A place to pose and analyze ethical issues in business
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I’m in need of help understanding excercise 24 in Chapter 2 excercises, page 23. Can someone shed light on this?
If John reported Bill’s 3-year record, as he normally does, Bill would look bad. To avoid this, John is considering a change in evaluation procedure that would make his friend look more successful, and allow him to keep Bill as a portfolio manager. There are two virtues at stake: (a) John’s friendship with Bill (if they are really friends, and are not just trading favors for personal benefit), and (b) John’s being true to his concept of who he is as a professional.
Thank you very much. This helps me understand! I could think of a million ones that passed now and failed later but the later was harder. Thanks!
BTW I think you are amazing that you have a site that assist others in understanding your book and you are actively engaged in it!
Ok, I was wondering if I could get some assistance here regarding the generalization test. The book states that normally an action will continue to fail the generalization test if broadened; however, there are exceptions. I completely understand how once it fails and it opens up to more people, then it would continue to fail. I am having trouble though thinking of an exception. When would the test fail originally, but when the scope is broadened, it passes?
Exercise 14 provides an exception. If I enter a tournament only when I know I will win, my action is ungeneralizable. If it were adopted by others, there would be no tournaments, because a tournament requires 2 or more competitors, and only one person can *know* he or she will win. But if I enter a tournament when I have at least a reasonable chance of winning, a rationale that applies to more people, my action is generalizable.
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I understand that ‘Generalization Test’, which states that the reason for your action must be consistent with the assumption that everyone with the same reason acts the same way, will help us decide on most of the ethical dilemmas that arise during our work life or in general and help us make a rational choice. However, I do not understand how do we make decisions that though do not pass generalization test but are still unethical in view of the society.
For example if I consider the cheating example given in class. It is understood that cheating on exam is unethical. If I cheat to get an A+ then everybody will cheat and nobody would get an A+, thus it fails the generalization test. But consider the situation when I have a family emergency and I am unable to prepare for an exam, if I do not take this exam now then I will not be able to take it again for a year and it will adversely affect my career and my job prospects. In this situation if I decide to cheat then it passes generalization test because according to our class discussion very few people would happen to be in the similar situation. So, is the action of cheating justified in this situation?
According to corollary 1, we should avoid action that, if generally adopted, would undermine a practice it presupposes. The practice of examination is to judge the knowledge of an individual and the situation here does not analyze the true knowledge of the person in the situation described above. Also, examination is part of an educational institute whose purpose is to help people learn and grow in their career. The only corollary it will have difficulty justifying would be third one, which states that avoid action that, if generally adopted, would defeat the purpose of the action.
The situation here also passes utility test because my best utility lies in cheating. I have worked hard for past four years and now this one exam is not only going to stall my career for a year but also hinder my future prospects. This also has the maximum utility for the educational institute; they do not want to adversely effect prospects for a good student but can not change rules for just one person.
I still have difficulty taking a side in this situation. I keep on switching sides and somehow not able to come up with one satisfactory answer. I would like somebody to throw light on such kind of situation and focus a little bit on outlying situations rather than general scenarios.
OK, let’s say I’m going to cheat because a family emergency prevented me from studying. If everyone in this predicament cheated, I could still cheat and achieve my goals, and so cheating for this reason seems generalizable. But let’s suppose that a job interview prevented me from studying. Or the flu. Or a sports accident. Or oversleeping. Or a noisy roommate. Or a heavy workload that week, and so on with hundreds of other scenarios. Would I cheat in these cases? If not, why not? What is special about a family emergency? I must have some rationale for cheating in a family emergency and not in these other case, and I don’t. But this means I am willing to cheat whenever something unexpectedly distracts me from studying. This would make cheating very common, and at the very least, instructors would take much stricter precautions to prevent it.
The basic idea is that an action in special circumstances can be generalizable if one can construct a rationale for why these circumstances, and not others, are special, and the action remains generalizable under this rationale.
A famous case of this is civil disobedience. People have argued that civil disobedience is ethical under certain carefully considered conditions, which seem generalizable. One of these is that you must be willing to turn yourself in and take the penalty.
I find the ethical tests provided in the text helpful in that they bucket decisions into frameworks within which to think through certain scenarios. However, I keep bumping up against the fact that the generalization test is impossible to consider uniformly. And, thus, seems to be a useless test to consider when facing ethical dilemmas in everyday life and business. For example, in Ethics Class, we discuss a salesperson’s manipulation of the truth about a product for sale– specifically, we discussed the fact that certain phrasing, if prevalent in the industry, is generalizable in that industry and is therefore ethical. So, certain favorable ad phrasing of a product is ethical even if it excludes downside warnings or excludes statistics about the products true potential. With this, we can easily dismiss the credit crisis and the egregious bank lending practices, rating agency role and government rate policies that led to our current recession. I can guaranty that bankers far and wide would have said, prior to 2008, that certain splicing of sub-prime loans was generalizable and acceptable to everyone involved. No one thought generalization of the practice would lead to the downfall of the practice. However, it did. Perhaps, I am missing a nuance of the theory’s use in practice. Overall, though, how do we generalize without making the excuse that we are part of units that can easily justify certain practices because they are believed to be worthwhile for the majority of interests involved? We need whistle blowers in scenarios like this. But ,whistle blowing in the face of controversial evidence is not generalizable, in my opinion. We start to bucket and bucket and then, what is generalization? Whom do we count? And, when? If the generalization test fails, I, personally, move on to utility. In the case of the whistle blower, utility is certainly going to point to going ahead with blowing the whistle when the balance of those hurt to those helped leans towards the latter. However, generalization here just seems too easy, and hence, frightening, when it has the power to change an entire nation’s behavior.
In response to:
takushi ozawa says:
In normal days, people do not steal, rob, or kill others. However, right after experiencing disasters such as earthquakes or hurricane, some of the people (although it is quite few) started to steal stuffs such as foods and water which are essential for survival because in this kind of situation, it would be difficult to get enough foods for living. Strive to survive is every creature’s instinct and this made them to thrive in the world. Although most of us do not experience natural disasters, we can understand their behavior to survive. In this situation, do we have to regard the activity as unethical?
I appreciate the argument you made because it inserts a complication into the picture. In this case, you are supposing that there has been a natural disaster which has resulted in a lack of water, food and essential supplies. There isnt enough to go around for the whole population. Now, one person resorts to looting a store to get ahold of these items, which he needs for the survival of himself or his family. Let us take a look at this by applying tests.
(i) Generalization test – the reasons for my actions should be consistent with the assumption that everyone who has the same reasons acts the same way. This is asking whether the reasons behind stealing supplies would still be valid if everyone stole supplies. No, because then stores would make it impossible to steal in the event of natural disasters (perhaps in the form of extra security). Thus, the argument fails the test.
(ii) Utilitarian Test — an action is ethical only if no other available action creates greater total utility and meets the other conditions for rational choice. Utility in this case can clearly be seen as simple survival. NOT stealing the supplies would result in the man’s own death and perhaps others’ — a very large negative utility. Thus, the action passes the Utility Test with flying colors.
However, the extension of the test states that other condition for rational choice must be upheld — namely, the Generalization Test. We originally concluded the action failed in this regard. But were we correct? Perhaps not. The reason behind the theft was not for simple enjoyment of goods, but for survival. And it was not a classic case of thievery. In the aftermath of a disaster, there were probably no cashiers trying to ring up purchases. There were probably only abandoned stores with goods scattered about. Thus, even if the man wanted to pay, there was probably no way TO pay. Also, as the Jean Valjean reference in the text states, the scope for the man’s reasons are different, perhaps resulting in passing the Generalization Test. How so? Well, if everyone were to steal supplies in the face of death, would companies make it impossible? Highly doubtful, in my opinion, as disasters are highly irregular events during which the collective need is for survival and not profitability.
(iii) Virtue Test — Does the action follow rules for integrity and honor? Yes in this case, it does because the man is striving to ensure the surival of himself and others. This trumps safeguarding the store’s profits.
I am still confusing about the concept of utilitarian test in chapter 2. Many cases discussed during classes and mentioned in the textbook are clearly passed or filed the utilitarian test; Jennifer’s internship choice, wristwatches theft, and cheating cases are very obvious. This is because, in most cases, the regresses of each case would be reach very clear predictable end. However, let’s assume a guy with internal audit duties. The auditor has to report objective result to senior managers or sometimes to C-level managers to raise overall performance and even most employee wish to hear transparent report of the organization. Problem is that subjective and biased opinions are unavoidable in most cases, so victims are able to be occurred under purpose of greater total net utility. For example, I reported audit result to my boss in detail without any distortion because of the belief that it is ethical not to compromise uncomfortable request. However, looking back that time, confidence is not sufficient to argue that it was the best action creates greater total net utility.
