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What is Ethical Decision-Making?

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Ethical behavior is behavior that is morally acceptable to the community in which it occurs. Therefore, ethical decision-making is the “process by which people evaluate or define whether a behavior is ethically correct or incorrect”. An ethical leader is a moral person, a leader who treats people in an open and just way and possesses certain traits such as integrity, honesty, and trustworthiness. Ethical decision-making in a military context occurs in situations where procedure is interrupted and a clear-cut answer is not readily available. Military training documents on ethical training define the following values as vital to ethical decisions in the Service context: Integrity, respect, accountability, selfless service, personal courage, and stewardship of the taxpayer dollar. Ethical decision-making can be a difficult concept to define without using its own words (ethics) to do so. However, given the constructs from both academia and the Department of Defense, ethical decision-making should be understood as empowering individuals to make the best choices possible for those around them while acting within the constraints that bind them.


Behavior Cues

Demonstrate positive behaviors in these areas:

  • Morals 
  • ​Integrity
  • Honesty
  • Trustworthiness
  • Respect
  • Accountability
  • Selfless service
  • Personal courage
  • Stewardship of the taxpayer dollar

Risk Factors

Research suggests there may be a link between unethical behavior and anger as it relates to current and former Service members. Additionally, there may be an association between lack of sleep (i.e., fatigue) and unethical behavior. Since military members may often experience fatigue and anger, there is a chance that Service members may exhibit unethical behavior. Additionally, the military setting can trigger visceral reactions in Service members, which can include emotions such as anger and disgust, as well as physical intrusions, such as hunger or thirst. These types of conditions mean that decisions in a hypothetical case study setting might look different from those made under duress. Understandably, it is difficult to replicate adverse conditions in training situations.



Prevention Strategies

►  Ethical Decision-Making Strategies

►  Empowering Ethical Choices: Hands-on Strategies and Research Perspectives (Dr. Jana Craft)

Other Strategies

Retired ninth Sgt. Maj. of the Army Richard A. Kidd in the Army Leadership Field Manual, "Soldiers learn to be good leaders from good leaders"

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  • Screening and monitoring leaders for potential issues
  • Creating a culture that promotes and rewards positive leaders
  • Targeted training and frequent assessment of behavior
  • Providing training over leadership
  • Training leaders to understand the impact of their actions on subordinates
  • Training and education tailored to the specific level of the leader
  • Assessment of toxic pitfalls
  • Continuous self-development



Training Videos:

Video: Ethical Decision-Making Overview


Video Icon Video: Recognizing and addressing behavioral issues in Ethical Decision-Making (coming soon!)

Facilitation Guide for Ethical Decision-Making Behaviors:
Use this guide along with the Behavioral Video above

►  Facilitation Guide (coming soon!)

Additional Resources:

►  Ethical Decision-Making Overview (ppt)
Ethical Decision-Making Fact Sheet
  Ethical Decision-Making Focus Group Questions 
►  Ethical Decision-Making Quiz

Branch Specific Policies

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Civilian Personnel 
►​  DoD Instruction 1438.06


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)


Morals are the principals of right vs wrong and ethical behavior is behavior that is morally acceptable to the community in which it occurs (Jones, 1991). Overall, what is considered “moral” varies from place to place and over time. What we may consider morale today, could have been immoral in the past and vice-versa. For example, women having their hair uncovered is acceptable in many countries, but unacceptable or even illegal in other countries. Another example could be stealing. Inherently stealing is wrong, but a starving person taking a sandwich from a large food chain might pass as acceptable to many people.

  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Pressure
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • High emotions
  • Lack of self-control
  • Low self-efficacy: the belief we have in our own abilities, specifically our ability to meet the challenges ahead of us and complete a task successfully (Akhtar, 2008)

All of these factors can hinder an individual’s ability to distinguish ethical behavior from unethical behavior. A leader who behaves unethically can influence followers to behave unethically and this can create a cycle that is hard to break

Subordinates that have ethical leaders are more likely to show accommodating behavior toward their peers, leaders, and subordinates. Accommodating behaviors could be actions like seeking input from a variety of people, considering coworkers’ personal needs when planning celebrations, consciously developing respect for different cultures, and self-reflection on inclusivity practices. These accommodating behaviors decrease instances of hazing, the effects of toxic leadership, and sexual assault and harassment. Accommodating behaviors also increases inclusion practices. All of these improve trust in leadership and the organization and reduce attrition.

Leaders who make ethical decisions increase credibility and respect for the organization they represent both from the public and those within the organization. Ethical leaders also promote a desirable climate which improves mission success. All of these factors increase recruitment and retention of skilled and quality individuals.

Everyone. Subordinates are just as responsible as leaders are in making ethical decisions. Leaders will likely make ethical decisions that affect larger groups of people, whereas subordinates will likely make ethical decisions that affect smaller groups or just themselves. Everyone is responsible for making ethical decisions, because even just one unethical decision can lead to disastrous results. Eventually, subordinates become leaders, so practicing ethical decision making early on will help prepare individuals for leadership roles.

The DoD’s standards of conduct (2022) list four categories of ethical dilemmas that individuals might encounter:

  • Showing courage: standing up to power, intervening, repairing wrongs.
  • Getting the job done: sacrificing personal values, using questionable means, skirting the rules, concealing the truth.
  • Balancing competing interests: conflict of interest, staying loyal, keeping promises when circumstances change.
  • Judgement calls: suspicion withough enough evidence, dealing with unfair advantages, showing mercy.


These four steps are ways to train self and subordinates to make ethical decisions:

  1. Perspective taking: think about how a decision will affect those around you, both Service members and civilians.
  2. Goal setting: before deployment, training exercises, or any group interaction, think about any ethical dilemmas that might occur. Set goals on how you want to react to those dilemmas and what the outcome of the mission, exercise, etc. is
  3. Affect-labeling: train self in acknowledging emotions before acting. This will prevent strong emotions like anger and disgust from triggering and justifying unethical decisions.
  4. Core Values: ask self if the action aligns with DoD and branch specific core values. If not, it might be an unethical decision.


DEOMI has several resources to help conduct training. Navigate to the Resources tab for videos, podcasts, articles, and other helpful information.



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