1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Potter Box
  5. Conclusion
  6. Appendix A
  7. References

After a brief review of the ethical judgment research, the Potter Box, a four-step ethical judgment tool used primarily in media ethics, is introduced. The paper proposes that the Potter Box's usefulness for evaluating ethical dilemmas could be improved by re-sequencing the steps, by incorporating philosophical intuitionism as a mechanism for structuring its inherent pluralism and by adding a post-decision, pre-action reflective step. The resulting modified Potter Box has five steps – analyze the situation, identify stakeholders, specify duties, weigh obligations and check for universalizability – and should provide a useful structure for analyzing difficult ethical dilemmas and for creating transparency in the judgment process that accommodates improved discussion.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Potter Box
  5. Conclusion
  6. Appendix A
  7. References

The business landscape is littered with examples of ethical failures. Names like ‘Enron’ and ‘Madoff’ have become synonymous with the greed and shortsightedness that injures innocent others. These types of ethical issues involve a choice between right and wrong, focusing on one value and a single stakeholder (Toffler 1986): ‘Bribery is wrong; affirmative hiring of minorities is right; fairness to employees is good; polluting the environment is bad’ (p. 23). Ethical failures result from individuals facing an ethical issue and choosing wrong over right.

But most people want to do what is right. The fact that we make excuses or apologize for bad behavior demonstrates our preference for good behavior over bad behavior (Lewis 1952). While this inclination may be partly explained by social norms, individuals tend to believe that they behave more ethically than others (Larkin 2000, Halbesleben et al. 2004).

The most difficult type of ethical decision is the ethical dilemma (Toffler 1986), which ‘addresses the claims of multiple, often competing, stakeholders’ and ‘multiple, often competing values’ (p. 22). Frequently ethical dilemmas feature right-vs.-right conflicts (Badaracco 1997), similar to the psychological concept of approach–approach conflict (Arkoff 1957), but could also include avoidance–avoidance conflict (i.e. two equally undesirable alternatives) and approach–avoidance conflict (i.e. an alternative with both positive and negative qualities). People want to do what is right but often do not know how to balance these various conflicts (Toffler 1986).

Ethical dilemmas in business have been around as long as individuals have been involved in commercial activities, but an increased interest in ethical decision making has prompted increasingly frequent literature reviews. The first major literature review was from Ford and Richardson in 1994, and in the following 10 years only one updated literature review was published (Loe et al. 2000). But in the 6 years from 2005 to 2010, four major literature reviews have been published (O'Fallon & Butterfield 2005, Treviño et al. 2006, Tenbrunsel & Smith-Crowe 2008, Kish-Gephart et al. 2010) in an effort to organize the expanding research findings and to understand the factors that determine how ethical decisions are made and ultimately implemented.

While these literature reviews have extensively evaluated the factors that influence ethical decision making, they tend to focus on improvements that could be made to ethical decision-making research, rather than addressing practical tools to improve ethical decision making itself. The purpose of this paper is to focus on improving ethical judgment by revisiting the Potter Box (Potter 1965, 1972), a four-step ethical judgment tool used primarily in media ethics, and proposing that a modified Potter Box would be an improved tool for training in ethical judgment.

The ethical decision-making process

The primary structure for researching ethical decision making has followed Rest's (1986, 1994) four-component model, which presupposes that individuals take a rational, deliberate approach (Reynolds 2006b). After becoming aware of the ethical nature of the situation (Step 1), individuals make a thoughtful judgment (Step 2), which directs their intention to act (Step 3) and, ultimately, their actual behavior (Step 4).

Research has largely supported Rest's model (Figure 1). Awareness is related to judgment (Wittmer 2000, Barnett 2001, Barnett & Valentine 2004), and judgment is related to intent (Reidenbach & Robin 1990, Barnett et al. 1994, Barnett & Vaicys 2000). In addition, awareness is related to intent (Robin et al. 1996, Singhapakdi et al. 2000, Wittmer 2000), but judgment mediates the awareness–intent relationship (May & Pauli 2002).


