Moral Reasoning Guidelines

*This material can also be found in the Moral Reasoning booklet.

Making good moral decisions is difficult, and part of the difficulty is that we do not live in a vacuum.  As we discussed in Section I, such decisions are complex and are connected to different contexts.  You are being asked to do an ethical analysis as compared to a political, religious, or economic one.  Depending upon the course you are enrolled in, your research topic or case study focuses on a moral dilemma or controversial moral issue and probably has several possible solutions to your dilemma.   For your second essay, it is not so important which moral judgment or moral rule you select (Discovery essay); instead, it is important that you justify, defend, and argue well for your moral position (Justification essay) and that you demonstrate clear and consistent reasoning, as well as critical thinking skills.  In making good moral judgments, you must argue for your position (the Discovery essay) using a normative ethical theory (the Justification essay).  The key to recognizing an ethical issue is to be able to conceptualize the moral problem correctly in the first place.  This is what our Moral Reasoning Strategy attempts to help you do:  It is a template that organizes your thoughts in order to generate a decision and then argue for or justify your decision using a normative ethical theory.

Prelude.   A good moral reasoner pays close attention to certain rules of thought and has good critical thinking skills.  Critical thinking involves certain intellectual traits which people must have in order to think clearly and accurately and thus to make solid moral decisions.  While this booklet cannot cover these rules or traits in any detail, let it suffice to say that these traits involve characteristics such as clarity, relevance, consistency, depth, logic, and preciseness.

Paper A.  The Moral Dilemma Essay: a statement of the issue.

In this section you are asked to objectively lay out for your reader a moral dilemma you have encountered in your place of employment, in your personal life, or through your scholarly research.  While there may be overlap, a moral dilemma is not the same as, for example, an economic dilemma, plus not all moral issues are not moral dilemmas.   If you are not clear what a moral dilemma is, please contact your instructor.

After thinking closely about your moral dilemma, your first task is to write a summary of the dilemma, conflict, or case study.  Doing so requires simply stating the facts of the case; you are not drawing any conclusions in this section.  Your summary should be no more than approximately one to two page and should end with a clearly stated moral dilemma in the form of a question.  Be sure you have a moral dilemma rather than simply a social issue or a personal grip.  A moral dilemma is not always the same as a moral issue:  Something may be a moral issue for society but not a moral dilemma or issue for you, or vice versa.  A moral dilemma involves a values conflict. This distinction is especially important in the capstone course.  Your summary is simply an accurate description of the situation at hand.  You must have the summary of your moral dilemma (or capstone topic) approved by the instructor before you can submit your Discovery essay.

Paper B.  The Discovery Essay: A Moral Analysis.

Your Discovery essay should begin with a very short restatement of the dilemma.  The question often arises as to how one can best morally resolve the dilemma or conflict in question.  In the Discovery Essay, as well as your capstone course, Moral Issues in Society, when you are analyzing your moral dilemma, you should notice that your dilemma involves more than your own viewpoint; we cannot be moral isolationists.  We must, therefore, find a method of analysis that is acceptable to people of diverse moral positions.  Author Vincent Ruggiero proposes three common concerns which many people can agree upon as relevant to various positions:  Obligations, Values, and Effects.

1. Significant human action occurs directly or indirectly, in a context of relationships with others.  Relationships involve obligations; what should or should not be done.  When analyzing a values conflict, one must define what the obligations to the stakeholders in the dilemma/decision are (Ruggiero 90).  What are some of the obligations involved in your dilemma?  These can be obligations to the stakeholders involved or to you, and could be items such as family, economics, personal satisfaction, etc.  Every significant human action, whether personal or professional, arises in the context of relationships with other sentient beings.  These relationships can be discussed in terms of specific duties and rights or in terms of our obligations to respect the rights of people and animals.  Obligations bind us.  When we are morally obligated, we must do certain things or avoid doing other things.  It is important for our moral decision making to understand what our obligations are.  We must always ask ourselves, “What are the obligations that derive from our relationships or are affected by our conduct?”

