An Ethical Matter of Dr. Ralph Potter's Potter Box

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In almost every decision we make there is an ethical choice that come along with it, some more pronounced than others, and still, some more demanding than others. Some choices are clearly the “wrong” one, for instance to kill someone or not to, but others are not as clear cut. The potter box, developed by Dr. Ralph Potter, is designed to help evaluate which choice is the ethical one is these murky situations (Apple, 1). The potter box is composed of four quadrants: situation, values, principle and loyalties; these quadrants enable us to view the ethical dilemma from of points of view and evaluate which choice is the ethical one. In this paper the four quadrants will be broken down to better explain how the potter box is used to find the ethical dilemma in a situation.

Quadrant one, or definition, of the potter box is used to describe the situation. This is generally an ethical situation that anyone could encounter. The quadrant is used to lay out the facts of the case that are presented. This section should be as detailed as possible, since there are many things that need to be disclosed about the situation/ethical dilemma being faced. In an ethical dilemma there are always more than one point of view, and in the potter box all points of view must be presented. There needs to be no bias when listing the facts and presenting the differing points of view, or the outcome will not be accurate; there should be no judgements or hiding of facts. Again, as stated this must be filled out as detailed as possible so that no important facts are over looked, and nothing missing. A good example would be a photograph, if it permits, since this would present all the evidence without having and bias or judgements getting in the way of facts.

The second quadrant of the potter box, values, evaluates what a person, group, organization, nation, etc. considers to be important (Apple, 3). Each point of view presented in the first quadrant will have its own set of values for the given dilemma. This section allows for the analyst to identify the different perspectives of each party for the particular situation.

A situation may be judged according to professional (innovative or prompt), logical (consistent, competent), aesthetic (pleasing, harmonious), moral (honest, nonviolence), or socio-cultural values (thrifty, hard-working) (Christians, et al., 2). These values represent the specific concerns, or what is deemed important by the parties involved. An example of this could be a shopping center being built over a green space in a community. The values of the shopping center may be creating more jobs, bring more people to the area, and increasing value of the neighborhood, these all demonstrating professional and logical values. The community it is being built in though may value the green space for its beauty, a place for children to play, a community space, etc.; the community has more aesthetic, and maybe even socialcultural, values. Each side’s set of values influence the decision-making.

The third quadrant of the potter box is the evaluation of principles. Principles are the moral guidelines that are used when making decisions in a situation, or, the proper rules of conduct. Principles can be used as rules to determine the way we act or behave when faced with a situation that may be ethically unclear. Considering the values from the second quadrant in an ethical dilemma, it will aid the decision maker when looking at this section of the potter box. There are several ethical principles that can be looked at and utilized in this quadrant that will be outlined in the following sections.

Aristotle’s Golden Mean defines the moral virtue as a middle state, determined by particle wisdom which emphasizes self-restraint and moderation. Another is Confucius’ Golden mean, also known as the compromise principle; this says that “moral virtue is the appropriate location between two extremes (Christians, et al., 11)”. Both of these focus on virtue, moderation or middle-ground of some sort.

Kant’s ethical principle is based on duty (Deontological ethics), stating that we should only act on a decision that we would want everyone else to act on as well; “Act only on that maxim whereby you can at the same time will it should become universal law (Christians et al., 12).” If you would not want someone else to do the same thing you are choosing to do, then in this sense it would not be ethical because you would not want it to become “universal law.”

Utility is another principle in ethical guidelines, the best known being John Stuart Mills. His utility principle states that we should seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number [of people (Christians et al., 15-16). There are two forms of utilitarianism, act and rule. Act utility says that we should make the choice that produces the greatest good in any given situation, whereas rule utility states that we should focus on the greatest good for the general welfare, NOT just any given situation (Christians et al., 16).

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John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance is an ethical principle based on rights. This principle states that when we do not know which stakeholder position we find ourselves in, we remove personal interests from the analysis and make the more ethical decision; “justice emerges when negotiating without social differentiations (Christians et al., 16).”