Figure 1. Empirical support for Rest's (1986, 1994) model

A. Awareness is related to judgment (Wittmer 2000, Barnett 2001, Barnett & Valentine 2004).

B. Judgment is related to intent (Reidenbach & Robin 1990, Barnett et al. 1994, Barnett & Vaicys 2000).

C. Awareness is related to intent (Robin et al. 1996, Singhapakdi et al. 2000, Wittmer 2000).

D. Judgment mediates the awareness–intent relationship (May & Pauli 2002).

E. Judgment is related to behavior (Blasi 1980, Honeycutt et al. 2001).

F. Intent is related to behavior (Hegarty & Sims 1978, Ajzen 1988, 1991).

G. Intent mediates the judgment–behavior relationship (Eisenberg 1986, Wagner & Sanders 2001).

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Judgment is also related to behavior (Blasi 1980, Honeycutt et al. 2001) as is intent (Hegarty & Sims 1978, Ajzen 1988, 1991, Bass et al. 1999), but intent mediates the judgment–behavior relationship (Eisenberg 1986, Wagner & Sanders 2001).

Ethical judgment

This paper focuses on judgment as the critical stage in Rest's ethical decision-making model because judgment is central to ethical decision making, is the most complex of the four steps, and has had its rational basis challenged by recent research.

The centrality of judgment

Although ethical failure can take place at any of the four stages (Rest 1994), judgment would appear to be the core stage because it takes the vagueness of an ethical dilemma and transforms it into the intention to behave in a specific way (Sparks & Pan 2010). Awareness recognizes the moral nature of a situation but does not prescribe any particular response. While intent and behavior are important, they merely carry out the decision that was determined by judgment. All four components are necessary for implementing an ethical decision, but the judgment stage examines the situation and formulates a specific plan of action.

Judgment also appears to be the best target for ethical training since it is more consciously determined by the decision maker than the other three stages. Failures in the other three stages tend to be related to insensitivity (for awareness-related failures) or competing external influences (for intent- and behavior-related failures) (Rest 1994). In contrast, failures in judgment come from processes that are more directly under the control of (and can be corrected by) the decision maker.

The complexity of judgment

Ethical judgment can be complex (Sparks & Pan 2010), and judgment failures are multifaceted, as individual decision makers may (a) misunderstand a situation (e.g. not seeing software piracy for what it is), (b) hold a false rule (e.g. judging software piracy to be ethical), or (c) misapply a correct moral rule (Reynolds 2006a).

Compounding this complexity is the epistemological issue of determining what is a false moral rule and what is a correct moral rule. Individuals at different levels of moral development (Kohlberg 1976) may disagree on what constitutes moral action and, more importantly, how moral decisions are justified. Cultural relativism, ethical subjectivism and psychological egoism (Rachels 1993) each proposes that we ‘know’ what is right by different means (i.e. culture, feelings, self-interest), but all share the error that believing something is true makes it true.

The methods for measuring each of Rest's four steps also support the idea that judgment is especially complex. Ethical awareness has been typically measured by asking subjects the degree to which a scenario contains ethical issues (Robin et al. 1996, May & Pauli 2002, Singhapakdi et al. 2000). Ethical intent has been typically measured by asking subjects if they would behave in a particular way (Robin et al. 1996, Schwepker 1999, Barnett & Vaicys 2000). Ethical behavior has been less frequently studied but has been measured by observing current behavior in a simulation (Hegarty & Sims 1978) or by asking subjects if they have behaved in a particular way in the past (Honeycutt et al. 2001).

Each of these three steps could be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (e.g. Are there ethical issues present? Would you behave in this way?), but researchers have commonly allowed subjects to respond in a less dichotomous way (e.g. To what degree are ethical issues present? How likely would you be to behave in this way?), allowing for a range of disagreement/agreement or a probability estimate.

While judgment has occasionally been measured in a similar way (e.g. To what degree is this behavior ethical?) (Honeycutt et al. 2001), the most common measure of judgment is the multidimensional ethics scale (MES), developed by Reidenbach & Robin (1990). The MES recognizes that ethical judgment is a complex construct, based on moral equity (i.e. what is fair, just, morally right and acceptable to one's family), relativism (i.e. what is culturally and traditionally acceptable) and contractualism (i.e. what is consistent with an unspoken promise or unwritten contract). However, even this more sophisticated measure does not capture the full complexity of judgment because it presents only a single possible action for the individual to evaluate and does not engage the individual in creatively generating alternatives and evaluating them. In short, it presents ethical judgment as a simplistic ‘true/false’ question rather than as an open-ended ‘essay’ question.

While the MES may be appropriate for evaluating the actions of others (as is typical in scenario-based research), it does not address the decision making that necessarily precedes (or is an element of) judgment (Ferrell & Gresham 1985, Mowen 1988, Sparks & Pan 2010). When individuals are faced with an ethical dilemma, they typically face a problem to be solved, not a single alternative to be critiqued. Judgment is made through the process of gathering, understanding and analyzing the relevant facts so that the situation can be evaluated and the appropriate action determined. Behavioral intention is based on judgment (Mellers et al. 1998), and Gaudine & Thorne (2001) use the term ‘prescriptive judgment’ to emphasize that judgment results in what is believed to be the optimal behavioral response.

