Learning the philosophical bases for ethical behavior is not an easy task, that’s why there are tools to help. Tools like Harvard philosopher Ralph Potter’s Potter Box and the PRSA Board of Ethics Matrix of Ethical Dilemmas will guide your decision making process. Not that you’re actually going to pull out notes from your college ethics class in real life and draw four squares or look at a matrix to help you decide the right choice, they’re a good method to use in a class setting to help promote your thinking.

The Potter Box is “an ethical framework used to make decisions by utilizing four categories which Potter identifies as universal to all ethical dilemmas.”

The four categories are:

  1. Situation definition
  2. Values
  3. Principles
  4. Loyalties

The real benefit of the model is that it keeps the practitioner from making a quick, unethical decision. After being taught the Potter Box in college, hopefully in real life you will become accustomed to prioritizing the facts, values, loyalties and principles that are most important to your organization in any given situation.  I’m a big list maker, for everything, so even if I’m not making quadrants and instead I’m jotting down bullet points the act of writing things down will help me make a better decision.

Using the Potter Box model in groups during class to discuss a case study helped me realize when two people are analyzing the same issue, they can come up with different decisions. During our class discussion, within our group, we agreed on two different ethical philosophies that helped reason the decision for the situation. We had to go over each category several times to reach a decision and that was very tedious work, especially since we were trying to work as a group.

Overall, I believe the Potter Box theory is tactic you’ll always remember like “FOIL,” or “every good boy does fine.” Besides, you don’t have to work through the Potter Box manually anymore… there’s a website for that ethics-e-learning.com.