5As of Ethics

5As of Ethical Living and Leading

The 5As are adapted from James Rest’s Four Component Model of Morality (Rest, 1982). Research indicates that competence in one of the first 4As does not necessarily predict competence in another (You and Bebeau, 2013). For example, a person could be excellent at moral reasoning (Analysis), but not actually follow through on their decisions (Action). The new 5th component (Adaptation) emphasizes the importance of reflection and continual growth. In order to develop as ethical leaders, we suggest focusing on all 5As. Want to better understand the 5As? See below and/or contact Nick Lennon, PhD (nlennon@gmu.edu) to request a workshop.


5As: Awareness, Aspiration, Analysis, Action, Adaptation

AWARENESS: Identify the potential impact on all

Identify the potential impact (ethical implications) on all who might be affected by this decision in both the short-term and long-term. Imagine an employee working at a store who is asked to convince customers to sign up for the store credit card:

  • "Lower Level" of Awareness: “My supervisor tells me to push the store credit card by memorizing and delivering a script, so I do it without thinking twice about the impact.”
  • "Higher Level" of Awareness: “I found out that store credit cards often have very high interest rates, high fees and can hurt credit scores. Also, I read that some scripts are misleading and hurt customer relations.”

Are you aware of the impact of you decisions on both yourself and others? Are you aware of how you and others typically approach decisions about what is right? It is important to recognize that many of our decisions have an ethical component. Not just very large or complex dilemmas like the death penalty or euthanasia, but also daily decisions such as “Should I be honest about my friend’s terrible new haircut the day before their big interview?”, “What should I recycle?”, “Should I get up and workout or sleep longer?”, “Should I steal a jet and fly to Indonesia for a hot stone massage?” As Prentice mentions: “Studies demonstrate that people are more likely to make poor ethical choices when they are barely aware that a decision has an ethical aspect.” Take5 each day to observe your emotions, gut reactions and thought processes. This will help you identify the ethical components of your decisions. See the Moral Awareness Video for more information about identifying ethical issues and the potential impact on all, in both the short and long-term. Note: as essential aspect of awareness is gathering facts.

Facts: Do you really have all the relevant facts? What evidence can help with our decisions? Where is the weight of that evidence? Do our facts come from good and reliable sources or are they mostly from unconfirmed internet postings, misinformation, fake news, personal biases (e.g. self-serving bias) or that guy who’s always looking under tables for used gum? To learn more about the importance of facts and awareness, listen to “Facts Aren’t Enough: The Psychology of False Beliefs” from the Hidden Brain podcast:

ASPIRATION: Commit to prioritizing what's right

Examine your motivations and commit to prioritizing what’s right over competing alternatives. Imagine an employee working at a store who is asked to convince customers to sign up for the store credit card:

  • "Lower Level" of Aspiration: “I don’t care if the card has high fees, hurts credit ratings, etc. I enjoy this job and the more cards I push the more likely I’ll get a promotion.”
  • "Higher Level" of Aspiration: “I’m determined to be fair to customers and to let them know what they’re agreeing to when they sign up for a card, even if that means that I get a poor evaluation at work and/or no promotion.”

Once we know what we should do, we must be motivated to actually do it, we must care about doing the right thing. See the Moral Intent Video for more information about the motivation to act.

ANALYSIS: Evaluate and choose ethical option(s)

Evaluate the alternatives, and then choose the most ethical option(s). Imagine an employee working at a store who is asked to convince customers to sign up for the store credit card:

  • "Lower Level" of Analysis: “Who’s to say what’s right in this situation? It’s not my place to impose my ideas on others.”
  • "Higher Level" of Analysis: “I evaluated pushing the card with the script and concluded it’s: dishonest and disrespectful; using customers for company gain; harmful to credit ratings; and not how I (or they) would want to be treated. I decide not to use the misleading script.”

Not sure what's right? Look to the 5Cs on the back of the Ethics Card. Rushworth Kidder talks about Right vs. Wrong decisions and Right vs. Right decisions. Sometimes we clearly know what is right, but need the wisdom and courage to act (see "Action" below). Other times we are not sure what's right. This may be because there are good aspects of multiple options and/or because we are biased in some way. There are some very well-respected approaches from the field of moral philosophy. that can help when we are unsure about what's right. The 5th C "Consult" emphasizes the importance of recognizing harmful intuitions or biases that can affect our ability to make decisions, including social and organizational pressures (also know as Behavioral Ethics). Each of the 5Cs has pros and cons. Considering multiple approaches can help us take advantage of the strengths and balance out the weaknesses of these well-respected approaches.