While the Rest model has proven to be a useful framework to explain the ethical decision-making process, one shortcoming is that it only identifies that judgment takes place – ‘labeling one possible line of action as what a person ought (morally ought) to do in that situation’ (Rest 1986: 3) – and does not describe or recommend any process for making a judgment. According to Rest (1994), errors in ethical judgment ‘come about from overly simplistic ways of justifying choices of moral action’ (p. 24), suggesting that judgment can be improved if it is based on a more complete, thoughtful analysis. Such a recommendation may be beyond the model's intended scope, since its emphasis is on describing the ethical decision-making process, not improving it.

Extensive research has already been conducted on the individual, situational and issue-contingent factors that influence this process (Ford & Richardson 1994, Loe et al. 2000, O'Fallon & Butterfield 2005, Treviño et al. 2006, Tenbrunsel & Smith-Crowe 2008, Kish-Gephart et al. 2010), as well as the impact of emotions (Gaudine & Thorne 2001, Haidt 2001) and moral disengagement (Bandura 1999, Detert et al. 2008). However, the focus of this paper is the core decision-making process that results in an ethical judgment and how that process can be structured so that it encourages a careful, comprehensive examination of ethical dilemmas.

The illusion of judgment

Recent research has challenged Rest's premise of rational ethical decision making and suggests that individuals may act on ‘ethical impulses’ and not engage in careful, thoughtful consideration when making ethical decisions (Haidt 2001, Kish-Gephart et al. 2010, Sparks & Pan 2010). Some ethical judgments may be quick and intuitive, driven by emotions, and rationalized afterwards.

A helpful middle ground proposed by Reynolds (2006b) suggests that individuals tend to follow one of two decision-making processes. Deliberate, rational ethical judgment emphasizes moral rules and ‘active judgment’ that leads to intention and behavior, consistent with Rest's model. However, some individuals may instead engage in ‘reflexive judgment’ with a nonconscious, automatic emphasis on intentions and behaviors, which are later rationalized. The choice between these two processes depends on the presence of a ‘prototype’ – a previously considered, similar situation from which individuals can draw when making decisions. If an individual faces a situation that is similar to the prototype, rather than carefully analyzing the situation, the individual will respond intuitively with ‘reflexive judgment’. If an individual faces a situation where no prototype exists, then a more thorough analysis, using ‘active judgment’, will be conducted.

In either case, tools are needed to help individuals work through the judgment process. If a decision has no prototype, such tools could help an individual come to a carefully considered judgment. But these tools, when used as a part of either business coursework or continuing ethics training, could also help individuals develop prototype responses in advance by applying them to case studies or hypothetical scenarios, and these responses can be used as prototypes when a similar situation presents itself.

The Potter Box

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Potter Box
  5. Conclusion
  6. Appendix A
  7. References

One of the first ethical decision-making tools, the Potter Box, was developed by Harvard Divinity Professor Ralph B. Potter in 1965 when examining the ethics of nuclear weapons (Potter 1965, 1972). However, its use has been limited almost exclusively to applications in journalism and public relations ethics (McElreath 1996, Williams 1997, Parsons 2004, Christians et al. 2005, Guth & Marsh 2007).

In both of these areas (i.e. nuclear weapons, journalism/public relations), the Potter Box is used to analyze complex ethical issues that require balancing potential harm to disparate constituencies. Is the threat of nuclear war by an adversary justification for possessing nuclear weapons for deterrence? Is the harm to a charged, but not convicted individual justified by the benefits of a free press? These questions, like many ethical dilemmas faced in business, require careful balancing of competing consequences.

The Potter Box (Figure 2) structures the ethical judgment process by asking four questions. The first question, ‘What is the situation?’, asks the individual to collect and understand the key facts related to the ethical dilemma. The second question, ‘What values are important?’, asks the individual to reflect on which moral values are represented in the situation. The third question, ‘What principles apply?’, asks the individual to consider a variety of ethical philosophies, such as Mill's utilitarianism (1863/1987), or Kant's categorical imperative (1785/1964) to help analyze competing values. The fourth question, ‘What loyalties exist?’, asks about the obligations the individual has to others. Some authors have suggested that the questions could be addressed in any order (Nelson 1992), while others propose that it is an iterative process (Guth & Marsh 2007).


