Ethical dilemmas

December 31, 2010

To describe an ethical dilemma, add a reply to this post. To analyze someone else’s dilemma, reply to that person’s comment.  If you don’t want to use your name or email, enter a screen name and the email address [email protected], which I created for this purpose.

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131 Responses to “Ethical dilemmas”

  1. Debbie said:

    I have worked for 5 years at a company and I am seeing signs that the business is failing. I have lots of ideas about how to make the company succeed. Rather than share my ideas with my boss, I am considering quitting my job and starting my own company. Should I ask co-workers if they want to work for me? Can I tell my boss’s customers about my new business?

    This dilemma is cross-posted on Ethical Decisions blog.

    • John Hooker said:

      There is certainly no problem with quitting the firm and taking your ideas with you, subject to any legal obligations (see below). However, taking other employees and customers with you requires some thought. Your boss could argue that part of your employment contract is an implicit agreement that you will work on behalf of the firm and not against it. Luring employees and customers away from the firm is working against it, and so it is probably ungeneralizable and unethical because it violates this implied agreement. It may also be an explicit violation of your employment contract.

      The obvious way to fix this problem is to resign before you start talking to customers and coworkers. At this point, luring them to your new company is perfectly generalizable (if it is legal) because it is already standard practice in business.

      Here are some legal considerations. You may have signed a nondisclosure agreement that forbids you from using ideas and techniques you acquired at your present company. In addition, any patentable device you conceived while an employee is legally the property of the company, even if you said nothing about it and developed the idea in your garage at home. In practice, the company could not press a claim without some evidence of when you developed the idea.

      Finally, contracts often have non-compete clauses that forbid you from competing with the company after you resign. These clauses are traditionally unenforceable under Anglo-Saxon common law, but exceptions are made nowadays. If there is such a clause in your contract, you may want to consult a lawyer. Maybe some legal experts out there can shed more light on this.

      You may be concerned about sabotaging a company that is already on its last legs. I’m not going to endorse the popular view that business is and should be dog-eat-dog, presumably because fierce competition makes us all better off in the long run. Things are more complicated than this. However, beating the competition can be utilitarian even in an individual case, if it replaces an inefficient company with a more productive one. There are transition costs in the shutdowns and layoffs that result, but you are actually mitigating these by hiring employees who will be laid off.

  2. Gerardo Bausman said:

    Thank you for the posting.

  3. Jackson Lane said:

    In regards to the invocice quesiton, I’m not exactly sure what’s going on, but here’s what I can say:

    I probably can’t apply the virtues or the utilitarian tests here, because I’m not sure how this benefits the company or fits in to fiduciary responbility.

    But from the generalization test, if there is an expectation that the director and the friend disclose their relationship on the consultant application paperwork, and that expectation is critical to the functionality of the paperwork and the general transaction, then not disclosing the relationship is deceptive and not generalizable.

    But if disclosing the relationship on the paperwork is the equivalent of answering an optional question on a survey, (there isn’t a reasonable expectation of complete forthrightness), then it’s generalizable and should be okay.

  4. JE SEC C said:

    You discover that your company has been invoiced by a friend of one of the board members. Furthermore, because the friend is outside the US, they instruct you on the invoice to cut a check to said board member. For US public companies, director independence rules are rather explicit and you know that this not only violates SOX, but also has the chance to create the perception of lack of director independence. After resolving the SOX related issue, you request to see the consultant application paperwork and notice that the friend did not disclose any prior relationship, professionally, to the director. To protect the company and the board integrity, you approach the chief legal officer to address this issue. He instructs you to just pay the bill. Is it ethical for you to simply process the invoice, without requesting that the director and the friend disclose their prior professional association?

  5. JE SEC C said:


    I think it is unethical for the manager not to include this employee in the pool. If every manager used every piece of personal information about an employee for consideration then no one would get promoted and no manager would get the outcome they seek. Just as a casual conversation with an employee leads to the discovery of potential plans for future education, a simple observation of an employee’s age or gender or weight may lead the manager to assume they will not be around long enough after the promotion to meaningfully contribute. Because the employee did not explicitly state he had already gotten into a program and was actually leaving, I think this fails to satisfy the sentiment of expectation on the part of the manager regarding the employee’s actual plan. The employee is disclosing future potential plans in ordinary discourse without hie/her knowledge of the manager’s plans for evaluating a promotion. The manager is acting unethically.

  6. SP said:

    If you hired the person from your firm, you would not pass the generalization test with respect to meeting the needs of your client. If everyone was in your position and didn’t make the best decision, the outcome for all clients would be suboptimal and you would ultimately /lose/ business for your company and your industry. Whereas if you hire the best possible candidate, you will be fulfilling your responsibilities and the loss of new business for your firm will more than likely be offset by the utility that the customer receives from your job well done.

    In the end, either case is pretty defensible, especially considering how difficult it usually is to quantify “best-available candidate”. Still, the right thing to do is fulfill the duty for your client on behalf of your organization instead of being dishonest with your client for your company’s benefit.

  7. RYAN HUSTED said:

    I can’t seem to figure out how to respond to any of the earlier posts, so I’ll respond to SC’s above. I am having trouble seeing the ethical dilemma in this situation. It seems that you were responsible for hiring the best candidate to serve the client. Whether you hired an individual from outside of your firm or not, the team would still be working on the project with that particular project/client and would not be bringing in new business.

    As proposed in the scenario presented we can look at the utility of your decision. Which action would serve the most net utility. It is extremely difficult to answer this with such limited information, however one could assume that the amount of business one individual could bring to the consulting firm while working on a project for a client is negligible. The most utility would come from continuing to do an excellent job with the current client and receive new business via word of mouth and reputation.

    We could also look at generalizability of the scenario. If every person tasked with hiring someone picked the employee based on increasing future business then possibly the best candidate for the job would not always pick. This would result in a reduced performance for the client and possibly due to poor performance lose business. This seems to be a bit of a stretch, but could be generalizable.

    As far as options, the rational choice is to pick the best person for the job.

  8. JD Sec B said:

    Dear Russell,
    I agree with the above posts that this is not ethical. It clearly does not pass the generalization or virtue tests as pointed out earlier, but I would agrue that it doesn’t pass the utilitarian test for the employees either. Obviously this does not pass the utilitarian test for the company because they want to know if they are spending money for accurate reasons and they also have a lot of motivators to want to understand if employees are irritated with the firm and their jobs. The employees on the other hand, would really ultimately like to see that the company understands that they should be compensated accordingly for being asked to commit to more time away from their families than normal. I think that if part of the employees’ irritation in this situation stems from the fact that their extra work and commitments were not being recognized and commended, then getting extra compensation without awknowledging that will not resolve the root of the problem. Yes, everyone wanted a few extra creature comforts for “free” but the larger issue is that they do not want to feel taken advantage of by his/her employer.

  9. esn sec c said:


    This dilemma emerges while consulting a charity health care organization. The recommendation for this organization would be to create a model to select patients depending on costs and revenues derived from their treatments. Obviously, this organization needs balance between revenues and expenses in order to survive and provide health care to the larger amount of people. However, the other side is that their potential patients will no longer be evaluated depending on their needs, but on the financial consequences of their admission.

    When I tried to apply the generalization test, I got into trouble. Does it pass the generalization because if all charity care organizations admit patients without evaluating their financial impact, all these organizations would be unsustainable? Or doesn’t it because if all the companies reject the same patients, we are creating a system for discrimination?

    I found easier to apply the utility and virtue tests, but I found contradicting results. In my opinion, the biggest utility is achieved when the profits of the organization are maximized, enabling it to expand and to take care of the larger amount of people. However, it fails the virtue test. Their main value is to provide health care to the most needed without reservations.

    So, what is your opinion?