I am having trouble understanding the argument that “the end never justifies unethical means, but the means may be ethical if the end is built into the rationale for the act.” The book speaks of Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Les Miserables, stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family and in class we spoke about how stealing in the face of violent threats both being ethical actions.
I can see how these types of actions may pass the generalization test as defined by the statement that “the reasons for my action should be consistent, based on my understanding of how the world works, with the assumption that everyone who has the same reason will act the same way”. Given such situations it is believable that most normal humans would choose to engage in stealing.
My trouble understanding begins with the Utilitarian Test. Most people would agree that stealing simply to avoid having to pay fails the utilitarian test and is indeed unethical. Based on this fact I find it hard to believe that these external factors, starving family or coercion, are able to cause this scenario to pass the utilitarian test. The test speaks of the fact that self preservation is a main focus and that people often maximize utility by placing the greatest on personal self-interest. If this is true does this not lead us to believe that any and all actions can pass the Utilitarian Test if we simply put significantly more emphasis on our personal wellbeing over that of others?
Lastly, there seem to be some acts that people believe to be nearly universally unethical (murder, stealing, cheating, lying..etc). These acts would seemingly never pass the virtue test yet is has been posited that “not all lies are unethical” and “stealing may be ethical given the circumstances”. It seems more likely that people, including those committing these acts, would view their actions as unethical but justifiable. I personally find the external situations around these situations as a justification of unethical behavior and not a magical conversion into ethicality. Taking what is not yours is seemingly universally unethical but there are extenuating circumstances when society might find reason to believe that a rational person might be pushed to do so.
For the utilitarian test, the book mentions an action that is ethical only if no other available action creates greater total net uitliy. In respond to the utilitarian test, I would like to share my work experience. Having been a graphic designer prior to attending Tepper, I participated in various design projects. Once the project is given, designers conduct rigorous research on the current trend and on the competitors of clients’ approach to develop a better understanding and the inspiration. During the process, designers walk a fine line between copying the others creative works versus evolving into a new creative concepts. For its nature of the process, many designers are accused of copying other creatives works for commercial , academical, or personal use. Per generalization, design industry can then be seen as an industry where no genuine idea come across, but rather a sea of copy cats.
Unlike some of the industry with legal restriction or academic surrounding with rules, design industry holds no restriction by law or rules unless certain mechanical engineering element is patented. Here, designers are to work with their own integrity and rationality to maximize their utilities. Voluntary rational choice is the best approach for their own reputation sake. In addition to building a reputation for rational and genuine characteristic, such environment forces designers to push harder on their creative ends.
In a such surrounding, for the utilitarian test to work, one can only consider the case where copied concept is not used for commercial use. If copied design for commercial use is acknowledged by others, not only the designers loses their reputation, but also the clients risk their reputation. However, for an action that is strictly for educational or personal use, the matter of copying others become one’s own ethical matter since there is no other action that will result in greater total net utility except one’s own development. Thus, I believe the utilitarian test can also be applied in such surrounding.
In normal days, people do not steal, rob, or kill others. However, right after experiencing disasters such as earthquakes or hurricane, some of the people (although it is quite few) started to steal stuffs such as foods and water which are essential for survival because in this kind of situation, it would be difficult to get enough foods for living. Strive to survive is every creature’s instinct and this made them to thrive in the world. Although most of us do not experience natural disasters, we can understand their behavior to survive. In this situation, do we have to regard the activity as unethical?
If I experienced the earthquake and am afraid of death, I think that I can also steal some foods for emergency. However, I think this behavior will fail generalization test, which means it is unethical (I felt uncomfortable to apply generalization test in this kind of situation. Suppose I can steal things from shops easily because all security systems are broken. Then anyone who needs food to survive can also do the same. However, if everyone tries to steal food, the government/authority might be involved in the situation to stops them. Therefore, the reason for my action shouldn’t be consistent with the assumption that everyone who has the same reason act the same way.
I think the reason to steal things from shops can be other than to survive. One of the other reasons I can think of is to satisfy personal desire such as stealing expensive watches. Therefore applying generalization test by using one reason seems unconvincing to me to explain whether the action is ethical or not. I found that this kind of extreme cases are quite difficult to judge whether it’s ethical or not. How should I deal with this kind of dilemma?
I liked the application of the examples within the textbook to support and clarify the tests listed throughout the chapter. For instance, in support of the generalization test, the example of cheating on an exam was brought forth. I do agree that many students are tempted to cheat because it will improve their grades and career prospects. Especially if they are attempting to enter a specific industry or field. Specific jobs expect those they interview as applicants to have a certain level of intellect and thus, a certain threshold for grade point average. Thus, students may be enticed to cheat to give them a competitive advantage against their peers. However, if we applied the generalization test, then all students would cheat for the same reasons. At this point, grades would be meaningless as everyone would get As. To take things a step further, cheating essentially would dilute the value of the degree. I know as an undergraduate at Penn State University, each student was expected to sign and adhere to the honor code of the school. The honor code at the Smeal College of Business stated that we aspire to the highest ethical standards and will hold each other accountable to them. We will not engage in any action that is improper or that creates the appearance of impropriety in our academic lives, and we intend to hold to this standard in our future careers. In my opinion, this brings forth two additional points. The first point deals with the utilitarian test. In addition to the generalization test being able to be applied to this example, the university does not want to lose utility. As stated in the chapter, I feel as though people easily get caught up in the struggle of competition and forget what it is all for. We go to school not just to get good grades and get a good job. We go to school to learn so that we can apply the knowledge that we learn in the workforce in the future. Students too often are trying to maximize their grade point average over their education. It is imperative that students remember what is most important and that is the fact that they walk away with something tangible and learn. Even if their grades are not quite as good as they had hoped, if they learned valuable information in their class that they can apply in their future careers, that should be what is most important. This is the end that we must justify, not grades. As far as the school, the school wants to maximize their utility. If everyone at the university cheats, then the value of the degree and the perception of the school will be decreased. Thus, the school is enforcing the honor code to maximize their happiness as it is inherently good to be honest and ethical. In addition, to maximize the utility of the students, the school is not only teaching them the honor code for them to adhere to as students. But the honor code clearly states that it is expected for all students to adhere to this standard in their future careers. In my opinion, the school is not only maximizing its own utility, but also maximizing the utility of the student body. It wants to ensure that the students not only get the most out of their degrees, but it prepares them for careers as future leaders of the world. If the school allowed students to cheat, then students would carry forth those same poor practices in the workforce and would get no where in business. To ensure a successful and long career, the school prepared these students for the future. Thus, I believe that the utilitarian test can be applied within this example as well.
Like many, I am confused by the parameters of the tests that are presented in the book. It seems to me that when applying the test, the book decides only one outcome can possibly occur if everyone commits the same action (when you steal a watch, the company would make it more difficult to steal watches). I would like to see more discussion in how to weigh multiple potential outcomes to arrive at an ethical decision. It seems that the generalization test gives clear direction in a yes/no format while the utilitarian argument helps ascribe magnitude to a decision and its potential outcomes. Is this the intent?
What if, when analyzed with one set of outcomes, a decision is deemed ethical but when viewed in terms of other outcomes it is unethical? Furthermore, I wonder how far into the future one should project when arriving at possible outcomes. What if an outcome is unethical in the short-term but proves ethical in the long-term. Perhaps the utility functions in Chapter 3 can be combined with probabilities to develop an Expected[Utility] value. Anyways, to help illustrate my question, please consider the following example that I have attempted to analyze using the framework provided in chapter 2. I will appreciate any comments.
I recently saw a story on 60 Minutes that reported on companies legally moving their corporate headquarters to “tax havens” overseas to avoid the high corporate tax rates in America. The reporter estimated that U.S. companies hold approximately $1.2 trillion dollars overseas. Considering the United States’ high government deficit, this represents a large source of income for the government.
So, is it ethical to operate and make money in the U.S. but to hold it overseas to avoid putting it in the hands of the government?
Per the generalization test, the reason for my action should be consistent, based on my understanding of how the world works, with the assumption that everyone who has the same reason will act the same way. The reasons here are simple. I make money and I want to keep as much of that money as possible. There are legal ways to keep more of that money if I use an off-shore bank. Additionally, I expect other businesses to do the same and I am limiting my competitive ability if I do not use my profits to reinvest in my employees, my product, and my infrastructure.
If every company does this, it is possible that the U.S government will tighten rules and regulations so as to ensure that U.S. companies pay taxes on the profits that they generate within the United States. In this case, the generalization test would fail because the practice that this condition presupposes would no longer provide benefit. On the other hand, the U.S. government may instead raise individual-level taxes to try to balance its budget or it may lower the corporate tax rate to 20% in order to compete more effectively against countries with lower tax rates. Under both of these circumstances, the opportunity to move overseas to save on taxes will continue to exist and the generalization test is satisfied. Note that in the short term a country may be considered a free-rider but would not be if/when any of these outcomes occur.