Figure 2. The Potter Box

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Because the Potter Box requires careful deliberation of a situation, it is most useful in ethical dilemmas that are new to the individual and exhibit significant potential consequences to multiple groups or individuals. If the situation is not new, the decision maker will likely rely on ‘reflexive judgment’ (Reynolds 2006b) and apply previous standards of behavior. If the situation does not exhibit competing consequences, it becomes a question of moral motivation and moral action (Hannah et al. 2011) appropriate to avoiding unethical decision making for a moral issue, not a question of moral judgment appropriate to a moral dilemma.

Potter Box strengths

The Potter Box is a helpful tool for analyzing complex situations for several reasons. First, its use of a few simple questions does not require advanced formal training in ethical philosophy. ‘Values’ and ‘principles’ can be used at each individual's particular level of understanding, allowing both the novice and the expert to benefit from the model's structure. Second, the Potter Box accommodates a wide variety of ethical philosophies, allowing the decision maker to view the situation from multiple perspectives. Finally, the Potter Box makes the decision-making process more transparent, consciously addressing those affected and the conflicting obligations. This transparency allows individuals to articulate and discuss the process behind their judgment.

Potter Box shortcomings

However, the Potter Box suffers from several shortcomings that make it difficult to use. First, by addressing ‘loyalties’ as the final question, particular obligations may be overlooked and an emphasis on relationships may undermine ethical values. And even the word ‘loyalty’ itself may inhibit the search for those affected. Second, ‘values’ (question two) may be difficult to determine without first reflecting on ‘principles’ (question three). Third, since the Potter Box allows for the incorporation of a wide variety of ethical philosophies, individuals may have difficulty comparing incommensurable standards. Finally, because the Potter Box results in decisions that are based on a specific situation, it does not force the decision maker to consider how the decision might act as prototype (Reynolds 2006b) for future decisions.

So while the Potter Box asks the appropriate questions, the purpose of this paper is to suggest that the Potter Box could be improved by re-sequencing the questions into a different order, incorporating philosophical intuitionism, and by adding a post-decision, pre-action reflective step.

A modified Potter Box

Stakeholders, not loyalties: sooner rather than later

The final step of the original Potter Box is to examine the loyalties an individual has to others. In journalism and public relations research, these obligations have been typically framed as either reciprocal loyalties to an employer (primarily to perform promised job functions) or nonreciprocal loyalties to the public (primarily to prevent individual or community harm or to protect privacy). This broad concept of loyalty is similar to Freeman's (2009) definition of a primary or secondary stakeholder as ‘any group or individual that can affect or be affected by the realization of an organization's purpose’ (p. 65) and, when applied at an individual level, could include any group or individual that can affect or be affected by the individual's actions. Since virtually all ethical issues and dilemmas deal with the impact of actions on others, this core consideration would be more helpful if moved earlier in the process (Watley 2000), helping individuals to avoid problems associated with limiting the search for stakeholders (Messick & Bazerman 1996, Bowen 2004).

But even the use of the word ‘loyalty’ can inhibit the search for relevant stakeholders by its inherent partiality – favoring ‘those who are close and not … those who are distant or foreign’ (Fletcher 1996: 524). In a business context, loyalty has frequently been viewed as something ‘earned’ and has tangible future value, such as customer loyalty or employee loyalty (Reichheld & Teal 1996). While customers and employees are two prominent groups of stakeholders (Freeman 2009), the focus on this type of reciprocal loyalty may obscure the nonreciprocal stakeholders, who are impacted by, but do not impact, the organization. Changing the terminology from ‘loyalty’ to ‘stakeholder’ may help broaden a decision maker's perspective to include affected stakeholders who are not ‘loyal’ in that they have not initiated a commitment to the organization or decision maker.

Specifying those who are affected by the decision may help identify additional, previously unseen obligations, because the decision has been coded as an ethical one (Tenbrunsel & Smith-Crowe 2008). Knowing who those individuals are and having information about them has been shown to improve ethical decision making (Watley & May 2004). Identifying stakeholders at an earlier stage may also encourage individuals to emphasize the weight of particular ethical obligations rather than emphasizing the weight of particular relationships, which has been shown to undermine ethical decision making (Miller & Thomas 2005).

Addressing the question of stakeholders as the second stage – immediately after analyzing the situation – may help to more comprehensively identify potential stakeholders but could also improve the quality of the decision-making process.

