Ethical framework

Definition & Introduction

An ethical framework is a heuristic tool that can be used by individuals or organizations to make better-informed decisions that have moral implications. Tools of this kind can take many forms: decision-making models, codes of conduct, an established set of principles or guidelines, training programs, and more.

Ethics is often viewed through a philosophical, academic, or abstract lens. But as Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal writes, applied ethics is an active process for finding solutions to real-world issues. Ethical frameworks can move ethics out of a theoretical or hypothetical space, and into our daily lives by offering a guide for a more structured, reflective, transparent, and logical basis for decision-making.

For examples of ethical frameworks developed by Carnegie Council and other trusted institutions, explore the resources below.

The Trade-offs of AI in Diplomacy

The Carnegie Ethics Accelerator brought together experts from diplomatic organizations, academic institutions, and the tech sector to explore the ethical dynamics resulting from the use of large language models (LLMs) in diplomacy. As a first step, the working group published a communiqué that identifies six trade-offs that LLMs implicate in this context such as:

- A new vector of attack
- A loss of transparency, traceability, and accountability
- A rise in inequality

The document proposed that "ethical institutions deliberately and continuously study the trade-offs involved in their choices" and outlines some of the most pressing trade-offs identified during the convening.

Read the communiqué

AI Task Suitability Framework

In a follow-up Accelerator convening on LLMs in diplomacy, participants were asked to select one of the trade-offs identified in the communiqué above and develop a proposal to address some of the relevant concerns. One such proposal for the skill fade trade-off emphasized the importance of clearly delineating between tasks where AI is and is not appropriate.

The following framework was developed with that goal in mind and is meant to support diplomatic organizations that are analyzing whether LLMs could be suitable for a given task.

Download the framework

Ethics & Decision-Making Resources

OCT 19, 2022 Podcast

How to Be an Ethical Individual in an Interconnected World, with Michael Schur

MAY 28, 2024 Article

Addressing the Human Tragedy in the Darién Gap: A Call for Innovative Solutions

With hundreds of thousands of migrants making the dangerous trek through the Darién Gap each year, MIMC could offer new solutions, writes Susie Han.

JUL 24, 2023 Article

Building Space Security through Sustainability and Ethics

Visiting Fellow Zhanna L. Malekos Smith discusses U.S.-UK space and cyber policy and the ethics and sustainability concerns around "counterspace" weapons.

Cover of the International Mobility Convention.

A Holistic Framework for International Mobility

The Model International Mobility Convention (MIMC) offers a system for migration that addresses gaps in international mobility law. It outlines a cumulative set of actions, rights, and duties that benefit both migrants and refugees as well as their states of origin, transit, and destination.

The MIMC is a framework that seeks to better protect the rights of all persons crossing international borders.

Read the convention

Discussion Questions

  1. What is a problem you're facing—whether at work, school, or at home—that could make use of an ethical framework?
  2. If you had to put that framework on paper, what would it look like?
  3. What difficulties do you anticipate in applying that framework to your own life?
  4. How important are ethical frameworks in corporate governance and business settings?
  5. What role, if any, should ethical frameworks take on to enable effective leadership?
  6. What frameworks should be developed and utilized to support positive outcomes in emerging technology, healthcare, climate, and governance spaces?
  7. What are some of the pros and cons of implementing Codes of Conduct?
  8. What are the characteristics of an effective and meaningful Code of Conduct?

Additional Resources

IEEE's Ethics Framework Database

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) consolidated their ethics frameworks into this library for reference.


Ethical Framework for Climate Intervention

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) developed a code of conduct to guide ethical climate interventions that may be required to address emissions reduction.


Ethical Decision Making for Investment Professionals

The CFA Institute developed an ethical framework to guide investment professionals as they resolve ethical dilemmas in the best interests of their clients.


A Framework for Ethical Tech

Based on its State of Ethics and Trust in Technology report, Deloitte outlines the Technology Trust Ethics (TTE) Framework for organizations to reputational or financial damage resulting from the use of emerging technologies.