Per the utilitarian test, keeping the money overseas means that the company, its employees, and the U.S. economy is better off, but the government is in a worse position. It would take further analysis to understand the utility involved but if the government begins imposing stricter regulation, companies may be encouraged to move even more jobs and operations overseas to avoid high taxes. This would leave U.S. workers and citizens in an overall worse position. If this is the expected outcome of moving money out of the country, then this practice is unethical.
If the government assumes a more pragmatic point of view and lowers corporate taxes, individuals may pay higher taxes but I would argue that from a utilitarian standpoint, they are in a better position. Companies are able to retain more profits and encouraged to keep operations in America. Thus, this situation passes the utilitarian test and is ethical.
The virtue test is not particularly applicable in this scenario.
In working through the arguments I still have difficulty determining whether or not this practice should be deemed ethical or unethical. I also wonder that since the practice is already standard, should each company be immediately discounted on free-rider grounds or is it more appropriate to only assess what is ethical from this point forward. Again, I would like for the book to elaborate more in deciding which outcomes to consider and how to determine the time scope of a decision.
This tax dilemma is very similar to Exercise 10 of Chapter 6. Click here for my analysis. The taxpayers in the case avoid taxes by parking their money offshore.
The utilitarian test is usually understood to refer to expected utility. However, there is no consensus on how (and whether) to discount future utility. This is obviously a key issue for sustainability decisions and should be resolved.
In Will’s example, he characterizes the management of large corporations as entities that wants to keep as much of their profits as possible, even at the expense of the American people. I disagree with that characterization. As such, I disagree with comparing his example to exercise 10 in chapter 6. (I won’t get into the efficacy of the tax code, although I can explain the reasoning and its effects on people.)
I would describe management as a group of people that have implicitly promised their global shareholders that they will provide the most short-term and long-term value that they can within the confines of the law. Investors can choose not to invest in companies when management operates outside the limit of the investor’s beliefs. (Major actions, such as relocating company headquarters are disclosed in the 10-k or 10-Q each quarter.) However to paraphrase Professor Rutledge, “We cannot know what every investor wants a company to do, the only thing we can reasonably assume is that they want us to return as much profit as possible.”
In this instance, the actions of the management of the corporations in question are generalizable. The reason for this action is consistent. If every multi-national corporation does this, then the global shareholders will receive the most value possible. An ancillary result is the re-location and thus redistribution of companies and their taxes around the world.
This brings me to the next issue. These companies operate in the United States because it is a lucrative market where they can attract high-level management talent in reasonable proximity to their customer base. Management is not responsible for the well-being of any specific country in which they operate or sell products. Whether the corporation pays taxes and creates shareholder value in another country is irrelevant.
Here, the actions of the management teams that moved the headquarters of these multi-nationals pass the utilitarian test. Management is directly responsible for pleasing the shareholders, and they are indirectly responsible for the fair treatment of the employees. However, the ultimate goal of the global free market economy is to improve the quality of life of those around the world. To this end, the corporations in question are achieving this goal. They are able to re-invest more profits in their companies or pay the profits out in dividends. If you believe corporations and individuals are more efficient at allocating resources toward improving the quality of life than the U.S. government , then this action passes the test.
I will not debate the virtues of paying taxes in one country or another here. It really depends on what you think of the country’s use of the funds. But again, corporations are merely tools for investors and they have the ability to choose where they put their money.
Large multi-national corporations are not responsible for the structural failings of the U.S. government’s taxing and budgeting policies. In the same way a person is not responsible for the actions of a drug addict if the person deprives the addict of drugs. If the addict steals from the local populace to satisfy their addiction, it’s not the person’s fault. Few levels of the U.S. government have ever shown signs of being satiated, regardless of the amount of taxes they collected.
I disagree with Rich’s reasoning in his statement:
“These companies operate in the United States because it is a lucrative market where they can attract high-level management talent in reasonable proximity to their customer base. Management is not responsible for the well-being of any specific country in which they operate or sell products. Whether the corporation pays taxes and creates shareholder value in another country is irrelevant.”
The United States is a lucrative market in part because of the public goods such as public education, property rights enforcement, infrastructure, and regulated capital markets, it provides. These goods have supported economic prosperity by creating both supply of capable workers and demand for products from the relatively large proportion of the population with discretionary money.
Per the generalization test (and aside from Will’s reasoning), if all companies were to use tax-havens to save money while retaining these lucrative customers and skilled managers, the government would become underfunded, leading to decreased public goods, diminished demand from poorly educated new workers and fewer jobs in government and supporting the country’s infrastructure. Therefore, the reason behind operating in the US while using a tax-haven fails the generalization test.
The utility test is unclear because of the scope of this issue and the potential benefit to the very poor citizens of the tax-haven country.
The virtue test seems to have conflicting stands. On one hand, the company’s managers do have a duty of service to ethically maximize the profits of the company’s shareholders. However, almost all corporate websites now have a mission statement, or something similar, that claims the company cares about the countries in which it operates. To be consistent with itself as a “good corporate citizen” it should then honor its tax obligations for the country of its origin and major operations.
After reading and discussing the internship situation from the book and in class I am not so sure that I agree in one situation.
The book states the following in chapter 2 about what happens when the company lets you out of the contract.
The whole situation changes, of course, if Midwest releases Jennifer from the contract. She might go to Midwest to explain the situation and learn that the company has found another MBA student whom they would actually prefer to hire. Jennifer and the company therefore agree to forget about their employment contract. This is clearly generalizable, because the practice of employment contracts is not undermined if they are abrogated only with mutual consent.
The consent must be genuine, however. If Midwest releases Jennifer from the contract only because they see that they are going to lose her anyway, this is not consent. From an ethical point of view, Jennifer is in breach of her promise to work for Midwest, whatever may be its legal status.
In the case where Jennifer has found another job and they will lose her anyway, the company give her consent to get out of the contract, I believe this should be acceptable. The book states that it is unethical because it is not genuine.
In the competitive landscape we face in trying to land a top job, you win the internship by a very thin margin. If the company picked you by a razor thin margin over someone just as qualified as you it would be unethical ( in my opinion) to not inform the company about the situation described. By accepting the job and spending the summer at the company you will effectively wasted their time and money by filling a slot with someone who won’t be joining full time. It seems the company would actually be upset at you in this situation.
Any clarification would be helpful.
I was under the impression that this was a full-time job scenario where Midwest expected for some sort of long-term contribution to the company.
If we are discussing an internship, then this becomes a more complicated question. I agree that the circumstances, decisions, and outcomes could vary greatly. It seems that companies are increasingly using an internship as a 10-week interview and hope to hire full-time employees from their intern pool. If Midwest has indicated that she was hired contingent on the fact that she would work there full-time, then I agree that in light of new information, it would be unethical of Jennifer to accept the internship when she has no intent of joining full-time. Midwest may gain far greater utility by bringing in another candidate. This could be considered an act of deceit on Jennifer’s part and thus not generalizable. If no one planned to accept their internship, companies would stop hosting interns, thus undermining the practice.
On the other hand, if Jennifer was hired for an internship by Midwest because of her special skills and they had a unique assignment lined up for her, then we may be back in a similar situation the book describes. They expected value out of Jennifer specifically and thus are only letting her out of her contract because she will probably leave anyways.
After reading the section on Utilitarianism, I question if we are able to extend this condition to the welfare of not only humans, but animals. Utilitarianism aims to promote happiness and avoid displeasure. It is difficult to deny that other beings do experience pleasure and pain. In other words, if an ethical matter concerning animals passes the generalization and virtue test, should we treat humans and animals the same since both are capable of pain and we can reasonably say that animals try to avoid pain just as humans do? If arbitrarily distinguishing our happiness from other humans’ is irrational, is it also irrational to say that our happiness should be distinguished from that of other creatures? If so, for what reasons? As the book notes, “harm is harm regardless of who suffers it” (p. 16). As humans, we are rational agents, and this does separate us from other living things. However, I fail to see how being a rational agent makes the pleasure and pain we feel of greater importance than that of other beings. In some cases, animals are rational and in fact of a higher rationality than some humans i.e. children. Infants, though humans, are not rational beings, but we certainly do not regard their pleasure and pain in the same priority as animals. I am certainly not arguing for one particular side on this matter, but I from a utilitarian standpoint, can we argue that human welfare is dominant to that of other living creatures. If so, how does one logically reach this conclusion?
I would like to respond to Ms. Sofka’s comment and continue her line of thinking. The disutility argument (page 16) seems to apply generally to acts upon animals, as Ms. Sofka has noted. Once we agree that doing harm to an animal is disutility, then we can begin to consider measuring acts by the sum of their utility so as to evaluate them with the utilitarian test.
