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The Ethical Cycle


Arriving at a moral judgment is not a straightforward or linear process in which ethical theories are simply applied to cases. Instead it is a process in which the formulation of the moral problem, the formulation of possible “solutions”, and the ethical judging of these solutions go hand in hand. This messy character of moral problems, however, does not rule out a systematic approach. In this article, we describe a systematic approach to problem solving that does justice to the complex nature of moral problems and ethical judgment: the ethical cycle. Our goal is to provide a structured and disciplined method of addressing moral problems, which helps to guide a sound analysis of these problems. We will illustrate the usefulness of this cycle with an example. Further, we will discuss two general issues in applied ethics in relation to the proposed ethical cycle: the role of ethical theories and the place of individual judgment versus collective deliberation.

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Correspondence to I. van de Poel.

Additional information

Ibo van de Poel (1966) is Assistant Professor of Ethics and Technology at Delft University of Technology. He has done research on the dynamics of technological development, codes of conduct and professional ethics of engineers, the moral acceptability of technological risks, ethics in engineering design, and ethics and responsibiltiy in R&D networks. He has published in, among others, Science, Technology & Humans Values, Research Policy and Science and Engineering Ethics. For more information, see

Lambèr Royakkers (1967) is Associate Professor of Ethics and Technology at Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands. He studied Philosophy and Social Sciences, Technical Mathematics, and Law. He received his PhD at the Tilburg University in 1996. His dissertation was on the formalisation of normative rules with deontic logic. It has been revised rather thoroughly for the serie Law and Philosophy published by Kluwer Academic in 1998. His research interests include ethics and technology, (collective) responsibility, and logic.



The case below is presented in (Harris et al., 2000, pp. 317–318).

Case Highway safety

David Weber, age 23, is a civil engineer in charge of safety improvements for District 7 (an eight-county area within a Midwestern state). Near the end of the fiscal year, the district engineer informs David that delivery of a new snow plow has been delayed, and as a consequence the district has $50,000 in uncommitted funds. He asks David to suggest a safety project (or projects) that can be put under contract within the current fiscal year.

After a careful consideration of potential projects, David narrows his choice to two possible safety improvements. Site A is the intersection of Main and Oak Streets in the major city within the district. Site B is the intersection of Grape and Fir Roads in a rural area.

Pertinent data for the two intersections are as follows:

  Site A Site B
Main road traffic (vehicles/day) 20,000 5,000
Minor road traffic (vehicles/day) 4,000 1,000
Fatalities per year (3 year average) 2 1
Injuries per year (3 year average) 6 2
PD* (3 year average) 40 12
Proposed improvement New signals New signals
Improvement cost $50,000 $50,000
  1. *PD refers to property damage only accidents.

A highway engineering textbook includes a table of average reductions in accidents resulting from the installation of the types of signal improvements David proposes. The tables are based on studies of intersections in urban and rural areas throughout the United States, over the past 20 years.

  Urban Rural
% Reduction in fatalities   50 50
% Reduction in injuries   50 60
% Reduction in PD   25  − 25*
  1. *Property damage only accidents are expected to increase because of the increase in rear-end accidents due to the stopping of high-speed traffic in rural areas.

David recognizes that these reduction factors represent averages from intersections with a wide range of physical characteristics (number of approach lanes, angle of intersection, etc.); in all climates; with various mixes of trucks and passenger vehicles; various approach speeds; various driving habits; and so on. However, he has no special data about Sites A and B that suggest relying on these tables is likely to misrepresent the circumstances at these sites.

Finally, here is some additional information that David knows about.

(1) In 1975, the National Safety Council and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration both published dollar scales for comparing accident outcomes, as shown below:

Fatality $52,000 $235,000
Injury $3,000 $11,200
PD $440 $500

A neighboring state uses the following weighting scheme:

Fatality 9.5 PD

Injury 3.5 PD

(2) Individuals within the two groups pay roughly the same transportation taxes (licenses, gasoline taxes, etc.).

Which of the two site improvements do you think David should recommend? What is your rationale for this recommendation?

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van de Poel, I., Royakkers, L. The Ethical Cycle. J Bus Ethics 71, 1–13 (2007).

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  • ethics
  • engineering
  • moral problems
  • designing
  • deliberation