Obligations: principles before values

The second step of the original Potter Box asks individuals to identify the relevant ethical values in the situation and then progress, in the third step, to using ethical philosophies to weigh the various ethical principles. A variety of ethical philosophies, such as utilitarianism (Mill 1863/1987), Kant's categorical imperative (1785/1964), Aristotle's golden mean (1985) and The Golden Rule (Burton 2004), have been suggested. This approach, known as ‘ethical pluralism’, recognizes that a variety of ethical philosophies can shed useful light on making decisions (Arnold et al. 2010) and has been advocated by Miner & Petocz (2003), who suggested that ethical decision-making models should be developed, which ‘include a representative range of moral philosophies’ (p. 21). Research has shown that those who use multiple philosophies tend to make better ethical decisions (Barnett et al. 1994).

However, individuals may find it difficult to first identify values (the original step two) without referring to the ethical philosophies (the original step three), and in the event that competing philosophies recommend conflicting actions, there is no reconciliatory process (Watley 2000).

The Potter Box has been criticized for allowing individuals to choose whichever ethical philosophy supports their personal preferences (Bowen 2004), but the appropriate use of ethical pluralism requires the individual to incorporate a variety of ethical principles in the decision-making process (Audi 2004), consistent with Maclagan's (2012) recommendation to combine rule-based theories.

One framework for incorporating multiple ethical perspectives could revolve around the prima facie duties from ethical intuitionism (Ross 1930, Audi 2004), which is ‘theoretically straightforward and, in many cases, more readily applicable to practical moral problems than virtue ethics, Kantianism, or utilitarianism’ (Audi 2004: ix). Even so, using the language of duties can draw on values from virtue ethics, Kantianism, utilitarianism and other ethical philosophies. In addition, because intuitionism emphasizes particular duties that result in obligations, the Potter Box would be more descriptive by labeling this section ‘obligations’ rather than ‘principles’.

Intuition's prima facie duties

Ross (1930) proposed that certain ethical obligations are intuitive. Given that the individuals have ‘reached sufficient mental maturity and have given sufficient attention to the proposition, it is evident without any need of proof, or of evidence beyond itself’ (p. 29). Ross's duties are comparable to Donaldson & Dunfee's (1994) hypernorms, which are those ethical principles that are fundamental to societal existence and are valid across cultures and across time.

Reflecting on the situation and those affected through the lens of ethical intuitionism could provide a useful structure to help prompt individuals to contemplate previously neglected considerations and at the same time provide a basis for examining competing obligations.

Ross (1930) originally proposed a non-exhaustive list of seven prima facie duties, which was subsequently expanded to ten by Audi (2004). Each duty proposes that, all other things being equal, it is better for an individual to do a particular action than to not do that particular action. Even though these are not final duties, they are obligations that carry weight.

  1. The duty of noninjury suggests that, all other things being equal, it is always better to not hurt someone than to hurt someone. This duty encompasses more than simple physical injury, but also psychological, financial and social harm (Audi 2004, 2009, Stein & Ahmad 2009).
  2. In contrast, the duty of beneficence asks us to improve the lives of others, particularly their virtue and intelligence (Audi 2004). All other things being equal, it is better to improve the lives of others than to not assist in that improvement. This could be misinterpreted as an obligation to become a full-time philanthropist, but Audi (2004) clearly argues that beneficence is a supererogatory, not an obligatory, duty.
  3. Similarly, the duty of self-improvement asks us to improve ourselves – not improving our own wealth, pleasure or influence but improving our own virtue and intelligence (Audi 2004). This emphasis on character could be clarified by identifying specific virtues, such as prudence (which includes common sense and considering consequences), temperance (which includes self-control and Aristotle's Golden Mean), justice (which includes fairness, honesty and keeping promises), fortitude (which includes persistence) (Lewis 1952, Pieper 1965) and compassion (Solomon 1998). The duty of self-improvement proposes that, all other things being equal, it is always more ethical to make ourselves better people than to neglect that opportunity.
  4. The duty of justice includes both the positive duty to remedy past injustice and prevent future injustice, but also the negative duty to not commit injustice (Arnold et al. 2010). The vague concept of justice could be made more concrete by examining the various types of justice, such as distributive justice, or the fair allocation of benefits and burdens (Rawls 1971); procedural justice, or the fair processes in allocating those benefits and burdens (Nozick 1974); compensatory justice, or ensuring fair indemnification for harm (Chapman 1991); retributive justice, or assigning fair penalties for wrongdoing (Ferrell & Gresham 1985); interactive justice, or the honesty and respect with which someone is treated (Shapiro 1998); and restorative justice, or using fairness when reintegrating offenders (Goodstein & Butterfield 2010).
  5. The duty of reparation overlaps the idea of compensatory justice in that it is better to make amends for, rather than ignore the consequences of, our own wrongdoing. However, reparation and compensation are not identical concepts (Arnold et al. 2010). The duty of reparation typically requires some type of compensation, but compensation can take place apart from any reparative obligation.
  6. The duty of gratitude is the obligation to express appreciation for the helpful acts of others. Audi (2004) suggests proportional gratitude in that ‘the greater the benefit, and the further it is from being owed, and, especially, the more burdensome its conferral is to the benefactor, the more extensive the expression of gratitude should be’ (p. 192).
  7. While Ross (1930) viewed fidelity as a single duty, Audi (2004) separated it into the duty of promise-keeping and the duty of truth-telling – both being a fidelity to our word. The duty of promise-keeping proposes that when we make a commitment, whether directly or implied, we are obligated to fulfill that commitment.
  8. Similarly, when we communicate, there is an implicit promise that what we are saying is true. However, the phrase ‘truth-telling’ may be too narrow since the concept includes not only veracity but also the absence of lying or deceit (Carson 2001, Audi 2004).
  9. The duty of liberty is to ‘preserve and, where possible, enhance freedom and autonomy’ (Audi 2004: 568), a concept that can be made more concrete by examining particular rights, such as free consent, freedom of conscience, free speech and privacy (Daft 2008).
  10. The duty of manner is different from the other nine duties in that it is ‘adverbial’ in nature (Audi 2004: 179) and addresses how an act is done and not the action itself, similar to interactive justice. It is better to perform an act with respect and kindness than to perform that same act with rudeness and cruelty.
Ethical philosophies reflected in intuitionism