Let us consider the Pittsburgh-relevant option of hunting a deer, killing it, and then eating its meat. The disutility is clear: the animal dies and possibly endures some suffering in the process. There may also be disutility to the deer’s family, if for example a slain doe is caring for fawns. The utility is also clear: the hunter gains several meals.
The utilitarian test states, “An action is ethical only if no other available action creates greater total net utility.” Does this action pass this test?
A few centuries ago, it would have been easy to argue for the affirmative; nutrition was difficult to obtain, and alternative actions that would create the same utility for the hunter were scarce or nonexistent.
The world has changed, however, and the hunter now has many other options. Indeed, he has a plethora of alternative ways that he can obtain the utility of gaining nutritious meals, many of which do not create the disutility to the animal. Science has shown us ways to garner nearly all of the nutrition that the deer meat would provide using plant-based sources.
The hunter’s action, then, seems to create less total net utility than some alternatives, and therefore fails the utilitarian test.
Here is one approach to this problem: If I regard pain as inherently bad, then I am committed to regarding two things as bad: (a) the sensation of pain and (b) the self-conscious suffering of pain. Nonhuman animals can experience (a) even if they don’t experience (b). So I must consider animal pain in the utilitarian calculation.
On the other hand, nonhuman animals aren’t moral agents, and I needn’t worry about violating their autonomy. So it is OK, on this view, to sacrifice animals painlessly for food or medical purposes. In fact, it is obligatory to end the life of an animal in pain when the pain cannot be otherwise relieved.
If I can relieve human pain only at the expense of animal pain—as when hunting to relieve hunger or doing medical research to cure illness—then it is better to relieve human pain. It is better to have only (a) rather than both (a) and (b).
This is the Western rationalist tradition. Other traditions regard at least some animals as basically humans in furry coats and have elaborate rituals and mythologies to deal with the necessity of killing them for food. Still other traditions respect all life as manifestations of a single being. An extreme case is Jainist monks, some of whom breathe through a filter to avoid killing tiny organisms in the air.
In response to the professor, I would like to question the ethics behind euthanasia. If A) “it is obligatory to end the life of an animal in pain when the pain cannot otherwise be relieved,” and B) we are considering nonhuman animals in the context of human, then any argument that is logically consistent for nonhumans should hold for humans. Then, if pain cannot be relieved, Euthanasia passes the utilitarian test.
Next, let us consider the generalization test. Consider everyone who has or will have pain that cannot be relieved. If they can painlessly choose to end their suffering, they will. The problem lies in the repercussions that exist for anyone who aids them. Since the repercussions are external to the person, largely because the act is often impossible without aid, then it seems the ethicality of the act hinges solely on the legality. I would argue that Euthanasia will pass the generalization test but I’m having trouble completing the argument. It passes corollary 1 as its action would not undermine the practice in the context of a growing and aging population. It passes corollary 2, to not be a free rider, for somewhat obvious reasons. It passes corollary three as the action is most certainly consistent with its’ purpose. I think it passes corollary four as well as everyone who performs that action should achieve its purpose.
In regards to the virtue ethics test, I have more trouble. The argument for failure would probably begin with the argument that ending life would be destruction of self. However, I would counter that living with pain is contrary to the self or at the very least changes the self. If you are incapable of being oneself due to pain, then euthanasia should pass the virtue ethics test.
I would like to expand on Mr. Jacob’s discussion on euthanasia. In regards to the utilitarian and generalization tests, one could argue that euthanasia passes on both accounts. If pain is inherently bad for all humans, then no one should suffer and relieving that pain increases net utility. Under the generalization test, if the practice we are presupposing is that a person is suffering and has consented to euthanasia, then it would follow that everyone who has the power to aid them in ending their suffering would not be undermining that practice and would do so. With the virtue ethics test, one could argue that just as courage, honor, and loyalty are all virtues that are uniquely human, so is the right to have a painless death.
According to these three tests, euthanasia is ethical. However, I believe that there is a very large disconnect between what is deemed ethical in this case and how it would play out in the real world. First is the issue of consent. Everyone’s pain tolerance is different- is consent to be euthanized enough for someone else to act accordingly? This would allow many people to in essence to commit suicide when times got tough. If we suppose that there was some way in which only people with incurable disease in excruciating pain who have given previous consent to be euthanized were allowed to do so, who would have the power to act it out? While family members could stay true to themselves after the act, what about doctors and nurses whose careers are dedicated to the purpose of saving lives? Where do all these factors fit into the three ethical tests?
As the text book mentioned “Utilitarian test: An action is ethical only if no other available action creates greater total net utility.” However, I think it is hard to apply “utilization” on animals. We human beings usually judge things by our own opinions. We think our life and our happiness are more important than other animals’. With the value we believe, we control their life and consumer most of the resources in the world. If we really believe that animals and human beings could have the same right, we could not kill them, eat their meats, or produce so much pollution that indirectly damaged their environments. Even now people agree that we should use humanity methods to release their pain when we kill them, the results are the same. As a result, even we pursue the utilitarian, the standard only applied on human being.
I’m a little confused on the purpose of corollaries in regards to the generalization test. If an action fails the corollary test then it cannot pass the generalization test, however an action can pass a corollary it can still fail the generalization test. I understand that by definition a corollary is, “a more specific form of the test that an action must pass if it is to pass the original test.” However, it seems that the process of determining if an action is ethical is being made unnecessarily more complicated. If we just stick to the simple generalization test to see if an action done by everyone, “has the same reasons acts the same way” then the process seems straight forward. Please elaborate on the benefits of using corollaries as opposed to just using the generalization test and then moving on to the utilitarian and virtue tests. Where am I going wrong?
The corollaries may be easier to apply because they are less abstract and more specific, such as the free rider test. If an action fails one of them, there is no need to apply the machinery of the main test.
Is Ethics universal or relative?
This is a question I keep coming to during our discussions and in reading the text. This has already been brought up in previous posts regarding the concept of utilitarianism, but I think it is a worthwhile question for the entire discipline as it is being framed.
To play devil’s advocate, I’ll argue that experience plays a large part in one’s use of the generalization test. For example, Person A lives in a wealthy suburb where the local government makes sure to provide trash-cans and trash pick-up services and the norm is to not litter. If Person A litters in this suburb because she can get away with it and can’t be bothered to find a trash-can it would not be generalize-able. If everyone behaved the same way, she would no longer be able to get away with it because some penalty would be instituted. However Person B, who lives in a poor inner-city neighborhood with no trash-cans and less frequent trash pick-ups, litters for the same reasons. In the case of Person B the generalization test doesn’t hold much weight because Person B is not benefiting from the system of trash pick-up that Person A enjoys, which would normally discourage littering. There is no point in questioning what would happen if everyone behaved in the same way because the local government itself is allowing trash to pile and clutter, causing litter. Is littering really okay depending on where you are? Is one person’s behavior more ethical than the others’? Is the generalization test relative to each person’s experience of whatever “practice” their action “presupposes”?
To continue in the role of devil’s advocate, I’ll argue that the utility and virtue tests are relative according to people’s different cultural perspectives, including values, beliefs, and norms. Having grown up as a “third culture kid” moving around West Africa and South East Asia and then working in the field of International Education helping to facilitate intercultural learning, I often find myself questioning the application of so-called ‘universal’ concepts. Norms, belief systems, priorities and even moral codes are so diverse across cultures, religions, and societies that it seems unrealistic to claim that these tests would result in the same conclusions around the world. For example, in Senegal there are deeply held values or “virtues” that inform peoples’ everyday behaviors and decision-making and do not easily align with Western beliefs and culture.
To be fair, there is a caveat in the introduction of the text specifically basing this discussion of ethics in Western philosophy: “Western civilization provides us a rich tradition to draw from. Intelligent people have been developing a rational basis for Western ethics ever since Socrates” (page 3). So are we to assume that these tests and their corollaries can only be applied within Western cultures? How would the virtue test fair in an intercultural ethical dilemma in India, China, Mali…etc? How would the utility test fair if all stakeholders prioritize different sources of “happiness” or utility? Can anything be universally categorized as ethical or unethical? If not, then what is the use of this skill set in a multicultural business setting?
**In addition to counter-arguments, I would welcome anyone’s insights into alternative foundations of ethics from more diverse, less Euro-centric sources. Thank you!
Some interesting questions. First, “is the generalization test relative to each person’s experience of whatever practice their action presupposes?” It is relative to the practice it presupposes. The same action (with the same reasons) could be generalizable in one context and ungeneralizable in another.
Remember that generalizability is only a necessary condition for ethical behavior, not sufficient. Littering may be unethical even if it is generalizable, perhaps due to failure of the utilitarian test. If I live in a city where literally everyone throws trash in the street, resulting in a horrible mess, littering is generalizable. Yet it may be unethical, because it makes the mess a little worse.
