Fracking and the third runway—solving the ethical dilemmas

A neat way to kick a hard ethical dilemma into touch is to re brand it as a “political” choice.

Right now two great example of this happening are the dilemmas posed by fracking—getting buried fuel from just about anywhere, including under people’s homes; and the case for a third runway at London’s Heathrow.

fracking dilemmaIs fracking unethical? The case for this is its bad impact on the environment.  Fracking haters say the long term impact is not understood, and the consequences don’t get a fair hearing.

Equally, supporters can argue it’s wrong to leave people without low cost fuel. They too claim their case does not receive a proper hearing:

“The shale industry is being misrepresented. All I really want is a well-informed debate”
US energy boss and so-called Fracking Master, Chris Faulkner. [1]

The issue of a third runway too has reverted back into a political choice not an ethical one. A balanced cost-benefit exercise for creating informed debate seems still out of reach.third runway ethical dilemma

Business leaders  face their own ethical dilemmas but on a more modest scale. They often re-brand the ethical choices, not as political ones but as stakeholder conflicts.

How best should these leaders resolve what’s “right” in the ethical sense”? How can they avoid putting the interests of one group of stakeholders first? For example shareholders—at the expense of others such as the community, and perhaps ending up on the wrong side of the ethical divide?

By their nature, the “right” ethical choices can be elusive, and—like fracking–create strong conflicting interests. If applied business ethics are to be useful they must be able to help organisations and their leaders resolve these conflicts.


Resolution for business leaders must start by referring to their own moral compass. Codes of practice and increasingly rigorous governance regulations seldom prove much help in dealing with serious business ethical dilemmas.

In fact, how to govern an organisation and its codes of practice only explain about one  third of what creates an ethical company. [2]

To sort out business ethical choices, leaders will tend to make them based on three main sorts of behaviour.

1)     Compliance driven—do what the rules say.

2)     Social conscience—what’s right is doing what’s best for others.

3)     Principle driven—act with integrity; rely on values such as how we do something is as important as what we do.

Try these on fracking or the extra runway and only the third one of these sorts of behaviour will be much help in the wider society context.

To use personal values for difficult choices tends to be the most effective way to solve tough dilemmas. Here are three different approaches.

ethical compass for dilemmasMAKING ETHICAL CHOICES

PWC suggests a five step approach. But for many people these lack a strong enough values-driven foundation. [3]




  • Recognise the event, decision or issue
  • Think before you act
  • Decide on a course of action
  • Test your decision
  • Proceed with confidence

Another approach blends different ways of making a choice. [4]

  • Which option will produce the most good and do the least harm?—A Utilitarian Approach.
  • Which option best respects the rights of all who have a stake?—A Rights Approach.
  • Which option treats people in an equal or fair way?–A Justice Approach.
  • Which option best serves the community as a whole, not just some members?—A Common Good Approach.
  • Which option leads me to act as the sort of person I want to be?—A Virtue Approach.

Finally a neat decision tool by Roger Steare’s  uses the RIGHT questions to ask [5]

  • What are the Rules?
  • Are we acting with Integrity?
  • Who is this Good for?
  • Who could we Harm?
  • What’s the Truth?

The best ethical guide ultimately tends to be even simpler. It is try to put yourself into the shoes of others and think through the consequences of your choices. 

Not a bad way to solve both fracking and the runway.


1)     T.Macalister, US Energy boss defends fracking, Guardian 16 December 2013

2)     World’s most ethical companies methodology 2012, Ethisphere

3)      Framework for ethical decision making. PWC

4)      A Framework for Thinking Ethically, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

5)      R.Steare, Ethicability 2009












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