  10. saurav sen said:

    I find Doug’s question about the ethics of war the most interesting. I believe it IS NOT ETHICAL.
    Most people tend to use a utilitarian justification for waging war: Something to the effect of “Lose some lives now to save many more in the future”. The basic problem with this sort of a utilitarian test is the inability of humans to a) predict the other “party’s” future course of actions and, primarily b)account to second, third, fourth order effects of the use of such force. The range of these effects or consequences is beyond human comprehension. Apart from the obvious damage – tangible and intangible – of lost lives, there are lasting political, economic, social, health effects that are impossible to be valued with any degree of accuracy. The point is that the calculation is not as simple as “lives lost now vs. lives lost later”. The net utility of the war is impossible to be determined. Unfortunately we can only measure these consequences against ASSUMPTIONS about the consequences of not waging a war. There is no alternate reality to compare with. What is determinable is the extent to which the consequences of these wars have been miscalculated. History has numerous examples of gross miscalculations.
    The most immediate source of error in the utilitarian argument is the (FALSE) value assigned to the different parties involved in the war. In general the value discrepancy seems to resemble this inequality Civilians at home > Our Soldiers > Their Civilians > Their Soldiers. Most developed legal systems measure that we all grow up in measure the value of life equally. Yet that standard is thrown out the window during war leading to subjective calculations about the relative value of human life (relative to the other party). The problem is there is no rule or protocol to measure this relative value. This is a stark violation of The Difference Principle described in the book. Their civilians or their soldiers will certainly be better off without a war.

  11. sB - C4 said:

    @S C

    As described by the professor in class with a similar example, hiring the most suitable candidate meets the Utilitarian and generalization test.

    Also in this situation it would have been best for you to inform your client that the candidate is from your company and it would be more appropriate if someone else could interview him.

  12. S C said:

    Ethical dilemma: This happened few years ago when I was working for a client. The client decided to expand the team to meet the increased workload and solicited resumes from vendors. The client selected few resumes and told me to conduct interviews to hire a specialized resource. My manager trusted me and gave this responsibility. One of the candidates was from the same consulting firm where I am employed. I felt this was an ethical dilemma for me. On one hand, I needed to hire the most effective resource for the client. On the other hand, I was expected to bring new business for my consulting firm. What are the options available for me?

  13. S said:

    Student A has been working part time for a small company X, which has just 4 employees (including the CEO) and over the time has been very productive and now an essential part of the company. Student A is happy in this position.

    Now for the full time internship, student A can remain in the small company X and help it grow – hence adding utility for the small company (including the CEO who`s career is at stake along with company X) and utility for its clients OR she/he can interview for bigger companies. Given the uncertainty associated with smaller start-ups and the risk involved does it make sense for A to……?
    1) …Interview for bigger companies in the hope to join them?
    2) …Accept an offer from a bigger company and quit company X?

    While answering this Dilemma consider that:
    1) A is risk averse
    2) A will not be able to work for X if she/he switches to a bigger company.
    3) Company X will suffer tremendously if student A quits.

  14. Ricky BurGESS said:

    @ Madifing

    This is an issue I have been thinking about a lot, because in the future I may want to do business in area that have high levels of corruptions. But as far as the tests:

    Generalization Test: So currently most people in your situation do pay the bribe. Essentially, it has become just another tax from the perspective of businesses. From that perspective this situations does seems generalizable. From another perspective, government with high corruption indexes tend not to last that long, so this state of affairs may not be generalizable.

    Utilitarian Test: Again this is not clear. From one perspective, putting money into the hands of a government official that could be used to lower consumer prices or reinvest in the business seems not to serve the best interests of the greater community. On the other hand, if your business is providing a service that is in need, or is better than existing competitors, paying the bribe so that people can have access to you product may serve the greatest good.

    Virtue Test: By not paying the bribe, one stands by the Ethical virtue of integrity, which is important for any business. On the other hand, I am not sure any important virtue can be claimed, besides perhaps utility for all.
    For me, the ethics of this decision hing in the permanence of this system, and in the companies ability to help the greatest good.

  15. Brendon philipps said:

    I have an ethical dilemma that one would face as a manager. It is very similar to the first case in this class; however, from the opposite end. Lets say you are a manager in a large corporate company and a new phase of promotions are on the table. One of your employees is obviously intelligent and a hard worker. This employee has generated quality work for your group for over a year and is a prime candidate for this promotion pool. You receive a list of candidates for final approval for this promotion (you are allowed to promote 10 people) and are making your final decision. A few months earlier, when speaking to this employee about his/her ambitions and plans for the future, the employee stated that he/she might be considering going to business school and getting an MBA but wasn’t sure. You are now making your promotion decision 2-3 months later and have a list of 15 people, 10 who have been with the company over a year (subject included) and 5 who are new hires who have been with the company for less than 4 months. Is it ethical to exclude this employee from the promotion wave and choose a new hire, solely due to your assumption that this person will leave for business school in the next few months? You have no idea about this person’s candidacy and probability of getting into business school, all you know is that he/she is a good worker, has produced quality work, and was thinking about pursuing an MBA in the future.

    The manager ends up not including this employee in the pool and chooses, in his/her place, a person who has been with the company for 3 months. The manager does not contact the employee in question and revisit the person’s future plans or expectations. If the employee stays with the company and does not go to business school, his/her utility will decrease considerable due to mostly financial implications. If the employee ends up going to business school, the manager’s utility increases due to not having to deal with the logistics of replacing that person with someone else, a process that takes about a week and 2500$ for the company.

    Given this scenario, is the manager’s decision to exclude this employee from the promotion pool unethical?

    • Ravinder said:

      One of the presupposition of this decision is that the manager knows about the personal life of the candidate to be promoted. However, the question is that does he know enough about the personal life of the other candidates being considered for promotion. It’s possible that other candidates are also looking to switch to another company immediately after the promotion. So applying the generalization test, the manager would have to know about the personal life of all his subordinates to make a consistent decision, which in itself is impossible and unacceptable. Since the reason for manager’s action is rather inconsistent, the argument fails the generalization test and hence manager’s decision is unethical. Also, if subordinates realize that manager’s decisions are based on what’s going on in their personal life, they would stop disclosing such information to the manager and hence the criterion on which the manager makes decision would not exist. On a separate note, the candidate might delay his decision to go to a business school if he gets the promotion.

      Applying the Utilitarian principle, I am assuming that the manager’s utility would not change whether he promotes the B-school candidate or another person. There are 2 options:
      1. The business school candidate is promoted 2. A person different from the business school candidate is promoted.

      In either case, we need to look at the utility of the organization. The utility of the organization is maximized when the right candidate is promoted (the business school person in our case) because it establishes company and its policies as being objective and consistent. Also, the company always has option to promote the next candidate in case this candidate does choose to leave the company.

      This is not to say that the manager should not take any preemptive action. My suggestion would be to have another person in mind for promotion in case this person chooses to go to B-School.

  16. Hiroki Takano said:

    When I worked for a bank in Japan, I faced an ethical problem. After the collapse of Lehman Brothers, one of my clients asked me to use their overdraft credit line ($500mil) because they could not raise funds through their normal methods of commercial paper and straight bonds. While the credit line itself had been contracted, my bank had no duty to actually lend it. However, as the account representative, I had the authority to use the credit line without approval of the Credit Division (CD) or my supervisors. The company knew this and began asking me repeatedly for the loan, saying that if I could not provide it, our relationship would worsen.
    I came to feel an ethical dilemma whether to report their request or not. If I did, my supervisors and CD would strongly oppose it to maintain the bank’s capital ratio, which was under pressure from the sharp increase in loan assets after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. If that happened, the company might collapse because there was no other loan source as the credit markets had virtually vanished. After consulting with senior officers, I concluded that honesty was the most important thing to maintain good, long-term relationships among all the parties, so I decided to report this application to my supervisors and the Credit Division. I thought using the overdraft without reporting it would look like a lie.
    As expected, my supervisors and CD intensely opposed the application. However, I persuaded them to change their mind out of consideration for our long-term relationship with the customer. In addition, I carried out an extensive review of the bank’s and my Division’s exposure risk and found that the loan would not heavily impact our capital ratio and finally my supervisors and CD approved my suggestion.
    It would have been easy to decline this transaction. I could have also approved it without notifying anyone, but that would have been ethically questionable.