The “me first” or “Only me” is another principle that can be looked at in the third quadrant. This principle can be demonstrated by people that choose as action that will benefit themselves, but not the larger society. This principle is one that assumes that other people have less value than the self (the person making the choice); it isalso considered narcissistic morality (Apple, 5). An example of this could be a business partner throwing the other under the bus in order to benefit one’s self, even if the action or choice they made was made together. Another principle along these means, is the bottom line, or money morality. Essentially, this principle states that as long as there is a profit, and money is being made, then everything is fine (Apple, 5). Generally, it does not matter how the money is made or what is sacrificed to make it. Both of these principles, sadly, are quite common in what is heard on the news and among people these days; a good example of this would be any example of a Ponzi scheme.

Another one that is all too abundant is bureaucratic morality; procedure and paperwork being more important than the people who need to be serviced (Apple, 6). Part of the power behind this type of morality, is the diffusion of responsibility. Tied into this idea of power, is the Machiavellian morality. This is one that looks for the keys to power and considers power to be the most important thing; this can be present in many present day and historical battles for presidency, king, etc. (Apple, 7). People believe it is their right to have power.

A well-known, though probably not realized, principle can be stated as ends vs. means. This principle asks if the end is so important, that any action can be morally justified to achieve it; or will the end justify the means (Apple, 4). As many say though, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey there, and I think that this can be well applied for this principle. Finally, there are the ethical principles based on love. The Judeo Christian Principle, or Persons as ends. This principle is also very well known, and is more commonly stated as “treat your neighbor as yourself [or how you would want to be treated]”; “love all men everywhere alike (Christians et al., 17-18).” This principle emphasized the love of our neighbors as well as the golden rule’ we should love our neighbors and seek to do good to them, as we would want ourselves.

A conclusion cannot be morally justified unless a clear demonstration that an ethical principle shaped the final decision (Christians, et al., 9). The principle for the parties in the ethical dilemmas can be found by evaluating the values of each party from the second quadrant. These principles are crucial in the overall process of reaching a justified, ethical decision or conclusion (Christians, et al., 5).

The final quadrant of the potter box is loyalties. In this quadrant each of the parties’ loyalties must be evaluated. These loyalties are to people, not things; the loyalty is to who the moral duty, or allegiance, is owed to by the decision-maker (Apple, 8). When analyzing these situation, there are five categories of obligations, or loyalties: duty to ourselves, duty to clients/supporters/subscribers, duty to organization or firm, duty to colleagues, and duty to society (Christians et el., 19-20). The loyalties of each party must be examined because this is who the decision is for, in a way.

Each party will have loyalties to different people, and possibly, to the same people. The loyalties depend on who that party is, for example a news broadcaster may have loyalty to the public, their employer, and/or the industry. A teacher may have loyalties to the students, the school system, their employer, a union, and the industry. There is not usually a single loyalty per party, may have loyalties to quite a few people and it varies every time.

Evaluation with the potter box may not always provide a solution until the fourth quadrant at times. When competing values seem like they are appropriate, the resolution can occur in the third quadrant, when evaluating principles. When two ethical theories are relevant, the sufficiency of the theories will need to be evaluated using theology or metaphysics. Occasionally, the ethical solution is not clear until you reach the fourth quadrant. This can occur when both sides of a dilemma have been appropriate in their situation, values, and principles; only when looking at who they loyalty is to can the dilemma be resolved; this was the case for the dilemma between the U.S newspaper and the British television (Christians et al., 5-7). Both of these parties had adequate values and principles for the situation, but when looking at who the parties were loyal to, this is when the more ethical can be determined.

The potter box is a tool used to find the ethical disagreement in any given situation. This tool focuses on the moral issues as opposed to legal or mater-of-fact issues, and can be used to reflect and situation that requires moral decision-making. However, there will be no clear cut, single “right’ answer, but can nevertheless help one to think through what to do.

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An Ethical Matter of Dr. Ralph Potter’s Potter Box. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 15, 2024, from
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