with fire;
vii.  It doesn’t hurt anyone;
viii. Everyone’s doing it;
ix.    It’s OK if I don’t gain personally;
x.     I deserve it;
xi.    He (or she)’s got it coming.

There are many easy ethical questions but also some hard ones. Below are five examples. A – C are fairly clear. D and E are difficult and reasonable minds may differ about what should be done.

A. Stealing: Unless it’s necessary to live, stealing violates the personal value of trustworthiness and it’s not consistent with the Golden Rule. It’s not something that everyone should do (violating the principle of universality) nor does it pass the test of disclosure. It’s detrimental to the values of all stakeholders except perhaps the thief. The owner values his property. The public values a secure society. From this, it is pretty clear that stealing is not an ethical thing to do.

B. Cheating on a Test: Cheating on tests is frequently not effective because education is usually cumulative and a student who cheats will often have trouble when he or she advances to the next level of difficulty. In addition, cheating dishonors the personal values of trustworthiness (don’t cheat; don’t lie) and responsibility (do what you’re supposed to do; do your best). It fails the tests of the Golden Rule, universality (society wouldn’t work if everyone did it) and disclosure (cheating by its nature is secretive). It adversely impacts the stakeholders, e.g., the teacher who wants to use the test as an assessment of how well the class is doing and the other students who want an even field on which to compete.

C. A decision to kill someone, unless it is in self-defense, is not a principled decision. It violates the personal values of caring and respect. It violates the Golden Rule and the rule of universality. No one wants to die and it would not be a good idea if everyone with a grudge is permitted to kill someone. Whatever value the killer might be satisfying, self-defense is the only excuse for killing. (War and executions by the state are other exceptions to this analysis, although those of us who oppose the death penalty or who are pacifists would disagree.)

D. A person who is a vegetarian for ethical reasons applies the personal values of respect and caring to animals. Most modern consumers eat animals that live a life of misery on a factory farm and are then brutally killed. Consuming an animal violates the personal values of caring and respect toward the animals. The concerned vegetarian believes that any benefit derived from having animals available as a food source is not sufficient to justify the sacrifice of these personal values. Most non-vegetarians rely on mankind’s tradition of eating meat and decide that the life and death of an animal are of such little importance that they do not trigger an ethical issue at all. (Increasingly, a middle course is available. People can purchase meat taken from animals that are humanely raised and killed. Usually, this is available at health food stores and costs more than the meat raised on a factory farm.)

E. A logger proposing to clear-cut a forest values the ability to earn a living. The stakeholders in his decision include the logger and his family who will benefit from the employment and the money he earns, the people who will have homes or furniture made from the wood; and the people who will be employed to make the homes or furniture. On the other hand, the environment will suffer by losing the forest (to that extent all mankind and other living creatures suffer a loss) and the animals who live in the forest whose habitat will be destroyed and who may die, value their homes and lives. A logger focusing on the economic issues decides to go ahead and cut, an environmentalist focusing on the injury to the animals and the injury to the forest, applies the personal values of respect and caring to the situation and comes to a different conclusion.

6. Monitor and Revise: Keep tabs on what is occurring and modify our conduct when appropriate in light of how the conduct will affect our values.


One or two of these questions will raise the ethical issues in any film. Evaluate the questions carefully to make sure that they apply to the film being studied. We suggest rotating the questions, using a different one or two for discussions of each film. Questions 1 – 4 should be used first (e.g., at the beginning of the school year). The questions requiring a more sophisticated analysis, 5 – 10, should be introduced after children have experience responding to the earlier questions.

1. Who were the stakeholders for each major ethical choice made in the film? [A stakeholder is a person or an animal who is affected, directly or indirectly, by a decision made by another person.]

2. There were many people whose ethical choices contributed to the outcome shown in the film. For each major character describe how they complied with or violated the ethical principles of The Six Pillars of Character and describe how the outcome would have changed had they acted differently.

3. Analyze the actions of any major character in the movie applying two tests which any ethical action must pass: (1) The Golden Rule and (2) universality (Would the person taking the action want all persons to act the same way in a similar situation?).

4. The plots of most films turn on one or more ethical choices which must be made by the characters in the movie. Which of The Six Pillars of Character, if any, are involved in the plot of this film? Tell us whether the ethical decisions on which the plot turned complied with the standards set out in the Six Pillars. Justify your opinion.

5. Which characters in the movie showed ethical/moral growth? What were the causes of this change? Which character showed the most growth? Defend your position.

6. Which characters in the movie showed a deterioration in their ethical or moral standards? What were the causes of this change? Which character suffered the greatest decline in their moral/ethical standards? Defend your position.

7. Analyze the moral failures of the characters in this film to determine whether or not they fell into the most common rationalizations for not acting ethically.

  • If It’s Necessary, It’s Ethical
  • The False Necessity Trap
  • If It’s Legal and Permissible, It’s Proper
  • I Was Doing It for You
  • I’m Just Fighting Fire With Fire
  • It Doesn’t Hurt Anyone
  • Everyone’s Doing It
  • It’s OK as Long as I Don’t Gain Personally
  • I’ve Got It Coming
  • I Can Still Be Objective

Describe the moral failures of the characters and the rationalizations that they used to justify their actions.

8. Analyze the ethical decisions made by the characters in this film to determine whether or not you would come to the same conclusion using the analysis of principled decision-making described above or in the Ethical Decision-Making Model suggested by the Josephson Institute of Ethics. See Making Ethical Decisions*.

9. Did the characters in this movie make decisions that involved a choice between conflicting values, including conflicts between ethical values and non-ethical values? If so, how did the characters make their decisions and did they follow the analysis of principled decision-making described above or in the Josephson Institute Decision-Making Model? See Making Ethical Decisions*.

10. Analyze the process by which ethical choices were made by the characters in this film to determine whether or not they complied with the analysis of principled decision-making described above or in described in Making Ethical Decisions*? Defend your answer.