While the duties previously described clearly reflect a deontological duty-based approach, other perspectives, such as utilitarianism (Mill 1863/1987), Kantianism (1785/1964), justice (Rawls 1971) or virtue ethics (Aristotle 1985) can also provide useful ethical insights. Ethical pluralism recognizes that a variety of ethical philosophies can each make unique contributions to ethical judgment. The pluralism inherent in ethical intuitionism accommodates many of the more traditional ethical philosophies and helps the individual avoid the problems inherent in situational ethics (Bowen 2004). Each of the ethical philosophies is useful in its own right, but they are all reflected in intuitionism's diverse set of duties.

Creating pleasure and minimizing pain, concepts core to utilitarianism (Mill 1863/1987), are represented throughout the duties, but most obviously in the duties of noninjury (i.e. minimize pain) and beneficence (i.e. maximize pleasure). The ‘higher’ definition of beneficence (e.g. improving others' virtue and intelligence, not their comfort, wealth or power) emphasizes the more noble pleasures and is consistent with Mill's (1863/1987) famous contention that ‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied’ (p. 20). The previously mentioned prima facie duties could be viewed as a form of rule-utilitarianism (Frankena 1973), where the master rule (i.e. maximum contribution to net pleasure) is used to create learnable secondary rules (e.g. the prima facie duties) that are applied until they become habitual.

Kant (1785/1964) emphasizes that only actions performed from duty have moral worth. The prima facie duties are intuitively good in themselves and, according to Kant, ‘if the action is represented as good in itself, then the imperative is categorical’ (p. 82). The alternate formulation of Kant's categorical imperative, ‘act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only’, is included in many of the duties. For example, injuring others, denying them liberty or justice, or deceiving them would likely involve treating them only as means to an end. Similarly, the duty of manner expressly addresses Kant's alternate formulation.

Rawls's justice ethics (1971) is clearly incorporated in the duty of justice, but the many facets of justice are related to other duties as well. Distributive justice provides justification for the duty of gratitude. Procedural justice (Nozick 1974), interactive justice (Shapiro 1998) and restorative justice (Goodstein & Butterfield 2010) each support the duty of manner. Compensatory justice (Chapman 1991) is reflected in reparation.

Consistently following the prima facie duties will likely cause an individual to develop the type of character that Aristotle's (1985) virtue ethics emphasizes (Audi 2004) and is directly addressed in the duty of self-improvement (for one's self) and the duty of beneficence (for others).