  17. Daniel Todd said:

    Ethical Dilemma: Is it ok to take time during designated work hours to make a personal phone call or text message.

    Background – In an office with a policy that prevents any time being spent on personal affairs, specifically sending emails or surfing the internet, is it ethical to spend time receiving or making personal phone calls.

    Tests (please feel free to comment or challenge these suggestions):
    -Generalization test: Since the policy is designed to prevent time being spent on personal dealings, if everyone began using telephones to make personal calls a policy would be created to specifically prevent this action.

    -Utilitarian test: Using business hours to make a personal call would enable individuals to solve personal dilemmas, concerns or provide peace of mind to enable most employees to be a more productive and happy employee – thereby improving the culture of the organization and value to the employer and society. Conversely, if individuals could make personal calls, the overall productivity of the company could suffer from abusive use of this privilege and set a precedent which could negatively impact the entire organizational prosperity – costing profits or even jobs.

    -Virtue test: The hardest test in my opinion, which raises the question of deception. Is it deceptive to technically not use email or surf the internet for personal use, but still conduct personal business over the phone and violate the intent of the office policy – spending company time on personal issues.

  18. JOrge Lage said:

    As some of our classmates are moving to the banking industry, I wanted to start the following discussion. Is it ethical to pay banker bonuses, including at banks that were bail out by taxpayers?
    Utilitarian Test: Do banker bonuses increase the overall happiness in society? The main thing that makes the public angry is usually the size of the bonuses. Banks get a better utility by incentivizing bankers with large bonuses. Bankers get paid the bonuses and therefore bonuses contribute to overall wealth and increases happiness. How do we measure the unhappiness that large bonuses generate in society? Which one outweighs the other one?
    Virtue Test: Do large bonuses generate common good? Do they make bankers better at their job? Or does it make the bankers chose the investments that will benefit their bonuses only? I think that bad decisions taken by bankers contributed to the recession in 2008. Were these bad decisions due to large bonuses? I think greed can sometimes hurt your decision making process and I do think that it contributed to the 2008 banking industry collapse.

  19. Hiroki Takano said:

    @Hiroshi, I think that in this case the generalization test would fail and Hiroshi does not have to worry about his ethical problem. Actually, I also have a sponsorship from my company and when I signed an agreement with its HR department, I found that there has already been a judicial precedent in Japan. In the precedent such an agreement between an employer and its employee about his or her MBA sponsorship is regarded as a loan agreement with a special condition which will require the employee to pay back tuition to the company if he quits the sponsored company, or will exempt him from the loan (tuition), if he continues to work for the company over several years. On the other hand, in the case that there is no agreement between an employer and its employee who has also a sponsorship from the company and when the employer requires the employee to pay back tuition to the company because of his resignation, this company’s action will be illegal because the Japan’s Labor Standard Law Article 16 says that “a company must not require its employee to pay a penalty for breach of their labor agreement”. Therefore, I think that in this case there is no ethical problem and it’s much more important to think how he or she feels emotionally when they plan to take an internship and quit their sponsored companies.

  20. jrm sect C said:

    This is a dilemma that I’m sure many of you have faced (or at least something similar): Is it unethical to lie on school/company expense reimbursement forms?

    I once took a trip sponsored by a student organization to a foreign country. I was informed before traveling that I could be reimbursed for ATM receipts while in-country, since it would be nearly impossible to get receipts for everything while there. However, when I returned, the school informed me they could not reimburse for ATM receipts, even though the student organization (who raised the money for the trip) has no problem with it. I was owed about $300.

    A simple way around this would be to order something off Amazon the same price as the amount that is owed to me, print the receipt, cancel the order, and say that the item was purchased for the organization and submit a reimbursement. Again, the student organization would back me up and sign the reimbursement form, because they wanted to pay me my money back and they trusted me.

    Would that be unethical? I’m sure many of you have cheated on reimbursements (adding a few driving miles to make up for the dinner receipt you lost). How far is too far? Does the amount of money matter? What would happen if everyone started lying on reimbursement forms?

  21. Raisha Medley said:

    To evaluate the situation, we look at the three tests discussed in class to determine whether giving a bribe would have been ethical or not:

    Utilitarian test – By offering the government official a bribe, it would facilitate you to continue doing business. In general, if you refuse to offer the bribe, the government official would likely create extreme barriers for you to continue doing business. If business continues as normal, the positive benefit to society that your business provides (i.e. products or services) outweighs the effects of if your business were to stop operation (and therefore providing nothing to society). Therefore, this passes the utility test.

    Generalization Test – The reason one would pay a bribe is to help the individual get ahead of others. However, if everyone paid bribes to get ahead, everyone would eventually be back on the same level (when all other things are equal) and the advantage would diminish. When this happens, more than a bribe would be required to get ahead. Therefore, this does not pass the generalization test.

    Virtues test- this appears to be the most relevant test in this case. Based on the presentation of the ethical dilemma, it appears that giving (or accepting) a bribe is not something that makes you the kind of person that you want to be. You would probably not feel ‘whole’ any more if you agree to give the bribe and therefore the situation fails the virtues test.

    Based on these tests, the bribe would not have been ethical.

  22. mmoatame Sec c said:

    At Tepper, we have the habit of sharing interview questions with classmates who are scheduled to interview after us for various companies. Is this ethical?

    • BM Section b said:

      @ mmoatme

      The generalization test states that whatever action I take should be equivalent to actions taken by everyone who has the same reason to act the way that I do. It can be assumed that the reason interview questions are shared with one another this obvious one. Most likely, the person asking for the questions wants to do better on their interview. If everyone followed this logic, then everyone would ask each other for interview questions. This can be seen as equivalent to cheating, as if everyone received the questions prior to their interview and were able to prepare those questions accurately then everyone would be excellent at their interviews. Recruiters would then look to other sources to make their decisions on the candidates. It is true that the first person who interviewed would not have the advantage, but it can be assumed that the same person would not be first to interview in all cases and thus, in other instances would have the advantage as well. Thus adoption of this practice would prevent accomplishment of the original reason for the action, and fails corollary 1 of the generalization test.
      Given that this dilemma already fails the generalization test, it is obvious that the action is unethical. However, it is interesting to evaluate this dilemma under the utilitarian test as well. It is obvious that this action also fails the utilitarian test, as not informing other students of the interview questions actually creates more utility for the greater good. This is because a student may be chosen for a position based on an interview that they were able to prepare unfairly for thought they may not actually be the appropriate person for the job. For example, if the student is unprepared because the position was not important enough to them to prepare for it in the first place, it is likely that they won’t accept the role anyway, deterring acceptance of another student who may have been better for the role and actually want to work there. Thus under the utilitarian test, this action is also unethical.

    • Lauren Meehan said:

      In response to Mahtab’s question re: sharing interview questions

      Generalization Test: Fails
      If everyone were to pass along interview questions, every candidate for every interview would be equally prepared. If everyone was equally prepared for interviews, it stands to reason that companies would not be able to determine the best candidates for the job (assuming the interview holds all or the majority of the weight in hiring decisions). The companies would need to insert another component into the selection process which would defeat the purpose of having interviews in the first place. So, essentially, sharing interview questions does not allow candidates to fulfill their purpose in standing apart from peers by being prepared and confident so it fails the generalization test.

