Monday, May 9, 2011

Potter Box Model For Ethical Decisions

Ethics - the discipline dealing with what is morally right or wrong, good or bad.
Ethical system describes the critical process of how we work through moral issues
Values - the accepted principles or standards of an individual or a group
All decision-making involves values which reflect our presuppositions about social life and human nature!
The Potter Box is a tool for making ethical decisions. It is often used by communications professionals, but it can be used by anyone facing an ethical dilemma. The Potter Box guides you towards a decision - it does not make the decision for you. It was created by Harvard philosopher Ralph Potter. It is based on the notion that ethical dilemmas result from conflicts that arise between the values we hold, the principles we use to make our decisions, the duties we have to others or any combination of these.
Ralph Benajah Potter, Jr., who retired in July 2003, began teaching at HDS (Harvard Divinity School) in 1965. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister and the author of the book War and Moral Discourse and assorted scholarly articles. He is a founding fellow of the Hastings Center for Bioethics and is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society for Christian Ethics, Societe Europeene de Culture, the Society for Values in Higher Education, and, at Harvard, the Senior Common Room of Lowell House. His 1997 HDS Convocation Address was titled "Moralists, Maxims and Formation for Ministry. Potter represented the stages as four quadrants of a box, and hence the name
"Potter’s Box is an ethical framework used to make decisions by utilizing four categories which Potter identifies as universal to all ethical dilemmas. Potter was a theologian at the Harvard Divinity School when he developed this moral reasoning framework. The Potter Box uses four dimensions of moral analysis to help in situations where ethical dilemmas occur: Facts, Values, Principles, and Loyalties.
The first quadrant in the Potter Box is define the situation or we also called it facts
Just as in any kind of a decision that we have to make. The first step is to gather all available information that sheds light on how the situation developed and what it looks like now, so that we can truly pinpoint the problem.
List the facts of the situation you are in, so that you can better understand it. This will help you understand exactly what ethical dilemma you are trying to solve. After completing other steps, you may find that you have to return to this step and modify your definition of the situation. The definition stage of the Potter Box concerns the facts of the issue at hand. Here is where the analyst should set out all facts without making judgments or hiding any facts.
The second quadrant is values.
Values are those aspects of life you consider to be important to you and that guides your decisions about what is right and what is wrong. At this stage the analyst should state and compare the merits of different values to acknowledge the influences on decision-making. By referring to the specific concerns of the individuals involved, it allows the analyst to identify differences in perspectives.
Identify the values—beliefs that define what you stand for. Values are helpful in rationalizing or defending your behavior. They are standards of choice through which persons and groups seek consistency in our values.
Basically, what do you stand for? You will likely end up with a long list of adjectives like honesty, responsibility, and broad minded. When you ultimately reach a conclusion, your decision should not go against these values. For example, you shouldn't decide to do something dishonest if you believe honesty to be very important.
I will give u an example if you value truth and fairness, these values are likely to find manifestation in the kind of decision you make about both your professional and personal lives and therefore will guide you behavior. If you value money and security you believe money can bring you more than you value the truth, this belief will guide your decision
In addition to these personal values, there are specific values that your profession - public relations – holds to be important in guiding your decision making. For example the public relations society of America has an explicit ‘PRSA Statement of Professional Values’ and indicates these to be the following”
1. Advocacy
2. Honesty
3. Expertise
4. Independence
5. Loyalty
6. Fairness

Types of Values
Proximity Firstness Impact/magnitude Conflict Human Interest Entertainment Novelty Toughness Thoroughness Immediacy Independence
No prior restraint Public’s right to know Watchdog
Moral Values
Truthtelling Humanness Justice/fairness Freedom Independence Stewardship Honesty Nonviolence Commitment Self-control
Harmonious Pleasing Imaginative
Consistent Competent Knowledge-able
Thrift Hard work Energy Restraint Heterosexuality
The third quadrant is principles.
Principles are ethical philosophies or modes of ethical reasoning that may be applicable to the situation. By considering the values stated above from several ethical philosophies, the decision-maker is better equipped to understand the situation. The following are some of the ethical philosophies that may be utilized under this segment of Potter's Box:
Aristotle's Golden Mean. Aristotle's Golden Mean defines moral virtue as a middle state determined practical wisdom that emphasizes moderation and temperance.
• NOT a weak-minded consensus
• NOT a compromise
• NOT a mathematically equal distance between two extremes
• Aristotle’s mean involves the correct quantity, the correct timing, the correct people, the correct motives, and the correct manner
Confucius' Golden Mean. Confucius' Golden Mean is more commonly known as the compromise principle and says moral virtue is the appropriate location between two extremes.

Kant's Categorical Imperative. Kant's Categorical Imperative dictates what we must never do, and those actions that have become universal law.
“Act only on that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law

Main ideas
• Ethics are objective
• Any genuine moral obligation can be universalized
• Categorical = unconditional
• What is right must be done regardless of circumstances
• Existence of higher truths
• Deontological ethics

Mill's Principle of Utility. John Stuart Mill's Principle of Utility dictates that we must seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.
• Consider what course will yield the best consequences for the welfare of human beings
• Ethical choice produces the greatest balance of good over evil
• Good end must be promoted, bad end must be restrained
Rawl's Veil of Ignorance. John Rawls' Veil of Ignorance asks us to place ourselves in the position of the people our decisions may influence. Justice emerges when negotiating without social differentiations
Agape Principle. This principle, also known as the Judeo-Christian, 'Persons as Ends' principle, emphasizes love for our fellow humans and the golden rule.
• “Love your neighbor as yourself”
• “What is the Will of Heaven like? The answer is – To love all men everywhere alike”
• All moral obligations derived from the command to love God and humankind
• Love for neighbor as normative
• Regard for others as personal, not legalistic (as with Rawls’s contract)
• Humans made in the image of God and with unconditional value apart regardless of circumstances
So overall this stage involves identifying your guiding principle or philosophy. You may find that you have a few you abide by, but be sure that the one you pick here is applicable to the situation at hand. Your principle or philosophy could be something like "always tell the public the truth", or it could be the teachings of a Greek philosopher. Again, your decision shouldn't contradict what you identify in this step.
The fourth quadrant is loyalties
Loyalties concern who the decision-maker has allegiances or loyalties to. For example, in journalism, the first allegiance is always to the public. Other allegiances a journalist might have would be to their employer, industry organizations or co-workers.
This is to determine to whom you must be loyal in this situation. The four important loyalties are of course to your employer, your profession, society and yourself. According to most professional associations’ codes of ethical behavior, your most important loyalty in a given professional situation should be to your employer or client. For example, whistle blowing is one of those situations where you have determined that there is potential harm that could be done to society and therefore your loyalty to your employer needs to take second place to your loyalty to society.
Who or what is most important for you to stand up for? Who gets hurt? Who benefits? Are you loyal to yourself, the public, your readers or the law? You may have several loyalties here, and be sure your decision does not abandon your loyalties. (Ex: if you are loyal to the law, don't break it).
The name "Potter Box" may indicate that this process is very rigid, but this is a fluid process, and you may have to go back and forth among the steps before you can reach a conclusion. This process will also become a bit easier and quicker the more you practice it. Two different people analyzing the same issue using the Potter Box can arrive at two very different conclusions. In fact, the same person using the same issue could arrive at different decisions when using the box at two different times.


  1. I found it useful and relevant to what i learnt. Thats a wonderful presantation.