None of this means that ethics is “relative” in the sense that there are no objective standards. Our obligations depend on the context, of course, but the same standards of logical consistency apply in every case. The same rules can require different actions in different situations.
So how about other cultures, where ethical norms differ? One theory: ethics flows from our conception of who we are. Westerners see themselves as autonomous individuals, and this commits them to an ethics of consistency and rational choice. Other cultures have a different conception of human nature, and this commits them to different standards. Chapter 7 develops this idea. See what you think.
I personally dislike the generalization principle/categorical imperative, because it is an overly idealistic assumption that everyone would ever act in the same way. The Kantian version assumes that rational agents never lie. Take a game where deception is assumed, such as Texas Hold-Em. Neither truth nor deception can be generalized, as they’re built into the rules of the game. Play truthfully all the time and you will be taken advantage of, but play deceptively too often and you will also be taken advantage of. The expectation of the behavior regulates itself.
Life (and especially business, where your actions are not pure self-interest but taken in the interest of shareholders) are much the same. I would argue that deception IS expected in modern society, and so the utilitarian/egoist arguments are more useful. In any system where rational agents are competing, anyone who is able to generalize either truth or deception will be at a disadvantage to those who don’t. It must then be asked, which is more important: fulfilling your expectation/obligation to “play to win” or your obligation to remain consistent with the generalization principle. Utility can be used to back this up: if everyone uses all means available to them that maximize utility, societal utility is increased. If each agent plays to win, then the standards for “winning” will be raised and everyone benefits.
The generalization principle does not assume that everyone would act in the same way. It poses a hypothetical test: *If* everyone who has my reasons were to act as I do, would my reasons still apply? There is no assumption that others would or could act as I do.
The generalization principle does not imply that lying is always wrong. (Not even the Kantian version implies this, but the principle presented in the book is not Kant’s version.) Whether a lie is generalizable depends on the reasons.
Texas hold’em strategy is generalizable because it is already generalized. Take the example of bluffing (overbetting one’s hand to convince other players to fold). This is generalizable if the reasons for bluffing would still apply if others players bluffed when they had similar reasons. But others players already bluff when they have similar reasons, and one is willing to bluff nonetheless.
Competitive behavior in general may nor may not be generalizable, depending on what kind of behavior it is.
Considering the question in class about the company which “allowed” to let the employee go to the more desirable New York job.
The company stated something to the effect of, “It appears you can’t be stopped, we have no other choice to let you out of your contract.” In class it was decided that this was unethical for the girl to leave. However, I disagree. I think that the company mutually agreed to let her go. This was an independent decision the company made based on someone else’s interests. The company made a selfless decision. If other companies acted in a similar way, the economy would be better off.
The issue is not that everyone would break contracts, because the contract wasn’t broken unilateraly. When the company and the employee agreed to follow different paths they decided to nullify the contract. The contract is still important because they both agreed to the outcome.
In chapter 2, the you makes the following argument which I am not 100% in agreement with and would love to get your views/clarification on this.
[…] Everyone recognizes that a change in life circumstances may require a change in job, such as marriage, children, or unexpected financial problems. Or after working at a company for a while, one may be ready to move on to another position. In such cases, giving notice is reasonable and expected. But barring unforeseen circumstances, Jenifer promised to work for Midwest for the time being. Again the whole point of signing with Midwest is to indicate that Jennifer has made up her mind where to work, whatever may be the technical terms of the contract. Similarly, the whole point of Midwest’s offering a job to Jennifer is to indicate that the company has made up its mind whom to hire, whatever “employment at will” language may appear in the contract. Midwest is promising to employ her for the time being, unless there is an unexpected change in circumstances, such as bankruptcy or Jennifer’s failure to perform satisfactorily. […]
There are two key terms on which the argument is based on:
1) “based on unforeseen circumstances”
2) “for the time being”
Let’s look at each one of them separately.
“based on unforeseen circumstances”: I believe it is very hard to define this term. It very much depends on how much weight you put and how much weight the company I putting for each circumstances. The fact that Jennifer stopped looking for an alternative job and that she received this offer due to some _unforeseen circumstance_ makes her decision pass all the tests that we have learnt from the course – Generalization test, Utilitarian test, Veil of ignorance test. The fact that this is such a rare situation and Jennifer did not do anything intentionally (i.e. she stopped looking for job after she received the Midwest offer) makes her pass the generalization test. Everyone who has the same reason will act the same way.
This decision clearly increases the total utility, assuming everybody has more or less the same utility function. And finally, Jennifer decision also passes ‘the veil of ignorance’ test. No matter which side of the table I am sitting is it in both parties interest that Jennifer take the other job. Obligated by her ethics, Jennifer can spend 2-3 months at Midwest and _then_ look for another job in NYC. This will hurt Midwest even more. Which brings up my second point: “for the time being”.
Based on all the logical rules that we have learnt, I feel it is very unethical for Jennifer to take the Midwest job _for the time being_ and then take look for job in NYC. Applying the generalization rule, if everybody starts doing this – taking the offer under ethical obligation and then leaving the company in 2-3 months – the company will take the ‘at will’ clause out of the offer or the companies will make sure that they have some sort of restriction so that employee can’t leave the job until the company gets what they have invested in the employee. Therefore people will no longer be able to leave the company _after time being_. Furthermore, this action of taking the job for time being clearly brings down the total utility.
This action also fails the “veil of ignorance test” test – Suppose I am the hiring manager, I don’t want to hire an employee and invest in him/her if I know that he/she will leave the company shortly after joining.
Based on the above arguments, I believe that it is more ethical for Jennifer to take the job in NYC in that it is an unforeseen circumstance and that it increases the total utility of the society.
“Unforeseen circumstances” is certainly a vague term. So we have to decide what we mean by it and and then apply the generalization test. If taking a better job offer before starting work counts as responding to unforeseen circumstances, then it is not generalizable. (Receiving such an offer is a rare situation now, but the book argues that it would be common if people were always wiling to accept such offers.) If taking another job to be close to a seriously ill relative counts as responding to unforeseen circumstances, then it is probably generalizable,
The same point applies to “for the time being.” If looking for another job 2 or 3 months after taking the position at Midwest counts as working there “for the time being,” then working only “for the time being” may well be ungeneralizable, as argued in the comment. If the period is extended to one year, it seems generalizable.
The WikiLeaks website states “Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people. Better scrutiny leads to reduced corruption and stronger democracies in all society’s institutions, including government, corporations and other organisations. A healthy, vibrant and inquisitive journalistic media plays a vital role in achieving these goals. We are part of that media. ” However, WikiLeaks also has the potential to threaten national security, complicate diplomacy, and undermine public officials with embarrassing information. At what point is utility maximized by revealing information as opposed to hiding it? Under the generalization test, is it possible to limit certain information and not reveal other information? Does Julian Assange pass the virtue test if he truly believes he is acting with integrity? I can see both sides of the issue so I’m curious to hear your thoughts.
Regarding the Wikileaks issue, the utilitarian test takes center stage. Will massive leaks result in a net increase in utility? The issue is complicated, because of Julian Assange’s scattershot approach. He releases *everything*, some of which may be beneficial, and some damaging. Some of the leaks uncover war crimes, while others complicate diplomacy.
There’s seems to be an underlying assumption at Wikileaks that transparency is always a good thing, and one can’t have too much of it. There is a good cross-cultural lesson here. Western cultures in fact rely heavily on transparency, and Assange’s Australia is an extreme case (think of the frank assessments in Lonely Planet travel guides, an Australian publication). If officials are embarrassed by the truth, then so much the better.
However, many cultures rely equally much on discretion. An official who loses face or respect cannot operate effectively, and in much of the world, respected officials are as important for social order as a free press is in the West. Unfortunately, Westerners have a tendency to universalize their core values, and to find it incomprehensible that any others can be legitimate. Assange is a good example of this.
This is not to say one one shouldn’t expose war crimes in a non-Western country, or that one should reveal a diplomat’s off-the-record conversation in a Western context. Rather, it is to say that the effects of leaks should be judged on a case-by-case basis. Assange’s wholesale release of information, for the sake of transparency, almost certainly fails the utilitarian test.
In utilizing the logic regarding the utilitarian test for Wikileaks, does that mean that Wikileaks fails the generalization test as well? That is, does the release of massive amounts of information about public officials actually undermine Wikleak’s mission and cause Wikileaks to fail the generalization test?
My guess is yes, because while arbitrarily releasing copious amounts of information will result in transparency at times, in the end this will weaken the ability of public officials to serve, as public officials require a certain degree of discretion to govern well. This will in turn destabilize society’s institutions thus creating a worse off society for all people, which undermines Wikileaks’ original mission of creating a better society through increased transparency. In addition, how to you determine what “a better society for all people” is – it seems like different people may have very different ideas for what constitutes a “better society”? I’d like to hear your thoughts on these subjects.