ACTION: Follow through and do what’s right

Determine the steps needed to follow through effectively and ethically, then do them competently. Imagine an employee working at a store who is asked to convince customers to sign up for the store credit card:

  • "Lower Level" of Action: “I don’t know the necessary steps to make a difference, and even if I did, I just don’t have the skills to successfully follow through.”
  • "Higher Level" of Action: “I created a new script that is more upfront and accurate. I practiced it, got feedback from friends and colleagues and then discussed it with my supervisor. They were convinced and the result was less people negatively impacted by the cards.”

Know what’s right, but need to move to action? Seeing the right path doesn’t necessarily lead to taking the right path. We need to actually follow through and act ethically (moving from theory to practice), often in consultation with others. This may be easy at times and at other times may require great courage. See the Moral Action Video for more information about following through with action. During this step it is once again essential to be aware of harmful biases and social and organizational pressures that can greatly impact our behavior. For a series of entertaining videos and information about these biases and pressures see: Ethics Unwrapped, Concepts Unwrapped

ADAPTATION: Reflect and revise

Reflect on what happened and make any positive changes while anticipating future situations. Imagine an employee working at a store who was asked to convince customers to sign up for the store credit card (the examples below are after they have acted):

  • "Lower Level" of Adaptation: “Time to move on to other things. I’ll never have to address something like that again.”
  • "Higher Level” of Adaptation: “Things went well, but I could team up with my supervisor and others to refine our ideas and make a case for standardizing a new script through corporate headquarters.”

What can you learn from this process? After we have acted it can be essential to pause and “Take5” to reflect so that we can learn from our experiences for the future. Taking time to think about what happened, and how we decided to act, can help us to continue to make positive changes. See our Ethics Card. Note: Reflection should be infused throughout all 5As. 


How long should considering the 5As take? The more familiar we are with the 5As, the more quickly we can implement them. Remember when you first learned to read, drive or play a sport (or that time you trained to become a ninja)? It took a lot of concentrated effort at first, but over time certain things became habit and you could do them much more quickly (like silently climbing a tree and camouflaging yourself with foliage). It’s the same with ethics. Practice over time can help a great deal. You may be doing many aspects of the 5As unconsciously already.

There is also strong research based evidence for the power of taking time to reflect about ethical decisions:

“Experiment 2 examined both reflection and reasoning by examining the effects of argument strength and deliberation time on moral judgment. Consistent with the influence of reasoned reflection, we found that a strong argument was more persuasive than a weak one, but only when subjects were encouraged to reflect… these results suggest that it is possible to persuade people by appealing to their ‘heads’ as well as their ‘hearts.'” (Paxton, Ungar and Greene, 2011)


Understanding what IS vs. what OUGHT to be: In order to increase our chances of living and leading ethically, it is important to consider how we should live and lead and how we actually do live and lead (i.e. how the world “is” is not always related to how it “ought” to be).

For example, just because we know that we should workout:

  • “Working out really gives me an energy boost and helps me feel like a responsible person”
  • “Working out helps to reduce health care costs”

… does not mean we will understand the factors that affect whether or not we actually do workout…

  • “I’m much more likely to workout if my friend is going too”
  • “I sometimes trick myself into thinking I’ll work out later in the week, when deep down I know I won’t”

On the other hand, just because we know what factors impact whether or not we actually do workout…

  • “If I get my workout clothes out before I go to bed I am much more likely to get up to workout”
  • “I’ve learned that I workout more often when I reward myself with a special snack only if I worked out at least 3 times that week”

… does not mean that we will understand why we should workout…

  • “If everyone worked out at least 30minutes a day we could really reduce the incidence of heart disease”
  • “Working out improves my mood and increases my ability to be there for my friends and family”

The same is true with ethics. Just because we understand what we should do, does not mean that we will actually do it. On the other hand, just because we understand what factors impact what we actually do, does not mean that we understand what we should do.

Take5.gmu.edu is committed to focusing on both how we should live and lead and how we actually do live and lead (theory and practice), since they are both indispensable. The 5 steps above incorporate ideas about how we should live and lead and how we actually do live and lead.