2. According to Ruggiero, values are specific concepts that assist us in applying, for example, the principle of respect for persons in our moral judgments (101).  Examples of values include the following: fairness, tolerance, compassion, loyalty, forgiveness, amity, and peace.  What is the impact of our actions and obligations on our important values?  Are these values moral or nonmoral?  A value is a general belief or an attitude about something we desire or like, whereas an ideal is a morally important goal, virtue, or notion of excellence worth striving for.  Clearly, different cultures impart different values and ideals and, equally important, different ways of pursuing them, but what is important for our decision-making is to have a grasp of what values are involved in our situation or dilemma.  For example, in our culture we allegedly respect the value of tolerance or compassion.  In a like manner, our institutions often express an allegiance to the value of efficiency, productivity, and so forth.

Values often conflict with each other, but at least if we have some understanding of the values involved, we are better able to attempt a resolution of the conflict.  We must always ask ourselves what values are at stake or what value a particular action respects or promotes, neglects, or thwarts.  This section will be an important part of your essay, so be sure to give sufficient thought to assessing what values are involved in your dilemma.

In you have discovered all the values involved in the moral dilemma, rank your values in order of importance to you.  What is the reasoning behind your ranking?  Closely review Section II, Exploring Values, Rules, and Principles.  Delineating the moral values, ranking them, and explaining them are an important section of your paper and must be included in it.  We must know what we value before we can begin to make an informed moral decision.  Your highest-ranking value should be the one that helps define your moral rule or grounds your moral judgment.

3. Any action will normally have an effect or outcome.  When analyzing a values conflict or moral dilemma, one should, as far as possible, be aware of the beneficial or harmful effects that result from the action and how it affects the people involved, including of course, the person performing the action.  Are the effects emotional?  Physical? Immediate?  Delayed?  Obvious?  Subtle?  Hidden?  Intentional? (Ruggiero 112).  What are the effects of our actions on our obligations or values?  A morally aware person must take into account the effects of our obligations, both on others and on what values we hold.  We must always ask ourselves the following: What are the effects of alternative courses of action?  Who is affected by the action and how?  How do these effects compare with those of the alternatives open to us?

What should have priority?  Obligations?  Values?  Effects?

Ruggiero’s method identifies three concerns common to almost all ethical systems: obligations, values, and effects.  Employing these concerns would be a useful starting point when attempting a resolve a moral dilemma since an action which does not pass scrutiny after the obligations, values, and effects are analyzed will be morally suspect.  Stated in a positive way, any action that honors obligations while respecting values and benefiting people can be presumed to be moral.

One should not assume, however, that each concern will be represented equally in each and every moral decision.  Sometimes the issue may be largely a matter of obligations; other times, some value may predominate; still other times, consideration of effects may be the overriding concern.  These are just guidelines, but a moral individual without some form of moral decision-making procedure is like a sailor without a compass; sooner or later he or she will get lost.

Proposals for resolution of a dilemma or conflict.

Now that you have considered the obligations, values, and effects, what proposals or solutions can be possible resolutions to your moral dilemma?  That is to say, what are the possible ways to solve it?  You also need to eliminate the unethical options, since these options reduce moral judgments to immoral or nonmoral judgments.  As you are brainstorming, pay attention to the following:

a. Be aware of your thinking process and don’t always go with your first impressions or the          obvious. Think outside the box.

b. Be flexible.  Try not to make up your mind before thinking has occurred.  Rationalizations are different than reasons; in ethics you deal with reasons.

c. Think critically and creatively.  Simply holding an opinion or having a view does not indicate    critically and creative thinking.  Look outside the box.

d. Do your proposals specifically tell you what you ought to do?  Do they give you a variety of    options?

Reflective Assessment.

a. Choose your best proposal from the list you just made and then clearly and precisely state your solution to, or judgment of, the dilemma which you raised in Section A.  That is to say, what is your moral judgment concerning the resolution of your moral dilemma?  You need to clearly and specifically state what your judgment or proposed course of action is.

b. What assumptions are you making with your proposal?

c. What are the implications, both positive and negative, involved in the acceptance of your specific judgment or solution?  That is to say, what do you think will happen, morally speaking, if you adopt your proposal?  Why do you think it will happen?

d. Conclude with a clear statement of the moral rule and moral judgment involved.

The moral rule is normally only one sentence and is usually action guiding; it must be specific.  Your moral rule is also that which grounds your solution or moral judgment.  For example, if your moral judgment is “X should have told the truth to Y,” your moral rule could be that “X should not lie.”  It is important that you are clear on this.

e. Is your resolution or moral judgment directly defendable by your moral rule?

f. Is your moral dilemma (your initial question) directed by and clearly answered by your moral judgment?  State your moral judgment clearly and precisely, being sure to avoid biasing the reader toward your viewpoint.