I would argue this point a little differently than Nirav. I believe that, in theory, Wikileaks passes the generalization test. I think that the world could continue to function if all governments operated transparently. The need for secrecy and clandestine operations is often based on the existence of those things in other nations.
However, I have a problem with the application of the generalization test for this example. It seems to me that this rule should not apply (or at least be considered secondary to the others) if there is certainty that the behavior will never be generalized or even widely accepted. I feel comfortable promising that the world’s governments will not decide to reveal all of their secrets. I understand that the rule is not based on 100% of the population actually doing any particular behavior, but I think this scenario is interesting. If complete transparency was adopted by all nations than it would work, but if it were adopted by a lesser percentage it would fail.
As I write this I realize a significant fault in my logic. Ex. Murder is clearly unethical even though there is a minuscule chance it will become general behavior. Despite this, I still believe that the likelihood of generalization should at least be considered when applying the test.
I look at this slightly differently: wikileaks is essentially an investigative journalism medium. It’s goal is to “bring important news and information to the public”. Now, to generalize this: if everyone decided to reveal information relevant to the public and provided safety to the informers, the mission and reason for Wikileaks doing this would be justified. This would, in my opinion, pass the generalization test.
I think the question is not about generalization, it is about whether revealing this information is beneficial to the world. I don’t think that is a question of ethics.
When discussing why acts must have reasons, Professor Hooker introduces the concept of moral agency. “The source of this premise is a deeply held Western tradition that free agents are rational agents and therefore act for a reason.” (pg. 9) What sounds more like a “deeply held Western tradition” than monotheism? Rationalism was founded by Immanuel Kant, who had to appeal to God in order to justify his beliefs. The logical leap he makes is apparent in Kant’s statement: “it is thoroughly necessary to be convinced of God’s existence, it is not quite so necessary that one should demonstrate it”. The premise of this ethical code is belief is supernatural being, which if you are an atheist like me, gets you nowhere.
In class discussions, Professor Hooker has dismissed discussions about a serious philosophical school of thought called Egoism (not to be confused with Ayn Rand’s objectivism). I will try to present that theory as succinctly as I can here.
Ethical egoism dictates that each individual ought to behave in a way that maximizes their long-run, enlightened self-interest. Endorsing this morality does not justify every action; in fact it justifies very few actions. The best actions are those that bring about the most pleasure (or least pain) to each person. Recent discoveries in evolution and especially evolutionary psychology have revealed an accurate picture of human nature that has a variety of implications for philosophy. Richard Dawkins argues in The Selfish Gene that altruistic behavior patterns will not develop because it is not an evolutionarily stable strategy. If we are truly biologically constrained in performing actions that primarily benefit others, a moral philosophy needs to account for the fact that most people will do what is in their best interest most of the time. The human mind is not a blank slate that we can conform to any rigid, rationalist code of behavior. Our evolutionary past has programmed our brains with the primary intent to survive and reproduce, mechanistically through pleasure and pain. Egoism treats human nature as given and tries to construct a pro-social arrangement upon which a group of self-interested individuals would agree.
Thomas Hobbes presents the most coherent and sophisticated vision for a society founded upon principles of egoism. The citizens that Hobbesian moral theory posits are those who are concerned with their own well being, in the form of subjective consequences relating to human desires. Rational egoists will contract with each other by agreeing to authorize a government to rule over them all. In agreeing to legitimize the legislative power of a central government, these individuals expect to bring about the best consequences. Hobbes frames the benefits in this way: “desire of knowledge, and arts of peace, inclineth men to obey a common power. For such desire containeth a desire of leisure, and consequently protection from some other power than their own” (Leviathan, Ch. XI, 5). In forming a common government, citizens can coordinate to achieve greater peace and security than they could by tentative bilateral agreements. Lifting them out of the state of nature (our evolutionary past) also allows for effective cooperation because the inevitable disputes between individuals can be resolved. Hobbes gives norms for the government to strive to maximize the total utility in society while respecting the ideal of equal protection under the law.
Egoism an ethical theory that has been around at least since Thomas Hobbes and still has followers among libertarians.
Ethical egoism must of course be distinguished from psychological egoism. Ethical egoism states that our only obligation is to promote our own interest. Psychological egoism states that we act only to promote our own interest. The two positions are very different. The former must be evaluated by analysis, and the latter by empirical research.
Hobbes held both positions, as do almost all ethical egoists. Let’s take them one at a time, first psychological egoism.
Hobbes was probably the first person to state clearly the now-popular view that self-interest must somehow underlie every action. The view is often attributed to Adam Smith and his contemporary David Hume, although both explicitly rejected it. An assumption similar to this underlies the neoclassical microeconomic theory we now study in economics courses.
The problem with psychological egoism is that nothing is allowed to count against it. Imagine any act of altruism you please. A fire fighter rushes into a building to save lives at high personal risk. Parents lovingly care for an autistic child at great burden to themselves. A soldier volunteers to fight, with little chance of survival, even though others would carry the load if he didn’t. Protesters rise against an oppressive regime when the cost of failure is torture and/or death (you can see this one on CNN today). In each case, the egoist will say that there is some psychological factor that makes the act self-interested. Yet if every conceivable motivation counts as “self interest,” the term no longer has any meaning. To be meaningful, psychological egoism must specify what is allowed to refute it, and then conduct research accordingly.
As for ethical egoism, perhaps the root idea behind the view is that there is no conceivable way for me to *justify* my actions except to say that they are in my interest. Because an ethical action must be justified, it must therefore be self interested. But as with motivation, nothing is allowed to count as “justification” except self interest. Suppose a firefighter justifies receiving painful burns on the grounds that he/she saved a life. The egoist will reply that this simply doesn’t justify the action. The firefighter must cite some psychological benefit, perhaps.
Egoists often use psychological egoism as an “argument” for ethical egoism. An ethical theory should allow the possibility of acting ethically. So if people always act in a self-interested manner, an ethical theory should regard self-interest as ethical. But suppose there is a mutation in human DNA that makes us all murderers. Must we say that murder is ethical? Or suppose that a mutation makes us all saints. Must we now reject ethical egoism? The problem is that what is ethical shouldn’t depend on how people in fact behave. The whole point of ethics is to *judge* how people behave.
A related argument is that people who act in their own interest will end up building a society that is best for all. Hobbes held a position something like this, and it is popular with libertarians like Ayn Rand. Yet here again ethics rests on a sociological claim. Suppose that the laws of nature change so that self-interested actions result in a miserable society (Adam Smith thought this would result from the current laws of nature!). Must we then reject ethical egoism? An analysis of what ultimately constitutes right and wrong shouldn’t depend on contingent facts.
Hobbes was one of the earliest in modern times to wrestle with an inherent paradox of Western culture: how can a society of autonomous individuals, as Westerners consider themselves to be, live together? He maintained that there is really no paradox, because individual self-interested actions will lead to a coherent society. (One must be careful about following Hobbes too closely, because he thought that they will lead to an autocratic state, which he regarded as the ideal society.)
There is another solution, however, that doesn’t rely on sociological assumptions: regard rational agents as unified by reason. A rational agent will choose the same action, no matter who he or she is, and therefore takes the interests of all agents into account. This is the approach followed in the book. It lies behind the utilitarian argument that if I act to acquire utility for myself because I regard it as good, then to be consistent I must care about the utility of others for whom it is equally good. It also lies behind the Rawlsian idea of making policy behind a veil of ignorance as to one’s identity.
A few points on Egoism:
1. Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is not serious one because it relies on works of fiction where the characters all behave in one-dimensional ways, nothing like real human beings. Evolution informs us that humans have situation-dependent incentives for cooperating and defecting, her characters do not. I am not a libertarian, in fact I am a big-government liberal, primarily because Hobbes picks up on the fact that government should be powerful enough to counteract the strong incentives we have to defect.
2. I do believe in psychological egoism: that all people act in their perceived self-interest all of the time. To run a proper empirical experiment to test this hypothesis, more advances need to be made in neurology in order to study the true incentives. I tend not to believe in hypotheses like altruism where there is no compelling evidence. The fact that everyone uses the same examples for pure altruism and puts those people on pedestals shows you how rare these acts are. In fact, psychological egoism need not even be 100% true in order to believe in ethical egoism, it must be prevalent enough to dictate most human behavior irreversibly.
3. Evolution does not allow for the possibility of a “mutation in human DNA that makes us all murderers”. If you think that it might, then you really do not understand evolution. I will grant you that there is a neat elegance in developing a rationalist code of ethics that is timeless. I maintain that rigidity is not necessarily a virtue. If the social insects (like ants and bees) had developed to the point where they controlled the Earth, their ethics would be vastly different from ours. The non-reproducing drones ought to work for the good of the colony, because that is hard-wired into their DNA. Animals like rats that sometimes eat their own young cannot be judged by human ethics because that is a strategy that did not develop within us. Ethics within a species is NOT relative, but between species, it can be relative. Rationalists do not deal with such real-world concerns because they waive their hands with the nebulous concept of “moral agency” and refuse to define it further, although Kant appealed to God in order to do so.
