Ralph B. Potter, Jr. was a professor of social ethics at Harvard University between 1965 and 2003 (Cheeseman, 2010). During 1999, Potter realized an ethical predicament concerning the build-up of nuclear weapons. He was going to use this subject for his doctoral paper by establishing a Christian standpoint on the view of the nuclear arms policy. This was the theoretical groundwork for his contribution to ethics, the Potter Box. (Backus & Ferraris, 2004).
The Potter Box is a categorized, step-by-step process that can be used for ethical decision-making. It can be visualized as a box divided by four sections labeled Definition, Values, Principles, and Loyalties. The steps go in a rotation to create a fluid process of decision-making. The decision maker starts with the Definition box. He or she understands the facts known present in the situation. Next, values are identified and taken into consideration. Based on the decision maker’s values, he or she contemplates ethical principles. These can be extracted from the teachings of philosophers such as Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls. The last step involves choosing loyalties within stakeholders. The decider must determine whom he or she has responsibility of. The end result does not guarantee the most ethical course of action, but it helps an individual examine the choices available and the penalties at stake when making a decision. (Backus & Ferraris, 2004).
The Potter Box is an ethical framework that involves the teachings of past philosophers. Aristotle teaches The Golden Mean, which encourages placing virtue between two extremes. Kant teaches the Categorical Imperative, which encourages people to act as if what they do will become a universal law. Mill teaches the Principle of Utility, which seeks the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Rawls teaches the Veil of Ignorance, which he or she imagines themselves in the positions of others that could be affected. (Plaisance, 2014).
Even though Potter originally used this framework to look at positions involving war, it has been applied to conflicts in communication, specifically in public relations (Backus & Ferraris, 2004). Public relations involves managing and communicating information about an individual or organization. It can guide PR specialists when making decisions that follow under the values listed in their code of ethics, which are advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty, and fairness (Plaisance, 2014).
This is a scenario in which the Potter Box could be applied in public relations: A restaurant has been promoting a special night that they ordered large amounts of food for in preparation. Stockholders that are planning on donating money to open a second restaurant are going to be in attendance. Customers have already bought meal tickets and the event is a day away. When the food arrives at the restaurant, the chefs notice the expiration dates are well passed.
This is an important event for the owners of the restaurant due to the rare attendance of their stockholders. The two situations they can define are either ignoring their knowledge of the bad food or canceling the event and risk losing an opportunity of receiving a grant for the second restaurant. The owners then have to consider certain values. In this case, they have to whether or not to be honest to the public and loyal to their customers. Based on who is deciding, they would next look at different principles. For example, if they followed Mill they would have to decide what is the best decision for the largest amount of people. When looking at loyalties, they have to determine the importance between customer loyalty and stockholder loyalty, and which is more important. The end result will differ depending on the values and moral principles held by decision maker.
Backus, N. & Ferraris, C. (2004). Theory meets practice: Using the potter box to teach business communication ethics. Association for Business Communication. Retrieved from http://126.96.36.199:8080/dspace/bitstream/123456789/283/1/Sokuvitz%20&%20Spinelli-forming%20perceptions%20of%20entrepreurial%20dis.pdf#page=225
Cheeseman, Morgan. (2010, September 21). The potter box. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from https://ethicshelp.wordpress.com/2010/09/21/the-potter-box/
Plaisance, P. L. (2014). Media ethics: Key Principles For Responsible Practice, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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