In contrast with this duty-centric approach, other recently developed tools designed to enhance ethical judgment draw directly on the different philosophies. Nash (1981) outlines 12 questions that include duties (which relates to Ross 1930), intent (Kant 1785/1964) and consequences (Mill 1863/1987). The Markkula model (Santa Clara University 2009) asks four questions to assist judgment, each focusing on a different ethical philosophy (i.e. utilitarian, rights, justice, common good, virtue). Maclagan's (2003) seven-step framework for case analysis actively encourages consideration of various moral theories. Rotary International's (2012) ‘Four-Way Test’ also emphasizes multiple philosophies, including fairness and utilitarianism.

Each of these models is significant improvement over single-theory analysis, but while ethical pluralism advocates viewing situations from a variety of perspectives, it can be difficult to reconcile the conflicting ethical demands of fundamentally different ethical philosophies, particularly when incommensurable values, such as virtue, consequences, duties and intent, must be comparatively balanced. The difficulty comes from choosing ‘between two qualitatively different actions or commitments, when on account of circumstances one cannot pursue both, is or can be tragic – in part because the item forgone is not the same as the item attainted’ (Nussbaum 1990: 37). Translating these philosophies into the language of duties should make the difficult process of comparing conflicting obligations more straightforward.

Weighing conflicting obligations

After reflecting on the ethical dilemma, considering those affected, and contemplating the various duties, conflicting obligations will no doubt appear. That is the nature of ethical dilemmas. Each of these obligations is merely a prima facie duty, not a final duty and some obligations will carry more weight than others. An assassin may ask us for the whereabouts of an intended victim. The duty to tell the truth and the duty to prevent injury are both present, but clearly not of equal weight. We would lie to prevent a murder, but never murder to prevent a lie. Ross proposed that ‘right acts can be distinguished from wrong acts only as being those which … have the greatest balance of prima facie rightness … over their prima facie wrongness’ (1930: 41), which is consistent with Audi's (2009) ethical decision-making model's suggestion that conflicting obligations should be identified and their relative weight assessed.

The moral intensity literature (Jones 1991, Stein & Ahmad 2009) suggests that the nature of the consequences influences this ethical judgment. Consequences that are significant, likely and immediate are given more weight than consequences that are trivial, unlikely and distant. In addition, the weight of particular obligations to stakeholders may impact judgment since many of the prima facie obligations are based on relationships. Duties of fidelity are dependent on either expressed or implied promises, often based on a previous pattern of behavior with other individuals. Duties of gratitude and reparation frequently flow from the repeated interactions we have with others. People tend to have more significant obligations to those with whom they have more frequent contact.

While some obligations may be overridden, they still have moral standing (Audi 2009), which explains why even correct ethical choices may require an explanation, an apology or reparation. It may be ethically defensible to miss a promised meeting (i.e. duty of promise-keeping) to assist with a medical emergency (i.e. duty of noninjury), but the other meeting participants still deserve, at a minimum, an explanation and apology.

Ethical dilemmas are frequently presented as a conflict between two mutually exclusive alternatives, but moral imagination (Werhane 1999, Moberg & Seabright 2000, Maclagan 2003) can be used to increase flexibility in ethical reasoning and so that ‘moral exclusion’ is minimized (Opotow 1990), empathy is enhanced (Moberg & Seabright 2000) and creative alternative solutions are developed (Rest 1994) that might overcome surface-level conflicts among prima facie duties.

The process may be helped by including trusted others. Koehn (2010) argued that

Deontology and utilitarianism assume that a lone individual can unilaterally arrive at the ethically correct course of action. However, that assumption is not warranted. No single person has sufficient experience and imagination to anticipate and grapple with the diverse unintended consequences that so often result from human choices. (p. 89)

One final confirmation

Once the thoughtful ethical judgment has been made, one reflective step should be taken prior to implementation. Audi (2009) suggests that ‘a sound ethical decision should be precedential: it should be justifiably usable as a guiding precedent for future decisions. This is why generalization – by formulating a universally sound principle – is a good test of whether a decision is sound’ (p. 41). This ‘hypothetical universalization’ provides the opportunity to more objectively and impartially review the decision (Maclagan 2012). Therefore, if the decision could be universalized, as Kant's categorical imperative suggests, the decision is most likely appropriate or, at least, morally defensible.

Universalizing could mean that the decision might be appropriately used to set a justifiable organizational policy, particularly if the decision is made by an employee who has policy-setting responsibilities. However, universalizing could simply be an individual's test for appropriateness without creating an obligation for others to behave in identical ways.