I am confused by Chapter 2, Corollary 3, the Deep Green Forest example. I understand that the example is claiming that building a cabin in the Deep Green Forest if you have the means and want seclusion is not generalizable, as if everyone who had the means were to build such a cabin, the seclusion would be destroyed. I also understand that the example is stating if you do something for reasons that would be destroyed if everyone who had the same reasons also did that same action, then you are being irrational. What I don’t understand is why the example seems to be claiming that all irrational behavior is unethical. Is it claiming that building a cabin in the woods for seclusion is unethical? I fail to see what is unethical about that. Irrational and unethical are not identical definitions. What then, is the extra requirement taking an action from irrational to unethical? And if the example is claiming irrational behavior is always unethical, then I must say I disagree, as much behavior can be irrational while still being generalizable or not. Also, let’s imagine that perhaps the volume of people that have the means to build a cabin in Deep Green Forest and that want seclusion is very small, to the point that there is still plenty of seclusion available if every such person builds a cabin. Then, irrationality would rest on the supposition of a high volume to space ratio, and the very same action would no longer be irrational based on the volume of people able to and desiring to do the act. If we continue on in logic, ignoring the desire portion of justification, then the only portion that remains affecting a ratio like this would be personal means. To base the irrationality or unethical nature of an action on whether or not enough people have the means to do it to me seems the least ethical or logical of all. Can someone please clarify what this example is meant to illustrate? A similar example to me sounds like this: I walk into the Master’s Lounge to sit down because I can and I want to. This is not generalizable because if everyone does it, then not everyone would have a seat. Thus, is walking into the Master’s lounge to take a seat unethical? I don’t think it is, but based on the Corollary 3, it seems it is supposed to be.
Great questions. Let’s first suppose that only a few people can afford to build in the forest. One of my reasons for building in the forest is that I can afford it. If this is the situation, my action is generalizable. If everyone with my reasons built, there would still be plenty of seclusion.
Is there is something wrong with a criterion that depends on how many people can afford a cabin? Perhaps access to seclusion shouldn’t depend on means, because it’s unfair. The generalization test doesn’t capture this. Right, it doesn’t, but it is only one test. Another test, the Rawlsian Difference Principle, addresses this kind of justice issue (see Chapter 3).
How about sitting in the lounge? You enter the lounge and take a seat when you want one and it’s available. I think this is not only generalizable, but already generalized. I assume that people coming into the lounge do exactly this already, and you found a seat nonetheless. So taking a seat is perfectly generalizable.
If people are deliberately saving seats for others, that is another matter. For example, if you find a seat on the bus only because people are saving them for the disabled and elderly, then taking a seat simply because you want it is ungeneralizable.
This doesn’t mean that anything that is already established practice is necessarily ethical. Actions must pass other tests. They must be utilitarian, respect autonomy, promote justice, etc . (again, Chapter 3).
The Deep Green Forest example was intended to illustrate a more subtle point: that generalizing an act must not only be consistent with the agent’s purposes, but with the purpose of everyone to whom the reasons apply. Maybe it’s a bad example, because it raises the justice issue as well.
Now for the general point that irrational behavior need not be unethical. For the purposes of ethics, “irrational” means that it’s impossible to construct a coherent rationale for the person’s action. Strictly speaking, this means that the action is not even an action; it can only be explained psychologically or chemically, but not as a deliberate choice based on reasons. People can be irrational in some other sense and still be ethical. For example, it may be “irrational” for me to invest in nuclear power after the Japanese nuclear crisis, but this is not necessarily unethical. It is only “irrational” in the sense that it doesn’t maximize expected returns. I may still have a coherent rationale (perhaps I want to support the nuclear industry).
Personally, the one question (2.7) regarding whether it was generalizable to “want” to board the plane before everyone else, even though you are designated one of the later boarding levels. You want to do this so you guarantee you luggages spot in the overhead bins.
I figured it was generalizable because everyone would “like to board before their zone is called.” The question stated in the book only implies the thought and does not necessarily mean that the person will somehow cheat the system. The test that the generalization test should run is: “If everyone else boarding the plane would like to board the plane earlier than their zone, what would happen.” My answer is that everyone obviously would enjoy to be in a better zone or better spot in line. Everyone , in the same situation, respects the airlines, and the zone specifications that they have been assigned. This respect gives the companies the ability to board the plane in an orderly, organized fashion. Therefore, I say this act is generalizable, because it is a thought, not an action.
I would like to disagree with the comment above regarding question 2.7.
The question states “7. As you are about to board an aircraft, it is announced that the plane will be boarded by zones to expedite the process. However, you would like to board before your zone is called to make sure you can find space for your carry- on luggage in an overhead compartment. Is this generalizable?”
As quoted from the text: “Generalization test. The reasons for my action should be consistent with the assumption that everyone who has the same reasons acts the same way.”
Boarding before your zone is called would NOT be generalizable. If everyone had the same reasons (to make sure you can find space for your carry-on luggage), then they would all follow the same premise, board as early as possible, find spots for their carry-on luggage, which would eliminate all carry-on space, thus eliminating the original reason to board early. The specific test is whether the reasons for boarding early would still apply if all others with the same reasons to board early did so. In this case, they would not. This fails the generalization test and is therefore unethical.
I have a general problem with the three test to consider an action to be ethical. I believe that ALL of the test are very subjective. A person can spin each test to say whatever they want it to. Instead of these tests helping to determine more ethical decisions, I fell that they allow us to become more manipulative. This was clearly shown in the many debates we had in class. It was quite surprising to see that the class thought it was ethical to NOT tell a person that their spouse is being cheated on, and to NOT tell on a person who has cheated on a test. Clearly, these two actions are not the most ethical choice, but because the tests allow for so much wiggle room, it is very easy to make almost any action seem ethical.
I agree with what PMM said. All of the tests are definitely very subjective and can certainly be manipulated to one’s favor.The utilitarian test in particular is very difficult to apply except in very clear cut cases. When some people lose utility while others gain utility, it is difficult to prove which change is greater. There is no way to measure utility. It seems the only way to definitively show that something passes the utilitarian test is if nobody loses any utility. That way the net change must be greater than or equal to 0.
It is true that one can manipulate ethical principles to rationalize almost any position. But this is true of any field. One can use statistics to “justify” almost any claim, for example, but we don’t reject statistics on this basis. The purpose of statistics is not to persuade us to use data correctly, but to tell us how to use data correctly. It is the same with ethics.
I’m happy that the utilitarian test has been called into question as I have had a problem with it from the day we learnt about it. As people before me have already commented, not everything can be easily quantified and moreover, the process of calculating utility leads to many different numbers due to different perspectives and hence, in this regard, I agree with all the blog posts above. Now, moving on, I feel that the Pareto optimality should be used as the basis for the utilitarian test. However, to make this more effective, a more holistic and advanced version of the Pareto optimality should be used in which we give a proportionate percentage to each significant factor the person is influenced and then create a Pareto Frontier with the cumulative data. This would provide a more efficient method of comparing utility gains & loses by different types of people.
I also had a problem with the generalization test as it felt a bit too manipulative in some cases. Thinking about what others would do in a scenario doesn’t always give the correct answers as people, in general don’t always do as they think. There was this one experiment when people had to think and write down the amount of dollars they would donate to charity if they were given a $10 note. Then, after some time, they were actually given the $10 and asked to give away some of the money to charity and people on average gave away about half the amount they intended to give before.
A reminder that the generalization test doesn’t ask whether others *would* do as I do. It asks whether I could achieve my purposes *if* others were to do as I do.
Utility can usually be measured well enough for practical purposes if we can assume everyone has the same utility function. Then we can calibrate the function as described in the text. If this assumption is unrealistic, then it is not clear how to compare utility values across persons. This is an area of research in utility theory and welfare economics.
It is true that the utilitarian test is often inconclusive. This may require us to agonize, but not over what is ethical. There is no failure of ethics. Ethics is simply telling us that we don’t have to worry about ethics (unless another test comes into play).