      Utilitarian Test: Fails
      I believe that from the company’s perspective, the utility is not increased when candidates are artificially prepared for interviews with the company. Companies use the interview process to screen for how people respond in unknown situations, how they problem solve, and what their past experience reveals about their future performance. If questions are shared prior to the interview, companies have a harder time distinguishing the best possible employees from ones who might not be a good fit for the company. The company’s decreased utility carries more importance than a single person’s gain from doing well in an interview.

      Virtue Test: Passes
      One of the main purposes of coming to Tepper is to prepare oneself to find an excellent job after completing the rigorous MBA program. Part of the MBA experience is networking with colleagues and alums to understand how to be better prepared to ace interviews. Essentially, sharing questions with one another is one form of business school education. Assuming that one virtue held by a business student is to learn as much as possible in order to put one’s best foot forward in the business setting, studying interview questions would succeed in acting according to virtue. It is less ethical, in fact, to be unprepared for an interview than it is to be prepared for one. Since interviewees do not sign a contract or make a commitment to the company with whom they are interviewing that they will not share the questions they are asked, it does not fail the virtue test to pass the questions along. An individual would need to decide for him or herself if they want to accept the questions, but overall, sharing interview questions passes the virtue test.

    • abhishek bishnoi said:

      @Mahtab -

      Without applying any ethics concepts that we have learned in the class, I can say that sharing your questions is clearly non-ethical. Assuming employers ask similar questions to everyone, it is hugely disadvantageous for people who interviewed without knowing these questions (these can be people who interviewed before or who don’t have the network to know about these questions ).

      Let’s apply the 3 rules to analyze this -

      1) Generalization test:

      I will share my questions with people I care about because I believe this would help them succeed. To generalize, we assume that everyone has similar reasons. If everyone starts sharing then all students will have the answers which will make employers suspicious and they may start giving different questions to each student.
      I was able to successfully help people by sharing my questions because everyone was not doing this and therefore generalizing this scenario makes it inconsistent.

      2) Utilitarian test:

      If we share interview questions, we defeat the very purpose of an interview which is to test the candidate’s skills. It also leads to interviews selecting the wrong candidates or possibly no candidates (because they can’t differentiate). If they select subpar candidates, it will lead to bad performance at work and may indirectly impact the company’s profits or the company’s willingness to come to your school in future.
      Hence the overall utility is decreased and the scenario fails the utilitarian test too.

      3) Virtue test:
      Companies come to your school for recruitment because they believe your school meets their employment needs. You have an obligation towards your school to make sure your school’s reputation remains intact. Sharing your interview questions with others is an act of duping these companies – which may impact their relationship with your school and also your school’s reputation with other employers in general.
      Hence, we see that there is no virtue in sharing your answers .

  23. mmoatame Sec c said:

    In response to Doug Hilling, I believe that the action is perfectly ethical. The professor has been given a certain budget to use at his/her discretion. Also, It passes the utilitarian test since all parties involve gain from the action. The professor gains from the students’ expertise and protects future allocations which will benefit all parties (professors and future assistants) involved. It passes the generalization test as it would be fine if every other professor acted in the same manner.

  24. Matt WhiTe said:


    I think that your decision to report the matter is the ethical choice. First, the contractor’s choice to falsify his expense reports and steal money from the project is clearly unethical. For one thing, it fails the generalization test as his reason for the action is not consistent with the assumption that everyone with that reason acts the same way. One of the reasons that the contractor is lying on his expense reports is that he feels he can get away with it. If all the contractors lied about their mileage and falsified expense reports, then audits would become much more frequent, and it would be impossible to get away with lying on the reports. Therefore, the contractor’s actions would be considered unethical.

    Concerning your decision to report the employee, I believe that is the ethical action. It passes the generalization test as you seem to be reporting the action in order to stop further stealing, which is consistent with the fact that everyone should report fraudulent expense reporting to stop stealing. This is in everyone’s best interest, since it makes the project more profitable and looks better for everyone involved. Following the same logic, your action would also pass the utilitarian test. While reporting the fraud creates less utility for the contractor in question, it would create more overall utility for everyone else involved in the project, management, and ultimately the owners or shareholders of the company. Finally, it seems fairly obvious that your decision to report the contractor passes the virtue test. The action demonstrates integrity and loyalty to the company, and it seems like you remained true to “who you are.” Seeing as it passed all three tests, I believe that you acted in an ethical manner.

  25. kck section c said:

    This is in response to Madi’s post about doing business in Africa. First of all, I find it hard to believe that Fortune 500 companies were “paying their dues.” If any of those companies are based in the states, there are strict laws against paying bribes which companies can be fined for.

    However – as for what you should do based on the ethics tests…

    Generalization Test- this doesn’t really pass this test. Basically, it sounds like every company does bribe the government, so it’s just the way of doing business in the country. If you can’t get by without bribing… However, if everyone stood up and stopped paying the fine, the whole country might be better off – letting business start up and run more freely.

    Utilitarian Test – Is society better off with businesses bribing to stay in business? It probably keeps the local economy from any upheaval, but also keeps businesses from doing business in that country. Society would be better off if you didn’t give into the bribes.

    In any case, it seems it would be easier not to pay a bribe in the country if you could stand up with others and do it together. Strength in numbers.

  26. Jenny Minott said:

    @Madifing Kaba

    While it may be the norm for public officials to bribe individuals seeking business opportunities within their country, particularly from international entrepreneurs, it does not mean that accepting the bribe is correct. On the one hand, government officials may use the bribe to develop the country’s infrastructure or allocate the bribe towards philanthropic good. On the other hand, the officials could retain the money for their own use. Complicating the dilemma is the fact that many other companies, including Fortune 500 countries, often engage in such bribes sending a message that it is OK to do so. If I were in your position, I would utilize the rational choice framework to evaluate the dilemma and determine if participating in such bribes was ethical.

    Deciding whether an action is ethical is a matter of rational choice. For a choice to be rational, it must be consistent with your goals, rationale, and integrity. To determine whether the choice is consistent with your rationale, you can use the generalization test. The generalization test states that everyone with the same reason(s) as you for the action acts in the same way. I assume that your reasons for providing a bribe would be: 1) to start your company and earn a profit; and 2) the fact that you most likely won’t get penalized for bribing public officials. To pass the generalization test, everyone with the same reasons for the action would accept the bribe, which would imply that bribery is OK. While many Fortune 500 companies may act in such a way, there are likely many businesses in the country that did not bribe officials or many individuals who sought to start a business but opted not to because they did not want to bribe public officials. Therefore, participating in a bribe fails the generalization test and is irrational.

    To examine whether bribery is consistent with your goals, we can use the utilitarian test. Utilitarianism seeks to achieve the greatest amount of good, and it is unethical to choose the option that generates the least utility. If your business was going to create great good for the local population, then one might argue that providing the bribe so that you could open the business and deliver the good would maximize utility. While this would achieve great good within the country, it would perpetuate a culture of corruption that could harm the greater population as well as those who interact with companies. It could also encourage other countries to engage in such corrupt practices and hinder commerce across the globe. There are more ethical ways—such as taxation of foreign businesses—that help distribute public goods equitably across a population.

    Finally, for a choice to be rational it must be consistent with your integrity. Humans’ purpose is to contribute virtues—such as those you possess: fairness and honesty—to the world. If you were to act in a way that jeopardized those virtues, then you would be acting irrationally.

    In conclusion, providing a bribe fails the generalization test, delivers less utility, and compromises your virtues. Therefore, it would be unethical to act in such a way. Rather than provide the bribe, I would seek alternative ways to establish the business without providing a bribe or consider establishing the business in another country where such corruption is not tolerated.

