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The Potter Box Model of Reasoning. The Liverpool Murder Case. British law prohibits reporting the names and family histories of children facing criminal charges until their trials are complete. Is the legal standard the only possible one we can use to evaluate this case?

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The Liverpool Murder Case

  • British law prohibits reporting the names and family histories of children facing criminal charges until their trials are complete. Is the legal standard the only possible one we can use to evaluate this case?
  • Is Britain’s domestic standard compelling for the international media?

The above picture taken from a shopping center security camera shows two-year-old Jason Bugler being kidnapped from his mother by two ten-year-olds who would eventually brutally murder the child.

ethics and values
Ethics and Values
  • Ethics - the discipline dealing with what is morally right or wrong, good or bad.
  • Ethical system describes the critical process of how we work through moral issues
  • Values - the accepted principles or standards of an individual or a group
  • All decision-making involves values which reflect our presuppositions about social life and human nature!

Types of Values

ProfessionalProximityFirstnessImpact/magnitudeRecencyConflictHuman InterestEntertainmentNoveltyToughnessThoroughnessImmediacyIndependenceNo prior restraintPublic’s right to knowWatchdog

Moral ValuesTruthtellingHumannessJustice/fairnessFreedomIndependenceStewardshipHonestyNonviolenceCommitmentSelf-control



Socio-culturalThriftHard workEnergyRestraintHeterosexuality

Values Used by the British Press

Legal value: Honor the court restrictions against reporting juvenile names and family background.

Principles Used by the

British Press

Other-regarding care: The privacy of children facing criminal charges must be protected at all costs.

Values Used by the American Press

Professional value: Do not suppress public information.

Principles Used by the American Press

Truth-telling: All people have a right to know the truth. The truth must be proclaimed under all conditions.

Resulting Action of the British Press

Withhold information about the defendants including names and personal histories

Resulting Action of the American Press

Print names of defendants and information on their personal histories.



the potter box
The “Potter Box”

Ralph Benajah Potter, Jr., who retired in July 2003, began teaching at HDS in 1965.  He is an ordained Presbyterian minister and the author of the book War and Moral Discourse and assorted scholarly articles. He is a founding fellow of the Hastings Center for Bioethics and is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society for Christian Ethics, Societe Europeene de Culture, the Society for Values in Higher Education, and, at Harvard, the Senior Common Room of Lowell House. His 1997 HDS Convocation Address was titled "Moralists, Maxims and Formation for Ministry." 

  • Dr. Ralph Benajah Potter, Jr.
  • Professor of Social Ethics Emeritus BA,  Occidental College BD,  McCormick Theological Seminary ThD,  Harvard University



Four Dimensions of Moral Analysis





potter box
Potter Box


Particular Judgment or Policy





Empirical Definition

Choosing Loyalties




Appeal to Ethical Principles

Identifying Values

both positive & negative

virtue, duty, utility, rights, love

potter box applied to the liverpool murder case
Potter Box Applied to the Liverpool Murder Case


British Television: withhold broadcasting

U.S. Newspaper: publish names and details


Two ten-year-olds go to trial for kidnapping and brutally murdering two-year-old Jason Bugler


British Television: to juvenile defendants and their families

U.S. Newspaper: to general readership


British Television: honor the court restrictions against reporting juvenile names

U.S. Newspaper: do not suppress public information


British Television: other-regarding care

U.S. Newspaper: truthtelling is categorical imperative


Determining the Ethical Decision

  • Is there a universal ground for making ethical decisions, an overarching theory from which we can choose among competing alternatives?
  • Or is ethical decision making simply a process of adjusting to the mores and commitments of a given community?

The Potter Box accounts for both.

  • Without an appeal to an explicit ethical principle, a conclusion is not considered morally justified.

Evaluation With the Potter Box Model

  • When competing values seem appropriate, resolution usually occurs in step three (ethical principles).
  • When two different ethical theories are relevant, the adequacy of the theories themselves must be evaluated through metaphysics or theology.
  • Occasionally, the ethical choice is not apparent until quadrant four, loyalties, as in the case of the Liverpool murder.
why we study the process by which choices are made
Why We Study the Process By Which Choices Are Made
  • Knowing the elements in moral analysis sharpens our vocabulary and enhances our discussion of media ethics
  • Understanding the logic of social ethics improves the quality of our conceptual work and the validity of the choices we make in media practice.
  • The four dimensions of the Potter Box allow us to develop normative ethics.
additional links
Additional Links

Finding a Philosophical Perspective A discussion of different approaches to ethics including the Potter Box

The Effects of Journalism Loyalties on the Invasion of Privacy A discussion of the loyalties of the journalist according to the Potter Box.