The improved Potter Box

Based on these proposed modifications to the original Potter Box (Figure 3), ethical judgments should follow a five-step process:

  1. Situation: What exactly are the circumstances? The individual should gather relevant facts and clearly identify any applicable assumptions.
  2. Stakeholders: Who could be impacted by the decision? Consider all the individuals who could be affected by the decision, both now and in the future.
  3. Obligations: What obligations do I have to these individuals? Using the 10 prima facie duties (expanded in Appendix A), identify the duties an individual has to those who are potentially affected. Many of the duties may overlap (e.g. compensatory justice and the duty of reparation, interactive justice and the duty of manner) and, given the circumstances, some duties may not apply.
  4. Values: Do the weight of the obligations suggest a particular action? Consider not just the number of duties, but the overall significance of each duty. Exercise moral imagination and include trusted others before a determination is made. Look for appropriate middle ground that satisfies the most compelling obligations.
  5. Universalize: Would this be a good precedent for myself and others? Ask if a similar decision would be appropriate in similar, but not identical circumstances, and if the decision would be acceptable if the decision maker was instead one of the other individuals affected.

Figure 3. A modified Potter Box

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  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Potter Box
  5. Conclusion
  6. Appendix A
  7. References


Ethical judgment can be difficult, and it is the most ambiguous step in the ethical decision-making process. While the Rest (1986, 1994) model has been useful for describing ethical decision making, it was not designed as a tool for helping individuals navigate ethical dilemmas. Other models, while practical and pluralistic, force individuals to reconcile fundamentally incompatible ethical philosophies. The pro posed improved Potter Box should allow individuals to more easily navigate the process.

By identifying those affected early on, the obligations to those individuals can be more easily recognized. Examining those obligations through the lens of ethical intuitionism allows them to be more easily analyzed, while still accommodating the richness of ethical pluralism. Weighing competing values involving moral imagination and the input of trusted others should allow for more creative, win-win possibilities. Considering the universalizability of a decision can help confirm the judgment.

It is possible for two individuals, when faced with identical circumstances, to come to differing ethical judgments. They may interpret the situation differently, emphasize different facts or make different assumptions. Their assessment of the relative importance of various stakeholders or how they weigh conflicting duties may differ. In cases where rational, considered judgments may differ, the transparency of the proposed five-step Potter Box allows individuals to articulate and discuss the process behind the judgment.

Recommendations for training and education

The modified Potter Box should be useful in a variety of academic settings, including stand-alone ethics courses, ethics modules in other courses and industry-specific ethics training sessions. After introducing the five questions and discussing the 10 prima facie duties, relevant scenarios can be discussed. Instructors may find it helpful to begin with judging obvious black-and-white decisions before progressing to more complex ethical dilemmas. The transparency inherent in the model will allow interactive discussion to hone individual decisions.

Recommendations for research

The next step in researching the modified Potter Box is to document its impact using already established measures of ethical judgment, such as the MES (Reidenbach & Robin 1990), or to investigate if the process of using the modified Potter Box influences either cognitive moral development (Kohlberg 1976) as measured by the Defining Issues Test, or individual ethical ideology as measured by the Ethical Position Questionnaire (Forsyth 1980).

If an individual approaches an ethical dilemma in advance and wants to give it careful and thoughtful attention, the modified Potter Box should prove useful. If, as Reynolds (2006b) suggests, individuals may at times draw on prototypes, this process could also be useful in ethics training and education to help develop those prototypes in advance of the ethical dilemma. In either case, tools such as this modified Potter Box can support those who genuinely want to make ethical judgments, but need help in comprehensively evaluating what can be overwhelmingly complex circumstances.

Appendix A

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Potter Box
  5. Conclusion
  6. Appendix A
  7. References

Expanded list of prima facie duties

Based on Audi (2004) as derived from Ross (1930)

  1. Noninjury
    1. physical
    2. psychological
    3. financial
    4. social
  2. Beneficence
    1. prudence
    2. temperance
    3. justice
    4. fortitude
    5. compassion
  3. Self-improvement
    1. prudence
    2. temperance
    3. justice
    4. fortitude
    5. compassion
  4. Justice (remedy past injustice, not commit injustice, prevent future injustice)
    1. distributive justice
    2. procedural justice
    3. compensatory justice
    4. retributive justice
    5. interactive justice
    6. restorative justice
  5. Reparation
  6. Gratitude
  7. Promise-keeping
    1. direct promises
    2. implied promises
  8. Truth-telling
    1. veracity
    2. absence of lying
    3. absence of deceit
  9. Liberty
    1. free consent
    2. freedom of conscience
    3. free speech
    4. privacy
  10. Manner


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Potter Box
  5. Conclusion
  6. Appendix A
  7. References
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