  27. sHUBHA BHEEMARAO said:

    I think it was completely ethical that you report it and also that you are obligated to do so. You would be unethical if you ignored it. Let us verify it using the standard tests:

    Generalization test: Fails
    If no verifier monitors it and takes action, then every employee may start filing extra. If everybody reports extra, somebody would eventually find out. There would be either be no expense reports related paybacks or companies would probably switch to a different model (eg: fixed additional payment) which would break the system.

    Utilitarian Test: Fails
    Everybody will not be better off as projects have fixed budgets. If a division is exceeding the benchmark expenses, then there is a high probability that all employees in that group being dissolved/ fired / project being outsourced to a different country to reduce expenses.

    Virtue Test: Fails
    You felt it was not the right thing to do. So to uphold your values and beliefs, you should report.


  28. Arpit gandhi said:

    Ethical Dilemma:

    On one of my projects at a consulting firm, I was in charge of verifying the travel expenses for a sub team of 10 members. I generally cleared the mileage expenses on trust as we all are mature individuals, everyone is expected to be ethical in a professional realm.

    One day, I offered a ride to one of the contractors because his car refused to start and he lived on my way home. The next day the expense reports were due and out of curiosity, I checked the contractor’s report. To my surprise, he had been charging in twice as many miles as his true commute each day. As he had joined just a month earlier, he had overly charged about $100 to the project so far. In a big firm usually, such expenses are not audited for every employee and at times even certain identified expenditure discrepancies are ignored and the concerned employees are not penalized.

    I pondered about the situation for the entire afternoon. I knew that $100 was not a big amount and reporting this incident would mean expulsion of the contractor. However it was also a question of honesty and ethics. I felt that his act was equivalent to stealing from the project’s budget and hence as the expense supervisor, I decided to report the matter.

    Do you think it was ethical to do so knowing that the contractor might be expelled?

    • MAdhurya Prakash said:

      In response to Ethical Dilemma posted by Arpit, the act being carried by contractor is not ethical. It fails generalization test as the contractor is probably cheating assuming that he will not get caught as his act will go unnoticed. But if everyone starts cheating, the company will start finding such errors and may even punish the offenders.

      Also, decision of not informing about the act because the contractor might expelled is also not rational. The assumption here is that nobody else other than you will find out about the act of contractor. But this is not generalizable and hence not rational.

      So the act of cheating by contractor must be reported.

    • skarim said:


      Arpit, thank you for posting about this dilemma. As a consultant in my previous career, I was faced with these sort of situations many times and now that I think back upon it, I may not have made the most ethical decisions each and every time.

      In your particular case, about the contractor charging too much money for daily mileage, let’s evaluate certain tests to determine whether your act of reporting him knowing the consequences was ethical.

      First, the generalization test: The action of charging extra mileage does NOT pass this test. If everyone in the company decided to take part in this activity, it would be caught on to very quickly and a new method or punishment for such actions would be implemented.

      Next, the utilitarian test: The action does in fact benefit the person who is charging extra mileage to the project. However, by doing so, they are reducing the amount of money left available to the project that is most likely going to benefit a majority of people including the offender themselves. Therefore, this action fails the utilitarian test.

      Arpit, since the action of you reporting this individual will stop the aforementioned from occurring again, I believe that your actions are indeed ethical. Also, as the expense manager of the project, it is you duty to do so.

      Thank you for sharing,

    • Adam Scharnke said:


      Arpit faced a challenging situation that many of us have probably encountered in the past- how to handle exaggerated expenses. As he mentioned, the amount of $100 is not significant relative to the company however the amount does not justify the action. Without reviewing the ethics of the situation, in similar instances I have acted both ways so I cannot use my experience as a guide. At my previous employer we were given a meal stipend while traveling however our meals would often be provided yet people would still claim the stipend as a “bonus”. In other instances, I saw contractors taking parts and materials from my facility’s parts room without purchasing them and I would report them. Is there a double standard? Possibly. More importantly, let’s explore the three conditions that any rational decision must satisfy.

      Generalization Test: I believe the action of overcharging for traveling expenses does not pass the generalization test. The reason someone would overcharge is that they feel that are entitled to more therefore they “take” what they feel they are entitled to. If everyone (individuals or firms) felt that they can take anything they feel entitled to, society would not function. If this act were ethical, then the company could simply pay the contractor less because they didn’t feel the contractor deserved the money or would notice the discrepancy. By knowingly misleading the company and misreporting the travel expenses, the act does not pass the generalization test and is therefore unethical so Arpit’s decision to report the contractor was appropriate.

      Utilitarian Test: In my view, the contractor skimming some money from the company does not maximize the net sum of utility across all persons therefore the act is unethical. In the reading it says that “An action is ethical only if no other available action creates greater total net utility” which I do not think is the case in this scenario. At the best, the contractor’s action is neutral in the sense that the amount of utility the contractor gains may equal the amount of utility the company and owners or shareholders lose. I cannot foresee a situation in the case given by Arpit where the contractor’s actions somehow would increase the overall net utility therefore the action is unethical and Arpit was correct for reporting it.

      Virtue Test: Without knowing all of the details about the situation, it appears the contractor was falsely reporting the expenses simply for their own monetary gain. I have no reason to believe that there were any noble or justifiable reasons for why the contractor would be stealing and even if there were I am not sure that would matter. In this case, however, the action of the contractor does not seem to follow the cultural norms of loyalty, trust or integrity which are all fundamental within westernized business culture. Because the contractor’s decision violates basic social norms and morals it is unethical and Arpit was justified in reporting the contractor’s actions.

      Based on the above analysis of the three conditions for rational choice, it appears that by every measure the contractor was acting unethically and Arpit was acting appropriately by reporting the contractor to management

  29. Naoyuki Hattori said:

    Four years ago, as an officer in the corporate lending division of a bank, I was responsible for a pool of customers. One of my clients suffered notable financial losses because of its excessive production capacity. I had to make a recommendation about whether our bank should recover money from this particular company or continue to provide it with financial support. From spending time with this client, I had a deep understanding of all aspects of their business, not just their financial situation. I believed in their product, corporate culture, and centuries of history. Therefore, I decided that our bank should continue to loan them money. When I presented my recommendation to management, there was strong opposition. Management argued that the quantitative data, which included two years of consecutive losses, did not support my recommendation. I was instructed to change my focus from lending the customer money to recovering the $10 million they owed us.
    I knew that if we retracted our financial support, the company would likely go bankrupt. On the other hand, if our bank did not take action to recover money now and the company went bankrupt in the future, we would recover a very small portion of our money, if any. Despite these dilemmas and the pressure placed on me by branch management, I refused to change my position. I argued that it was a risk worth taking and that we had a responsibility to provide assistance to such an important client. However, I thought that it would be unethical for me to proceed with my recommendation without the support of our bank’s management. Therefore, I had to develop a plan of action which was aligned with my ethics. So, I developed a corporate improvement strategy for the client, and then used it to convince management to support my recommendation.

  30. Paul Jung said:

    General “Dilemma”

    Given the fact that we may be dealing with ethics across cultures and nations (aka doing business internationally), by which ethical standards do we hold ourselves accountable to?

    i.e. – If your action in your country of residence would be considered unethical yet that same action would be considered ethical in another country you intend on doing business with… how does one judge one’s actions?

  31. hiroshi higuchi said:

    I am a corporate sponsored student from Japan. My sponsor covers my tuition and I am obligated to work for the sponsor at least 5 years. Before leaving Japan, I met my HR manager and had to sign an informal contract that states my obligation last for 5 years unless I pay back all the cost to study here in the US.