Scenarios Test yourself in applying the Potter Box model of ethical reasoning to these public relations scenarios.

Digital Manipulation: Issues and Ethics in Photojournalism An actual case of journalistic ethics analyzed according to the Potter Box.


1. Always treat specifics very carefully.

2. Values must be isolated and accounted for.

3. Values must be checked, questioned, or corrected using steps three and four of the Potter Box.

use of ethical principles
Use of Ethical Principles

No conclusion can be morally justified without a clear demonstration that an ethical principle shaped the final decision.

What Actually Happens

What Ought to Happen







ethics vs values
Ethics vs. Values
  • Ethics involves an understanding of theology and philosophy as well as debates in the history of ideas over justice, virtue, the good, etc.
  • Values pervade all dimensions of human experience, even scientific experimentation.
challenging moral norms
Challenging Moral Norms
  • Oursociety challenges the practice of searching for moral norms.
  • BUT norms rightly understood are foundational for moral commitment.
purpose of sound ethical reasoning
Purpose of Sound Ethical Reasoning
  • Allows us to draw responsible conclusions that yield justifiable actions
  • Helps us to determine which ethical theory is most powerful under which conditions
five categories of ethical theories
1. Ethical Theories based on Virtue

Aristotle’s Mean/Confucius’ Golden Mean

2. Ethical Theories based on Duty

Kant’s Categorical Imperative

3. Ethical Theories based on Utility

Mill’s Principle of Utility

4. Ethical Theories based on Rights

Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance

5. Ethical Theories based on Love

Judeo-Christian Persons as Ends

Five Categories of Ethical Theories
ethical guidelines based on virtue

Ethical Guidelines Based on Virtue

Aristotle’s Mean

Confucius’ Golden Mean

aristotle s mean
“Moral virtue is a

middle state determined by practical wisdom”

Aristotle’s Mean
four cardinal virtues
Four Cardinal Virtues















main ideas
Main Ideas
  • Propriety before duty or love
  • Character over conduct
  • Outer behavior as a reflection of inner disposition
  • Equilibrium and harmony
practical wisdom
Practical Wisdom
  • Phronesis
  • Moral discernment
  • Knowledge of the proper ends (telos) of conduct and the means of attaining them
  • Distinct from both theoretical knowledge and technical skill
using practical wisdom
Using Practical Wisdom
  • Applied to “individual facts” by locating “the mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect”
  • Examples
    • Case 16
    • Case 29
  • Not all actions or emotions can be justified by a middle state
  • What actions and emotions are intrinsically wicked whether or not they are practiced with temperance?







summary of aristotle s mean
Summary of Aristotle’s Mean
  • NOT a weak-minded consensus
  • NOT a compromise
  • NOT a mathematically equal distance between two extremes
  • Aristotle’s mean involves the correct quantity, the correct timing, the correct people, the correct motives, and the correct manner
main ideas1
Main Ideas
  • Rooted in virtue
  • Virtue as benevolence, kindness, generosity, and balance (a mean between two extremes)
  • Excellence dependent on character not social position
equilibrium and harmony
Equilibrium and Harmony

“Equilibrium (chung) is the great root from

which grow all human actings in the world.

And harmony (yung) is the universal path all

should pursue. Let the states of equilibrium

and harmony exist in perfection, and happy

order will prevail throughout heaven and

earth, and all things will be nourished and


applying confucius golden mean
Applying Confucius’ Golden Mean
  • Identify all extremes
  • Resolve competing obligations using the Golden Mean
  • Reject any extremes
  • Choose the middle path
additional links1
Additional Links

Nicomachean Ethics An online version of Aristotle’s text. Book II, chapter 6 is a good place to start.

Aristotle Overview This article describes the life, writings, ethics, and politics of Aristotle.

