In reality, when making an ethical decision, do people really apply the generalization, utilitarian, and virtue tests to help them finalize their decision? We all know what’s right and what’s wrong; however, when making a choice, don’t people normally think of the benefits they will get first? I feel religion should play an important part in keeping the society in order. If people believe doing something bad/unethical will result bad karma, will they still do it or avoid it?

Contributed by ST.

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

6 responses »

  1. XH says:

    In Reply to ST Sec C: In reality, I don’t think people actually apply the three tests, we only use it in arguments or discussion with people. When we make rational choices, the test really applies is utilitarian, and how we can maximize our utility. If we can increase other people’s utility at the same time, great. It is almost impractical to think of the generalization test. In terms of religion, if you are religious, maybe people are consider karma. However, for people like me who are not religious, we don’t really necessarily consider karma. Rather we would have some moral standard, but apparently people all have different bar.

    • DW says:

      In reply to ST and XH: I agree with XH that people don’t actually apply the three tests consciously when making ethical decisions. However, I do believe the reasons behind the decisions have a basis in the tests in the sense that the most common way to identify ethical vs unethical actions for those who have not formally studied the subject of ethics is whether or not an action is legal. If it is illegal, it is automatically unethical, and if it is legal, then the action is acceptable to most people. The law is supposedly based upon ethical choices, incorporating the welfare of the greater population, and, therefore, one can surmise that prior to creating laws, the lawmakers assessed the three tests and concluded the actions contained within the legislation passed all three. Also, in regards to the notion that we know what’s right and wrong, the basis to the distinction is again the law, whether it be state/federal or religious. Higher authority has mandated certain rules and we fear violating those rules due to the personal consequences of being caught; however, the higher authority originally feared we would potentially act in a way that was detrimental to society (unethically) if left to our own devices, which is why the laws were created in the first place. Their preventative measures become our guidelines for identifying right from wrong, ethical from unethical.

  2. AD says:

    I agree that religion and the law help make people make ethical decisions – not by educating people on what is right and wrong per se but by providing rewards or punishments for certain actions. However while I believe there is a lot of overlap, I do not believe that anything illegal or anything nonreligious is automatically unethical. There are many examples of this, but one glaringly obvious one is that the extremely unethical slave trade took place in spite of religion and laws being in place. Laws are sometimes decided by only a few people, and are constantly being contested and amended.

    I believe that most people act according to religion and law, and not by critically evaluating whether their actions are ethical or not. However, while people do not evaluate their actions using the three formal tests, there are some more informal manifestations of these that are more common – including karma (which is often used in a nonreligious manner these days) and ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you’ (comparable to the Rawlsian test).

  3. VI says:

    ST – Great question!

    I posit that we do, in fact, use these tests, but by virtue of idiom. But before that, let’s step back and examine that “we all know what’s right and what’s wrong,” in the context of religion. This point is listed in the text as Myth 2, describing that there is a general consensus on basic matters of right and wrong (e.g., murder, theft, etc.). This, perhaps, stems from religion and religion-based upbringings, but is largely a moral code created by near unanimous societal consensus. But in gray areas (e.g., theft of a loaf of bread to feed your starving family), do we have clear consensus on what is “right and wrong?” Some religions condone acts of violence and theft because of the duties & responsibilities of the individuals; that is, if you are protecting your family, who in turn cannot protect themselves, then acts of violence are acceptable.

    Consequently, the generalization, utilitarian, and virtue tests are more common with other phrasing. In the generalization test, people often say “If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it to?” The question is a direct application of the basic generalization test. While perhaps not examined in depth, a person will reflect upon this simple question – and ultimately decide if the course of action is “right or wrong” – or ethical.

    The utilitarian test is one of considered consequences. When we ask “Do the ends justify the means,” we are inherently using the test. The zero-sum nature of that statement proves that we have considered the greater total utility, but acted in accordance with our own self interest. This question is a fundamental tenant of many religions, voiced as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

    Lastly, the virtue test is almost a direct tie to religious standards. In the virtue test, characteristics that “make who we are” are the values that are measured (i.e., integrity). While this is a vague definition, many of the more sociable religious tenants can be represented by a person’s integrity. The concepts of honor, integrity, and morality are strongest in the virtue test. When we consider our actions, what our actions say about us, and who we want to be, we are employing the virtue test.

    I think it is fair to leave religion off the table in the subsequent discussions of ethics. I think this is acceptable because each individual has a different approach to religion, even if they are based in the same faith. More importantly, the tests that we have do not conflict with religion; rather, they are supported by religion. There is no competition between the two in the realm of ethics, and the abstract nature of the three tests supports literal and theoretical implementations of religious philosophy.

  4. JL says:

    In my opinion, no one will use the three tests in the strictest sense when making day-to-day decisions. However, that doesn’t undermine the value of the tests. This is because the three tests provide a framework to think about an ethical dilemma; a framework which you may not have formed from life experience or religious beliefs.

    So when presented with a situation with no clear right (or ethical) answer, the tests provide a mechanism to identify the most relevant issues and questions that need to be answered. Taking this methodical approach will probably yield better decisions than if you relied on past experience or religious beliefs alone. I say this because if we rely on past experiences or religious beliefs we may be biased based on what we’ve seen others say or do, which may not be ethical in an objective sense.

    Personally, it is hard to imagine how religion can be used to keep society in order. I would love to hear exactly how you think this may be possible.

    The concept of Karma is not robust enough to keep people from behaving unethically. There are many people who go through life with complete disregard for the well-being of others and rarely experience any bad ‘karma’ themselves. If we only do things because we are afraid of religious or legal punishment then I believe this is why deceit and crime exist. This is because often people think they are special in some way and have the ability to escape detection. Religious people feel this way too, which boggles me because the same god-fearing people believe god is ‘all-knowing’ and ‘all-powerful’. Therefore, constructs such as religion, karma and even the law which are open to interpretation are not robust enough to prevent people from behaving unethically.

  5. John Hooker says:

    There are no ethical dilemmas here, rather 3 claims about behavioral ethics. One is that people simply choose acts that they think benefit themselves. This extremely popular view is known as psychological egoism (as distinguished from ethical egoism, which states that self-interested actions are ethical). In my view, the most interesting thing about this claim is that so many people want to believe it, however implausible it may be. I discuss psychological egoism in this video (transcript here).

    The second claim is even more striking: “we all know what is right and wrong.” It is remarkable that people actually say this, given the endless disputes we have about what is right and wrong. I also discuss this in the video.

    The third claim may be true: most people don’t apply the three ethical tests (generalizability, utilitarian, virtue ethics) when making decisions. So what are we to infer from this? For me, it demonstrates the need for more ethics education.

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