    I believe the contract is based on mutual agreement between the sponsor and myself, and actually allows me to quit the current job as long as I can pay back all the cost.

    Since we have a mutual agreement, is it still ethical for me to search for a new job?

    I feel that the generalization test fails because if everyone decides to seek for a new job, then companies will stop sponsoring their employees to study abroad, and therefore I will not have opportunities to study abroad with sponsorship.

    However, I also wonder that the contract I signed with my HR manager actually make my action ethical because it is now similar to one of Jennifer’s cases, which she already had a mutual agreement before she finds a new job in NY.

    • Russell Lin said:

      Hiroshi, I believe they key to this question is identifying the reasons which the generalization test is to be applied to, while maintaining a broad enough scope.

      If employees choose to leave their sponsored companies upon completion of their education, companies would not bother with the trouble of financing their employees’ education in the first place. After all, sponsorship is a form of investment, and if companies cannot reap the benefit in the future, they have no incentive to spend in the first place. Thus, this fails the generalization test.

      However, we can narrow the scope and identify a reason for this action. Let’s say employees leave their sponsored companies because of better opportunities, what would the companies do then? Some may argue that this will yield the same result, but what if they are losing employees to their competitors? In order to retain high potential employees, companies may sweeten the post-graduate compensation and/or position so that they are not perceived as inferior in the industry. They will definitely continue their sponsorship programs as they represent enterprises’ stability, profitability, and commitment to employee development. So I believe in a competitive landscape where qualified resources are scarce, it is ethical, and expected by companies, that sponsored employees seek for new jobs during their study.

      We can even further narrow the scope and argue that employees leave their sponsored companies because of they are no longer interested in the opportunities that await them upon graduation, and better opportunities came up. This should not deter companies from sponsoring future employees, but may encourage them to implement a more rigorous screening process for their sponsorship programs.

      • Yuan yao said:

        @Russell Lin,
        Although I agree with your conclusion, I think your generalization test was not correct. The sponsorship contract is a mutual understanding, and both of Hiroshi and his employer knew its a promise for the MBA education, not an investment.
        My generalization test is if Hiroshi chose to join a new firm after graduation, since this potential result have been already considered by his employer and incorporated in the contract, it will not deter the employer to continue its sponsorship to future employees.
        Unlike Jennifer’s case, his employer has no chance to know that she has a potential offer from New York. And they didn’t incorporate this situation into the contract. If Jennifer chose to quit, her action will frustrate the employer and become more conservative to recruit new graduates.
        Hiroshi’s decision to leave is more like an ordinary job switch. No ethics should be considered here.

    • Naoyuki Hattori said:

      I agree with Russel. Generalization would not work for the case and companies also should make effort to prevent employees who studied abroad from leaving the company.

      For sponsorship of MBA study abroad, I think most of companies require mutual agreement with employees to return the cost of studying if employee quits the job within few years after MBA study. I, however, do not think this is a fundamental solution because of freedom of occupation. Most effective way to prevent such a career switch would be to provide attractive jobs commensurate with their abilities after MBA studies. Instead, right after the getting back to the company, he should be required to make commitment to management about what he got on his MBA study and how to utilize it for the company. The results of the work of the next few years after MBA study should be strictly monitored by human resources division.

      For the admission process, the company should strictly choose the sponsored person from the perspective of “someone whom the company wants to let go” rather than “someone who wants to go”. Before sending, company needs to focus their strategic area where MBA candidates are expected to enhance and make sure mutual understanding. For those who study abroad, if their mission is clear, the effect of study would be much greater.

    • zhuoqi li said:

      Hiroshi, I don’t think it’s unethical to kick of your previous company if you find a new job. First, it did pass the generalization test. As it’s an open contract, you don’t have the obligation to return to your previous company. If students who signed such contract is seeking job in the market, I guess that’s what the current fact is, it would not prevent companies from stopping supporting their employees because not all those students are able to find a new job providing better packages. And it also passes the utilitarian test. With higher education and more sophisticated technology, a graduate student should be placed in a more senior level to take the most advantage of his ability. It’s obvious that a new company is more likely to provide that condition. By doing that, the whole society would benefit from it and it really increases the overall utility. Moreover, it passes the virtue test too. Family is a core issue in Asian culture, especially in Japan where husbands are likely to be the once financial resource, as in your case I think. It’s no excuse to reject pursuing better life for your family. It’s the most important and life-long obligation to you.

  32. Margaret Hodes said:

    In response to Russel Lin’s post:

    The choice here was to deceptively ask for a higher per diem than was necessary. This choice fails the Utilitarian Test. To review, business travelers receive a per diem only for the purpose of covering daily costs of food in a particular city. The only reason per diems ever change between countries would be because there is an understanding that that country has a particularly high or low cost of food. Workers receive their salaries and bonuses in order to cover the value of the work they provide, and generally they will demand a higher salary or bonus in order to compensate for less than desirable work. Thus, demanding a higher per diem because the travelers resented the work assignment would undermine the whole per diem practice. If everyone did that, pretty soon, per diem would become interchangeable with salary demands, and the whole idea that a per diem is only supposed to cover food costs would fall apart. One can also look at the fact that there is a standard per diem across US and Canada to expressly avoid any subjectivity or manipulation that it may be used for anything other than food costs.

    This choice also fails the Utilitarian Test. While it creates some utility, helping the business travelers feel better about the fact that they got stuck with an undesirable assignment, it bleeds extra money from the company without any long term positive changes in salary structure. A better action would be for the employees to demand a higher bonus or better future work assignments to compensate for the current work assignment. This way, the company acknowledges how undesirable the assignment is and compensates its employees in an appropriate manner. It also maximizes utility for future employees who may also be stuck in undesirable assignments, because the company will have recognized that they need some sort of additional salary compensation to make up for it. If compensation is hidden this one time as a per diem, the company will not make any positive changes.

    Finally, this action fails the Virtue test. Russell is a very honorable and honest person, and so the action is not consistent with who he is at his core. More generally, the actions of the travelers goes against the virtue ethics of honor and loyalty. The travelers are essentially screwing over their fellow coworkers across the company by deceptively asking for more money than they deserve for food, showing a lack of honor, and thus they are being disloyal to their company and to their colleagues.

    If this action is considered under a Veil of Ignorance, it becomes obvious that being disgruntled about a job assignment is not a justifiable reason to lie and deceptively get money from one’s employer. The current per diem and compensation systems were set up to achieve separate purposes, and in order to help those systems be as effective as possible, those individuals making the choice must not deceive one system to make up for for a lack of compensation in another.

  33. Tsz Shing said:

    Are financial bailouts ethical?

    Let’s run by the standard tests -

    - Generalization test
    Main reasons for bailout: to improve performance of struggling firms and prevent widespread economic collapse.
    1). If everyone gets a bailout, performance (i.e., not crashing) will become meaningness, and bailout loses its purpose as it is meant to be a last resort, not a frequent event. [Moral hazzard]
    2). Not all firms are equal. It is hard to determine who deserves a bailout and who doesn’t, so it’s unclear when AIG is bailed out, whom do we compare it to when considering generalization test (investment banks? commercial banks? other insurers? not all financial firms are created equal) [Why were Bear Stearns and Lehman allowed to fail? Why was Goldman Sachs favored?]

    - Utilitarian test?
    This is a heated debate, at least from an economic perspective. Society will definitely be better off in the short run, but many argues that we are worse off in the long run. Depending on how much we discount utility in the future, you may get different answers. So this is unclear.

    - Virtue test?
    One of the main reasons the Federal Reserve exists is to act as the lender of last resort, so it’s doing what it was designed to do. (But one may question should it exist in the first place?)

    - Rawlsian test? Will the worst firm be better off?
    Yes, but this is not random – the worst firm retained its positions because of poor choices, so in a sense it may deserve to be punished.