Aristotle’s “Doctrine of the Mean” A chart illustrating Aristotle’s concepts of virtue and vice.

Confucius An overview of Confucian beliefs

The Doctrine of the Mean An online version of the article by Confucius cited by the text

ethical guidelines based on duty

Ethical Guidelines Based on Duty

Kant’s Categorical Imperative

main ideas2
Main Ideas
  • Ethics are objective
  • Any genuine moral obligation can be universalized
  • Categorical = unconditional
  • What is right must be done regardless of circumstances
  • Existence of higher truths
  • Deontological ethics
higher truths
Higher Truths
  • Noumena
  • Superior to reason
  • Transcend physical universe
  • Innate in human beings
  • Apprehended by conscience NOT reason
deontological ethics
Deontological Ethics
  • From deon (Greek for duty)
  • Rule determines the result
  • Rule is the basis of the act
  • Rule is good regardless of the act
  • Result always calculated within the rules
application of kant s categorical imperative
Application of Kant’s Categorical Imperative
  • Moral law is unconditionally binding on all rational beings.
  • Certain actions are always wrong.
  • Certain actions are always right.
  • Examples
questions to consider
Questions to Consider
  • What happens when there is a conflict of duties? (2 rules that are universalized)
  • Is every rule we would universalize a moral duty?
  • Can we truly ignore results in decision-making?
  • Do we really want to make reason the final, sole authority in determining right and wrong?
additional links2
Additional Links

Critique of Practical Reason The online version of Kant’s writings on epistemology and ethics.

Kant’s Argument for the Categorical Imperative An outline of Kant’s reasoning for the categorical imperative

Immanuel Kant and the Categorical Imperative A critical evaluation of Kant’s categorical imperative

Kant’s Four Examples of How to Apply the Categorical ImperativeKant’s own application from his work, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals

ethical guidelines based on utility

Ethical Guidelines Based on Utility

Mill’s Principle of Utility

main ideas3
Main Ideas
  • Consider what course will yield the best consequences for the welfare of human beings
  • Ethical choice produces the greatest balance of good over evil
  • Good end must be promoted, bad end must be restrained
the good end
The Good End
  • Happiness or pleasure
  • To Mill, preventing pain and promoting pleasure are the only desirable ends.
  • Pluralistic utilitarians argue that other values besides happiness possess intrinsic worth (friendship, knowledge, health).
    • Rightness or wrongness assessed according to total value ultimately produced
application of the principle of utility
Application of the Principle of Utility
  • Calculate the consequences of various options. How much benefit and how much harm would result in the lives of everyone affected, including ourselves?
  • Choose the alternative that both
    • Produces the greatest possible balance of good over evil
    • Distributes this balance as widely as possible
two types of utilitarianism
Two Types of Utilitarianism
  • Act Utilitarianism: Greatest good in a specific case

Will a particular action in a particular situation result in a balance of good over evil?

2. Rule Utilitarianism: Greatest good for general welfare

Will a general rule result in a balance of good over evil?

questions to consider1
Questions to Consider
  • How do we account for the long term consequences of a decision that are not always able to be forseen?
  • What if the majority rejects basic standards of decency?
  • What problems are generated by defining the public good as the sum total of all private goods?
additional links3
Additional Links

John Stuart Mill A description of Mill’s life and writings.

What Utilitarianism Is John Stuart Mill’s explanation of the principle of utility from his book, Utilitarianism.

A Millian Critique of Library Censorship A discussion of utilitarian arguments in favor of and against censorship.

Intellectual Property, Innovation, and Social Progress Intellectual property is evaluated from the perspective of utilitarianism.

ethical guidelines based on rights

Ethical Guidelines Based on Rights

Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance

rawls s veil of ignorance
“Justice emerges when

negotiating without social differentiations”

Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance
rawls s veil of ignorance1
Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance

This is the veil....we step behind it to make decisions - the other side is “real life”

Helps us iron out a “social contract’ that by definition is just

Gives the “little guy” a leg up


No arbitrary distinctions can determine who receives what; or what is “right” in any situation (although inherent ones may)

SO, we set up the “veil” to help eliminate these distinctions

This means

Fairness = Justice (sometimes means quantity)

