Sound critical thinking is essential for sound ethical decision making

by Shelley Childs

Sound critical thinking and analysis helps ensure that today’s ethical problem does not become tomorrow’s crisis. The ‘unintended’ ethical consequences of decisions can often be anticipated or mitigated by more rigorous fact finding, thinking and analysis.

Two thinking modes

There are broadly two types or modes of thinking: The first is largely instinctive, emotional and fast (gut feel) and the second is deliberate, critical and slower but more defensible. Most decisions made are fortunately instinctive – we do not have to think about everything we do. It takes a great deal of mental effort to think critically, but significant value can be gathered from the process.

However, our instincts are often inaccurate, filtered (biased) or just plain ‘wrong’ and can have a negative impact on the quality of our thinking. Therefore, when issues are complex or dependent on numerous factors, we need to be actively objective, seek out quality information and be clear on the reason for making decisions. Above all, we need to find and reveal (expose) problems before they become crises.

At such times, our thinking needs to be critical and creative – looking at both problems and solutions in a different way. Critical thinking should be rigorous. It requires one to abandon many beliefs, assumptions or assertions and to explore new thought territory. This is both difficult and uncomfortable. One needs to actively seek out different or opposing points of view or facts and anticipate the consequences of decisions and actions at every level.

Choosing the best strategy or plan

The broader the impact of a decision (the more groups or individuals affected) the greater the likelihood of future unintended ethical issues arising and the need for critical thinking. It makes more sense to seek to avoid or manage issues with the potential of a negative ethical impact than to live with a ticking time bomb. Equally important is the need to go looking now for ethical issues that are not necessarily evident at first assessment, rather than being surprised by them later.

Often a strategic objective such as ‘increase profitability’ can be met by following any one of several paths such as cutting costs, improving productivity or decreasing down time, but deciding on which one is best suited requires critical thinking rather than intuition. Strategic objectives are not only about what the organisation wants to achieve, how it will get there, and how success will be measured, but also about how the decisions will be perceived and their impact on others. A classic example is the rise and fall of Enron.

The process

In order to ensure that decisions are made on a sound ethical basis we need deliberately to decide to follow a critical approach for all major business decision, tying the issue of sustainability to ethical considerations at every point. Once we have defined our options, we need to know what or who will be affected, assess how and measure and mitigate ethical risk where we can.

Critical thinking should be:

  • deliberate
  • systematic (steps, checkboxes and tools)
  • focused (clear objectives and goal driven considering the problem not its symptoms)
  • analytical (questioning)
  • expansive and inclusive (detailed and broad)
  • credible and relevant
  • logical (clear, sound reasoning based on facts or valid assumptions)
  • fair (actually and perceived)
  • transparent.

Tools include checklists and exploratory questions such as the 5 Whys and the Kipling method (W5H), to start the thinking and analysis process and define the issues. Roles might include one or more designated positions such as independent chair, rapporteur, and Devils’ Advocate/Counter Examiner. The independent chairperson (usually an outsider) should be objective, trained in recognising bias and ensure that the process is critical and objective but remains focused.

A clear focus is the first item to be defined. If, for example, the company is considering steps to enforce a reduction in absenteeism, is absenteeism the problem or a symptom?

All information presented for consideration must be credible and relevant. In other words – how valid, applicable and reliable is the information gathered. What or who is the source – who said so, what is her status (for example, researcher versus journalist) and how much authority does she carry in her professional circle? Can the information be verified by going back to source (is it a fact) and is it appropriate and representative.

This is the time to explore the potential or real impact of any future decision. Paint future scenarios with possible and probable good and bad outcomes, and list and rank the ethical issues against financial, social and environmental perspectives. Include in the assessment the possible mitigating actions and the company’s risk appetite. Rank again.

The arguments and conclusions supporting each decision taken need to be logical and structured in such a way that a series of logical statements leads to a fair conclusion with reasons to support that conclusion.

Lastly, the process and the conclusions (reasons for the outcomes) must be transparent. Would the company be exposed to criticism or worse if the decision making process was open to public scrutiny?


Sound critical thinking enables organisations to better understand and manage both the present and the future.

It is not the known that derails the train, but the unknown.

by Shelley Childs