Chapter 2 deals with the fiduciary rights of the Board of Directors that could use some clarification. Fiduciary rights basically mean that someone on the Board or a corporate officer cannot be in direct competition with the company and that they should do the best job they can to maximize the value of the shareholders, or the owners of the company. To see if fiduciary rights are ethical we can examine the 3 tests we’ve been using in class. The first test is the generalization test. If everyone board of director member acts to maximize the value of the company, then the shareholders will be pleased and will continue to hold stock in that company. To better examine this, we should look at the opposite. If the board of directors didn’t act in the best interest of the shareholders, then no one would want to hold stock in that company, which would result in the company not being able to raise capital. Therefore, fiduciary rights pass the generalization test. The next test is the utilitarian test. When shareholders value is maximized, their utility is at it’s highest, since their value in the company is higher and their overall wealth is higher as well. On the other hand, directors and corporate officers usually have clauses in their compensation contracts or have stock options that will give them extra bonuses if the stock reaches a certain level. Their overall wealth will increase as well, and the company will have a higher total book value, so fiduciary rights pass this test. Finally, we look at the virtue ethics test. For example, if a director is on the director on one board, say for example Coke, and he is asked to join the board for a competitor, say Pepsi, this would break fiduciary rights. Being on the board for 2 competitors is a conflict of interest, since the person has access to confidential information for both companies and could cause one company to succeed while having the other one fail. In order to keep the virtue of honesty and trust, that person must honor his fiduciary rights and stay away from a direct competitor. Overall, we can see that fiduciary rights pass all 3 of our ethical tests and are important to a company’s shareholders.
Regarding the fiduciary rights, I wholly agree with JAS. The generalization test is passed because if everybody worked for their company and their competitor, then nothing productive would happen for either of the companies. This situation would then be similar to a person playing a two-player game by themselves. The utility test also passes because when the Board or director person is not in direct competition with the company they are trying to maximize the profits and success of the company they work for. Finally, the virtue ethics test passes because the conflict of interest that would arise would not be ethical for companies. The conflict of interest entails secrecy, lies, and deception all of which are unethical. Thus, the fiduciary rights pass all 3 ethics tests.
Just a note on fiduciary duty — it is a duty, not a right. It is a duty because neglecting it is abrogation of a promise and therefore ungeneralizable. Of course, we must decide what is mutually understood to be the promise that directors make to owners. The usual understanding is that fiduciaries promise to act diligently to protect the financial interests of the owners, within the constraints of law and ethics. Fiduciaries don’t promise to maximize profit by acting unethically, because one cannot promise an unethical action. If it’s unethical, it’s not an action.
The book’s conditions about the virtue ethics test seem very vague to me – it describes how rationality guides our decisions based off of virtues and integrity. However, I think that the book should expand more upon how this test is very subjective, and can be interpreted differently in different, unique situations. For example, many factors can contribute to a difference in values, such as culture, upbringing…etc. that may allow different people to view their integrity and virtues in different manners. Various acts may constitute different ethics and morals, and will vary amongst people. I think this test is extremely subjective, and this aspect should somehow be further explained as to how it factors into the generalization test.
I agree with Vineeta that this test is extremely subjective. Unlike the utilitarian test which views everyone involved objectively the virtue ethics test only pertains to the individual. That is to say my actions are ethical according to this test as long as MY values and integrity are not compromised. But this would mean that an action can be ethical to some and unethical to others (assuming the other two tests pass). Of course the same could be said of the generalization test in regards to the scope but it is more difficult to define values than reasons for acting. Further clarification of how to determine values would be very helpful since often when analyzing cases the virtue ethics test becomes inconclusive because of this ambiguity.
I also agree with the comments above that the virtue ethics test seems vague. Unlike the generalization test and the utilitarian test where there are specific steps and limited boundaries to applying the test to certain situations, the virtue ethics test lacks both. There are no specific virtues that need to be applied, and this tempts users to pick out what virtues they need for a certain situation, and discard any other virtues that may not fit the situation. Also, the importance of one virtue over another differs from people, organizations, and cultures, making the test more ambiguous.
I also think that the ambiguity of the virtue ethics
The virtue ethics test is vaguer than the others, but it also lies at the root of the others. It asks us to act consistently with who we are. The utilitarian and generalization tests are special cases, on the assumption that we are moral agents who act based on reasons. Even though the test is vague, there are times when it alone clarifies the situation. The list of virtues is not arbitrary. They must be qualities that are unique and essential to humanity and help to explain our purpose.
Ultimately virtue flows out of our concept of personhood. We are *committed* to a set of values based on what kind of beings we conceive ourselves to be. This is far from arbitrary but an inescapable fact of our existence. Because different cultures inculcate different self-concepts, they give rise to different values.
Chapter 2 states that one of the tests that an action must pass, in order to be deemed ethical, is the utilitarian test, which states that an action is ethical only if no other available action creates greater total net utility. I feel, however, that assessment of total utility depends on each person’s perspective of an issue.
Consider a factory that has been set up near a residential area, which comprises of some employed and some unemployed residents. For those employed, the creation of the factory does not pass the utilitarian test since the pollution created by the factory reduces net utility. However, for those unemployed, net utility increases, since the increase in utility from the ability to obtain jobs and support their families would be greater than the loss of utility from the pollution. This view will also differ among other stakeholders. For instance, net utility for owners’ perspectives may be increase, but support groups may hold an opposite view.
Therefore, while the concept of scope was used only for the generalization test, I feel that it should also be used for the utilitarian test, in order to decide whose perspectives should be incuded in deciding whether an action passes the test.
In response to your comment, there is an important distinction about net utility that should be brought up when considering the utilitarian test. Net utility is defined as the net sum of utility among all persons. I agree that one event, like a factory opening in a residential area, will affect different people in different ways, meaning their utility will be affected differently. However, the utilitarian test considers all people equal. It sums all changes in individual utility to determine whether there has been an overall increase or decrease. Thus, all viewpoints are taken into consideration.
I agree with Nicolas above. By definition, the Utilitarian test suggests that an action is ethical only if no other available action creates greater total NET utility. In this case that Parikshit illustrated above, as Nicolas mentioned, what needs to be done is to measure the total net utility of the factory creation for all people; that includes the factory owner, employed residents and unemployed residents. Sum all changes in utility and determine whether there was an increase or decrease in the net utility. If it decreases, there must be some other action that creates greater total net utility. If it increases, we have to see if there are any other actions to create even higher net utiliy.
To continue the discussion of the utilitarian test, something I have been struggling with is how to quantify utility for different people. It seems such a subjective concept that, like Parikshit stated, depends on perspective.
In some contexts, especially anything involving money, utility is easy to determine. For instance, consider establishing a new business in a neighborhood that already has similar businesses. This new business, say Starbucks, may take profit away from existing coffee shops. When the gains and losses of each side are determined, the net utility can be found. However, consider the example above of the factory being introduced to a neighborhood. How can we put a number on the level of discomfort of the residents? When two different scales of satisfaction must be compared, what kind of measure do we use?
I welcome an answer – I don’t mean to argue with the usefulness of the utilitarian test so much as to ask help in clarifying my understanding of it.
In response to Hannah’s question about quantifying utility, I, too, have encountered a lot of trouble running the utility test, especially in trying to evaluate the utility among different individuals. If we look at the problem about forgetting to pay for a $.50 gum versus a $400 camera that we discussed in class, we might see an obvious difference in utility; but suppose we change the numbers to a $0.50 gum versus a $20 shirt, the decision would be much harder– even with these numerical measurements, it is hard to quantify and compare utility. In scenarios that don’t involve quantitative measurements, (such as the problem where the pregnant woman is facing a possible promotion, while her father is suffering from cancer), utility is even harder to measure or quantify. Therefore I don’t think there is a good way to quantify utility, and that’s why a lot of times the utilitarian test turns out “inconclusive”, and that’s also a big part of the reason why people face decisions and dilemmas.
While I do believe the utilitarian test is a bit general and can be interpreted in many ways, I also believe that when using such a test to determine an ethical behavior, one must clearly define the parties involved. This should be decided according to who would be most directly affected by the other party’s actions. For instance, in the factory example, the parties involved are the employees of the factory and the people who are going to consume or are benefitted by that factory’s products and conducts. After identifying the parties involved, the utilitarian test can be used to check if total utility increased or decreased, just like Nicolas wrote above.
Having said that, I do agree that the process of defining who are the main parties involved can be very ambiguous at times. For instance, when looking at a retail company, you would assume that the parties involved are the company and its direct customers, as the company’s main purpose is to sell its products to the customers and therefore should consider its customers’ interest as most important. But it would not always be so clear when speaking about 2 different people or entities, that unlike a retail company, don’t exist for a specific purpose and so defining who is affected and who is affecting can be quite complicated.
I would like to make comments on the ‘utilitarianism’ about building the factory in residential area as mentioned above. The main obejective of utilitarianism is to maximize the greatest happiness for greatest number. Even though some people gets higher utility whereas some others not, the action should be taken according to whichever side with higher net utility. But I think we should also consider how much of each side rate the problem. So for example, if a person agreeing with building the factory rate it as 3 (utility); whereas, a person with disagreeing with building the factory rate it as 5( utility) then it would be much complicated to make ethical judgement. Since people rate differently with many issues, that is why we have to use moral pluralism. (multiple ethical theories)
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