Same reward given to everyone for same work

Helps determine what is “right” in any given situation

Who you are, what you have shouldn’t determine what you now should get

It functions like a Barrier: keeps out race, class, gender, group interests, sexual orientation, age, occupations, etc. -- puts players on equal playing field -- decisions based on “fairness”

main ideas4
Main Ideas
  • Fairness fundamental to justice
  • Egalitarian perspective
  • Fairness as quantitative in basic cases
  • Elimination of arbitrary distinction
  • Emphasizes the morally appropriate action, not the action that benefits the most people
veil of ignorance
Veil of Ignorance
  • Roles and social differentiations eliminated
  • Race, class, gender, and other personality features suspended behind the veil
  • Equality behind the veil intended to protect the weaker party and minimize risks
two principles
Two Principles

1. Maximal system of equal basic liberty

2. All social goods other than liberty may be distributed unequally only if distribution favors the least advantaged side

additional links4
Additional Links

John Rawls A biographical sketch of Rawls along with a discussion of his major works.

John Rawls and the Social Contract An evaluation of Rawls’s theory of justice as fairness.

The Antipolitical Philosophy of John Rawls This article considers whether Rawls’s idea of justice is applicable in the modern world.

A Just Man Michael Sandel’s article, referred to in the above link, discussed Rawls’s contributions.

ethical guidelines based on love

Ethical Guidelines Based on Love

Judeo-Christian Persons as Ends

Noddings’ Relational Ethics

judeo christian persons as ends
Judeo Christian Persons as Ends

“Love your neighbor as yourself”

“What is the Will of Heaven like? The answer is – To love all men everywhere alike”

main ideas5
Main Ideas
  • All moral obligations derived from the command to love God and humankind
  • Love for neighbor as normative
  • Regard for others as personal, not legalistic (as with Rawls’s contract)
  • Humans made in the image of God and with unconditional value apart regardless of circumstances
agape love
Agape Love
  • Unselfishness, other-regarding care
  • Much more than friendship, charity, or benevolence
  • To love is to accept a person as he or she is with unalterable commitment and permanent loyalty
  • People are never given instrumental value
  • Failure of adherents to practice agape love
  • Love vs. justice
  • Reason as distinct from discernment
  • Whether agape is universal or had continuity with other alternatives
  • Practical, gives help to those who need it
  • Avoids discrimination without denying distinctions
  • Does not presume to assign value to an individual
main ideas6
Main Ideas
  • Ethics rooted in relationships
  • Emphasizes nurturing and caring for people, not avoiding harm to others
  • Roles of the one-caring and the cared-for
  • Three dimensions: engrossment, motivational displacement, and reciprocity
additional links5
Additional Links

Agape in Feminist Ethics This article describes several different approaches to other-regard, contrasting Protestant and feminist appraisals of agape.

Can Agape Be Universalized? The test of universalizability is applied to agape.

Care Ethics and Virtue Ethics A critical evaluation of Noddings’ care ethics.

Longing for the Sacred in Schools: A Conversation with Nel Noddings Nel Noddings defends the place of spirituality in public education.

five categories of obligation
Five Categories of Obligation
  • Duty to ourselves
  • Duty to clients / subscribers / supporters
  • Duty to our organization or firm
  • Duty to professional colleagues
  • Duty to society
  • Duty to society is critical
  • Ethical decision-making must be marked by a sincere sense of social responsibility and a genuine concern for the citizenry
  • In the Potter Box the loyalty component necessitates the acknowledgment of the implications of a decision for institutions and social groups before an ethical decision is made.
  • Are parents alone accountable for the programs their children watch, or do advertisers and networks carry responsibility also?
  • Can producers of entertainment dismiss their responsibility for quality programming by arguing that they merely give the public what it wants
  • Requiring accountability across the board preferable to giving absolute authority to one person or group.
  • The individual is the authentic moral agent.
  • Though corporations are real, they are not concrete enough to be assigned praise or blame in any real sense.
  • Ultimately it is the individual who will be held responsible.
corporate obligation
Corporate Obligation
  • Corporate obligation still meaningful
  • Ultimate responsibility rests with individuals but must be distributed among the individuals constituting a corporation.
  • Broad attacks on entire media systems are not helpful. Ethics is fundamentally concerned with individual choices.