Final Review.

Your Assumptions

Describe what you know and don’t know about your dilemma.

(What assumptions do you have to make?)

–Your Values

a) List and describe the important values in your life.

b) Which are being called on in this situation?

c) Are any of them in conflict with each other in the current situation?

d) How would you rank order them?

e) Why do you rank them in this way?

–Your Obligations

a) Describe what your obligations are in your current dilemma.

b) How would you rank order them?

c) Why do you rank them in this way?

–Proposing Possible Solutions

a) Explore several possible ways (three to five) to solve your dilemma.

b) For each, explain which obligations and values are expressed.

–Choosing Your Solution

a) Name the proposal you are most likely to choose.

b) Is this proposal expressive of your highest values and obligations?

c) Why did you not pick any of the others?


a) What are the resulting positive effects/consequences/outcomes?

b) What are the negative effects/consequences/outcomes?

c) Do the positives of your proposal outweigh the negatives? How so?

–Moral Judgment and Rule

a) Clearly state your moral judgment

b) Check to make sure your judgment is a direct response to your dilemma question

c) Clearly state your moral rule which supports your judgment

Discovery Essay Worksheet.

When you submit your Discovery essay, attach to the very end of your essay a sheet of paper with your responses to the following four items.  Your responses should be based on, and found within, the Discovery essay.  There should be nothing discussed on the worksheet which is not discussed at length in your Discovery essay.  The worksheet with my comments on it will need to be submitted with the Justification essay, as well.

a. In one sentence, state your moral dilemma in the form of a question proposed at the end of the             first essay and the same dilemma you analyzed in the Discovery Essay.

b. List, and rank in order of importance, all the values that you discussed and analyzed in your     Discovery Essay.

c. In one sentence, state your moral judgment.  Your judgment should be a direct response to       your dilemma.

d. In one sentence, state the moral rule upon which supports your moral judgment.

Paper C.  The Justification Essay: An Ethical Analysis

In this section, you are asked to defend, argue for, and justify your moral judgment or your research conclusion using one of the normative ethical theories we have covered this semester.  If you are unclear about the differences between ethical theories, principles, and moral rules, please ask your professor, since confusing these terms could result in conceptual difficulties.  You are asked to give reasons that are grounded in a normative ethical theory for your moral judgment or moral rule.  In your Discovery Essay, you made a moral judgment and then carefully considered what the moral rule is that defends and justifies your judgment. In this Justification Essay, you must apply a normative ethical theory to your judgment. The justification essay investigates which ethical principles justify the moral judgment that guided your proposal in the discovery essay.

1.  In no more than ten sentences, the first paragraph of your Justification Essay should sum up the moral dilemma or conflict you discovered in the Discovery Essay, as well as clearly restate your moral rule and moral judgment from your Discovery Essay.  You will be justifying, defending, and arguing for your particular moral judgment or rule, so you must be very clear in this review of the critical content of your Discovery Essay.

2.  Choose the normative ethical theory (e.g., Utilitarianism, Kantian, etc.) that best defends your moral judgment and then clearly and precisely argue for the validity of your judgment using your selected ethical theory.  This is by far the most important part of this assignment and should make up at least 75% of your paper.

Normative ethical theories use several principles to help argue for or justify moral rules and judgments.  When writing your Justification essay, be sure to utilize the ethical theory not just an ethical principle or two. When writing your capstone paper, you must defend your conclusion or final proposal using a normative ethical theory.  Remember, you are not just listing principles and simply claiming that they defend your moral rule; you must use the ethical theory (the entire relevant reading and lectures) to argue for your position.  Again, you are using a normative ethical theory to defend or justify your moral judgment or moral rule; you are not using your personal viewpoint, your religious affiliation, or the law.  This section is the most important part of your Justification essay.

3.  What ethical and/or philosophical objections can be raised about your position and the ethical defense of your moral judgment?  Be specific.  How would you respond to these objections?  Have you violated any of the obligations, values, or effects you discovered in your Discovery Essay?

4.  Finally, give a five or six sentence summary of your position.