    • ST Sec C said:

      Similar thoughts pop up my mind a while ago when I was working on the workout loans for individual borrowers. Based on the borrower’s delinquent payment history, updated financial, and some other factors, I need to determine which borrower we, as the bank, agree to write off their debts or foreclose their property. If the bank agree to just simply charge off a portion of their debt, their monthly payments (or sometimes even the interest rate) will drop significantly comparing to borrowers who work so hard to ensure that they can pay their bills on time.

      Is this a fair situation? Does this pass the generalization test? Personally, I felt the loan workout deal is unfair for borrowers who strive to make the payment on time or even for people who have a greater sense of their own financial responsibility and understand that they shouldn’t over leveraging their equity.

    • Ocean Dalton said:

      There is another way to view bailouts: ultimately, as a way to protect the economy and, therefore, our capitalist system.

      Capitalism depends on the best among us to rising to the top and pushing us forward. Banks exist in our capitalist system to efficiently allocate capital to the most productive actors.

      A bailout in this circumstance would decidedly fail the generalization test. Banks needing bailouts would have invested in unproductive actors that were unable to repay the original investment, let alone expand the economy. Consistent bailouts for all banks would undermine capitalism by removing the importance of efficiently allocating capital. Capital would then be allocated to good and bad investments indiscriminately, without regard to risk and return. Based on the number of new ventures that are started and then fizzle out, it is likely that such a practice would eventually crowd out the most productive actors and result in a failed system.

      The utilitarian test is even more damning for bank bailouts. Capitalism relies on creative destruction to reallocate resources to where they are needed most. Bailouts prevent that creative destruction and prop up firms that were adding so little utility that they were on the brink of failure. Additionally, individuals with the most wealth and thus the smallest marginal utility per dollar, stay in their positions of power. Meanwhile, the young and ambitious are crowded out for the sake of stability in the best case and cronyism in the worst. Elder generations prolong their time in power and put off the younger generations’ rise. As the circle of life is skewed evermore towards modern day Gilgameshes past their prime, the next generations frustratingly bide their time, drastically reducing lifetime utility.

      The virtue test is more nebulous. Do bailouts protect the economy and create stability? Experts almost unanimously point out the risk of moral hazard. If those experts are correct, we are simply sacrificing stability today for instability in the future.

      Bailouts certainly fail the Rawlsian test. The largest firms that would cause the most damage to the system receive the most assistance. The worst off firms–poised to expand in the vacuum that should be left when larger firms fail–are left watching as noncompetitive forces pick the winners and the losers. Taking the test to the extreme, the worst among us are unemployed, unbanked and certainly without stock market wealth. A bailout to them is inconsequential. Except, maybe, to reaffirm the belief that the deck is stacked against them.

      Ayn Rand would leave a “who is John Galt.” Young Libyans would have an emphatically more aggressive response.

  34. MAdifing Kaba said:

    A couple of years ago, I decided to create a small business in Africa. I knew that it would be challenging since the continent has a reputation of corruption, but I have strong moral values and I didn’t think it would be an issue. In fact, I planned on leading by example and hoped to instigate a good sense of ethic around me.
    However, a few months after the beginning of the business activities, my partner and I received a call to meet with a member of the government. Unfortunately, the meeting had only one purpose: we were asked for a bribe.
    In that country specifically, it seemed that there was no way around it and every companies, including the Fortune 500′s, were paying their “dues”.
    What would you have done if you were at my place?

    • Arie Dekker, SectionA said:

      Great question, Madi. I’ll run through the three tests to see if they provide any guidance.

      Generalization: The action (bribing authorities) is clearly generalizable, as it’s common knowledge that businesses that don’t comply with these unwritten rules simply don’t operate in that area. What’s interesting to consider, though, is whether not agreeing to a bribe is generalizable. If no companies paid off the government, then presumably no companies would operate there. However, at some point, you’d have to assume that after a sudden string of embarrassing rejections, the government officials would have to relent and allow non-paying businesses to operate without interference. Thus, no agreeing to a bribe would only accomplish your purpose if absolutely everyone pursued the same action under the same conditions. If anyone jumped ship and paid off the authorities, then they’d get the upper hand at the expense of everyone else. Offering a bribe therefore passes the generalization test in area where that is the standard operating procedure.

      Utilitarian: I’m going to assume that your company performs a worthwhile service that is valued by customers, without creating overwhelmingly harmful externalities. With a bribe, everyone is a winner. The authorities are happy. The company gets to function (for s small price). And the customers are served. Bribes pass the utilitarian test with flying colors.

      Virtue: Is it virtuous to offer a bribe? No, it doesn’t seem very virtuous to secretly buy off powerful people in return for unfair advantages for your company. But you’re not offering them a bribe. You’re being strong-armed into paying a “tax” to avoid unfair scrutiny and interference by the authorities. The virtuous business leader would probably recognize the necessity of compliance in that situation, while also recognizing that they will likely have many more opportunities to influence the corrupt culture for the better by operating within the culture than by disqualifying to operate at all. It passes the virtue test in my estimation.

      It’s no wonder bribes are so common in many places. It’s incredibly difficult to counteract a culture that operates this way because it would require the collusion of companies, which itself is illegal and therefore unethical. These changes must happen gradually.

    • Umar Chaudhary said:

      Madifing, great question.

      Before we can look into whether or not this is unethical, I think there is a clear question to ask: Is it illegal? If, in this specific country, it is illegal to ask for and pay for bribes, then I would say it is also unethical to pay this bribe. Therefore, I personally would not do it because it is unethical and illegal.

      However, there are many countries which rely upon corruption in order to get things done. Therefore, if it is legal to ask for and pay for bribes, then we can try to apply the generalization test.

      If everyone trying to start a business paid out a bribe to the government, what would happen? The government would collect lots of money. In this sense, this bribe could be viewed as a form of a tax. In essence, paying the government a fee in order to conduct business – this happens in almost every country. This scenario would pass the test and would be ethical.

      Where I get confused is the Utilitarian test. Paying this bribe creates utility for all parties. The government gets the money and you get to run you business. However, by “just” running your business, are you happy? Or are you unhappy having to pay the bribe? I’m curious if there are any other thoughts on this.

      • Matthew Flores said:

        Madi great question. Umar and Arie terrific response. I’m going to take a devil’s advocate approach here in terms of applying some of the principals.

        Generalization: The action of bribing is clearly not generalizable per se. In Western culture if the government or powers that be applied mafia style enforcement raise money and keep order, that would be clearly not generalizable. However, Madi was conducting business in a country where a corrupt government is the natural order of that specific country. In that specific country you can view bribing no different than paying a tax. Although a corrupt government is bad, it is better than the alternatives, which happen to be either no government or the mafia. Trying to guess what would happen if no one ever paid the bribe is risky territory.

        Furthermore, the corruption of the government is less of a function of everyday citizens paying bribes, and more to do with the lack of effort of people with resources to stop the corruption. These groups include other powerful factions within the country, the UN, and other foreign powers. In other words generalizing paying bribes may or may not change the overall utility of the country. If this government falls, they will fall to either a mafia, no government, or a different corrupt regime.

        Finally, you have to look at the end result. Africa in general is in need of nonprofit/charitable organizations such as Madi’s. If no one ever paid the bribe, no one would ever be able to start charitable organizations within the current regime. As a result, the region would be worse off. I was just watching a CNN special exposing the gold trade in the Congo. Without paying bribes to the mafia, they would have never gotten access and been able to tell the truth of the region.

        In sum, if you view the bribe as a tax, this act would have been generalizable within that part of the world. That said it is a very dicey issue that is contingent on a plethora of complex assumptions. PS. Don’t roundhouse kick me if I’m wrong.

