Hersher Institute: Module on Ethical Reasoning in Developmental Disabilities

Ethical Reasoning in Developmental Disabilities:
An Overview of Ethical Reasoning

In constructing this overview of ethical reasoning, we relied on definitions of ethics supplied to us by SHU Associate Professor of Philosophy Michael Ventimiglia and Associate Professor of Philosophy Brian Stillner. Dr. Ventimiglia differentiates ethics from morality, as follows:

Morality concerns the values and beliefs that individuals bring to making decisions about right and wrong; whereas: “Ethics is reflection on values and principles that determine what kinds of acts to do or avoid and what kind of person to be, to which standards we hold ourselves and our community.” –Brian Stiltner

Thus, in discussing ethics with students regarding cases of children with disabilities and their families, we ask students NOT to decide what is moral in these cases; i.e., not to decide what THEY would do based on their own values, but how to consider and reflect on how the values and principles of their clients and families impact decisions about how they participate in the care of those with disabilities. Thus, we encourage students to think not so much about what THEY think is right, but how to accommodate what their clients and families believe and how to guide families in making decisions for themselves. In this regard, we find the guidelines for ethical decision making proposed by Prof. Stillner to be useful to share with students:

  1. Think about the options available.
  2. Be broad and imaginative. Consult your values: How would a person of character, a person you respect, respond? What motivates you? What is your vision?
  3. Ask who is involved. How would your relationships with them be affected?
  4. Ask what it means to respect the dignity of all involved.
  5. Do the answers from 2, 3, and 4 dovetail on a course of action?
    • No? Then reevaluate, trying to clarify each item.
    • Yes? Then:
  6. Check the consequences.
    a. The good outweigh the bad Do the act
    b. The good and bad are in balance or it is difficult to evaluate Perhaps reevaluate, or do the act (Remember: consequences aren’t all)
    c. The bad outweigh the good There is a stronger need to reevaluate
    d. But: distinguish the consequences that flow directly from your act from others that are more remote or that come from others

Helpful ways to test your decision:

  1. The Golden Rule: Treat others as you would have them treat you (one of the best and clearest tests)
  2. Consult established rules, traditions as guidelines
  3. Role models
  4. Consistency among your actions in various situations
  5. Consistency with your stated values
  6. Could you reasonably ask that everyone operate on the basis of the principle you used?

This module of the website also contains several other resources we found useful in thinking about ethical issues surrounding children with disabilities (click on the links provided below to navigate):


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