    • Shaun ali said:

      Hi Madi,

      This is a really interesting question, and I know a number of great responses have been posted, but I would just like to weigh in myself as well.

      I agree that paying the bribe is generalizable. If other companies wanting a contract also offered bribes, bribes would act as bids and the contract would be awarded to the highest bidder. The contract would not disappear, everyone with the same reasons would act consistently to win the contract, and general adoption would not undermine the practice of winning contracts.

      However, I disagree with some posters on the utilitarian argument. The offerer and receiver certainly benefit, but I don’t think bribes maximize utility. I would suggest that they perpetuate a status quo, as only those that could afford offering the bribe would win the contract. Everyone else who may be just as or more qualified will be shut out of the transaction, making far more people worse off. From a Rawlsian perspective, if only those already well off are benefiting, the the utilitarian test does not pass.

      The virtue test is interesting to me, and I think this is where the difference is made in decisions. Although western companies have been involved in their fair share of bribery scandals, it seems they are more image conscious about the issue than others. Some even go so far as to sign “no bribery pledges” before entering foreign markets. I am not saying that western companies are more virtuous than other companies, but simply that the definition of virtue is different in different societies, and this is reflected in varying business practices. As someone caught between the two, I can see how this conflict could be amplified for you.

  35. Russell Lin said:

    Couple years ago, I was part of project team that travelled to a client’s facility in South Korea. It was the company’s first time in Korea, so our accounting department didn’t have a historic per diem value for that particular city. So without a good idea what the cost of living is like, accounting ended up using the per diem value we used for major US/Canada cities. Now a few of my coworkers were already unhappy about the travel arrangement, since on this project, we were asked to stay abroad longer than normal between trips home. Some of us felt we deserved to be treated better, so they pushed accounting to increase the per diem, claiming that the cost of living in that particular city is higher than what is back home.

    To verify the situation, accounting department sent out emails to everyone on the project team, they wanted to get an idea whether or not the cost of living in South Korea really justifies a higher per diem. We were asked to list out cost of food, drinks, and groceries, basically everything we have been paying out of our own pocket since we got there. Although it was never verbally agreed upon, there was an a kind of… unspoken mutual understanding, that we are to work as a group and fight for what some of us believe we are entitled to.

    Since the travel arrangement for the project was in fact not typical of what we were used to, I understand why some of us feel the need of some sort of recognition. After all, there were the few of us that showed initiative and volunteered to accommodate this client and the situation, whereas some members of the team were just asked to participate without much say. However, I didn’t agree that manipulating the per diem and having a few extra drinks everyday on the company is the right way of doing it. I struggled with the predicament for a couple of days, and eventually decided what I should do. I wil try apply what we have learnt in class to come up with some sound arguments. But first, what do you think?

    • Chengjia Huang said:

      I think lying to the accounting department is not ethical since it just can not pass the generalization test. If everyone just lie to the accounting department, the traveling expense will just keep increasing until accounting department find out (or they can just find that out by referring to other sources), then they will never ask the opinion of the employees again, making such behavior fail the generalization test.

    • nikhil Jain said:

      I agree with Chengjia! The generalization test cannot be applied in this case. On another note, while the whole team may have gained short term benefit by “lying” to the accounting team, eventually the repercussions would be bad when the accounting team would come to know about the lies the team spoke about.

      If the team was suffering and making sacrifices there were other ways of gaining recognition like awards as well as communicating with the manager for higher bonuses and promotions. However, manipulating the per-diem for short term gain is unethical.

    • Adeline dougherty said:

      Dear Russell,
      If you apply the Rawlsian test and think of the hypothetical situation where you do not know whether you are the employer or employee you will see that the ethical path would be to communicate your expenses truthfully to the accounting department and allow them to decide the per-diem according to the company’s policies.

      The amount of time that you and your colleagues worked, or the quality of your time and your perception of your treatment is irrelevant in deciding whether your decision is ethical or not. I notice that often people will try to justify their actions by declaring an ‘unjust world’ and that their unethical actions are OK because they offset other unfair actions. This is not generalizable because if everybody that believed they had encountered an unfair situation corrected it there would be a never-ending cycle of events (which is indeed what we see sometimes, especially in high-tension regions).

      • S.Y. said:

        I believe the situation here is not only failed to the generalization test but also failed to the virtue ethics. The people from accounting department actually based on trust to ask everyone on the project team whether the cost of living in South Korea is higher per diem. However, everyone lie to the accounting department basing on the emotional unsatisfied to the travel arrangement. It breaks the mutual trust between the project team and the accounting department since the trust applies to rational human beings that have built a relationship with individuals. Thus, according to previous three replies, I agree with the situation failed to the generalization test. Also, I believe it did not pass the virtue ethic since the virtue ethics should be clarified by the generalization principle.

  36. ST Sec C said:

    I actually have a question:

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

    • xiaoer he said:

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

    • dw sect a said:

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

    • Adeline dougherty said:

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

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

    • Vikrum Ingle sec a said:

      ST – Great question!

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

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

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

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

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

    • jehan lalkaka said:

      @ST Sec C

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

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

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

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

  37. MS sec c said:

    Is it ethical to steal office supplies for your personal use?

    • T Sec A said:

      My reply to MS sec c :
      Stealing office supplies

      I was just starting out in the workplace. I worked long hours for an unappreciative employer. I got screwed out of a bonus. Just being there made me angry, some days. I thought taking something back would make me feel better, less resentful. I even rationalized I’d do my job better if I felt better compensated. So I took a roll of tape. And some pens and Post-Its, though I told myself I needed those to do my assignments at home. But after a while, that attitude of entitlement began to grow , until I was feeling it was fine to do such things.

      I knew it was wrong. Really, really wrong. And I wanted to make amends. In the end I took my moral code in my own hands and just put in extra hours unpaid until I felt I’d worked off my debt, but I never told my employer what I’d done.

      Please provide your suggestions.

    • JS - Section a said:

      Running this dilemma through the three tests, I would conclude that it is unethical to steal office supplies for one’s personal use.

      First, this action does not generalize–if everyone stole office supplies for their own use because it was easy to do, office managers would start monitoring supplies and supplies would become harder to steal. Or, if everyone stole office supplies because they were free, office managers might begin charging for the supplies.

      Secondly, stealing office supplies doesn’t maximize overall utility. Though it may provide utility to the thief in the form a free stapler or printer cartridge, it decreases company profits and may have the long-term effect of leading to cutbacks, whether these are salary cutbacks, personnel cutbacks, or otherwise.

      Finally, it does not pass the virtue test because the thief is not acting with integrity. To use the definition of integrity, which is to become whole, taking company supplies for personal use does not make one whole. Rather, it implies that one is acting without honesty.

      I had an interesting situation in one of my past jobs which is parallel to this one. Though I was in a junior position which did not pay a high salary, I was given a company credit card. Everyone else on my level was also given a company credit card. Quite frequently, my colleagues went out to lunch without a specific business purpose and charged it to their company cards. I always felt uncomfortable when they did this because I thought the expense was gratuitous. I found a way to ask my boss about it without revealing the fact that my coworkers were charging their lunches. His response validated their actions–he said that because we did not make a lot of money, we should feel free to charge things within reason. Knowing the precarious financial position of the company, I felt further conflicted about his input. It seemed very wrong to me to use the company credit cards for expenses that weren’t directly related to work, even for lunch among co-workers. Can anyone comment?

      • Neil Mehta said:

        My reply to JS – Section a:

        As you point out in your own dilemma, stealing office supplies and taking advantage of corporate credit cards are very similar activities. Both involve abuse and misuse of company resources. To complicate matters, in your situation the company was in a tough financial situation.

        If we apply the generalization test, such that everyone at the company starts charging the company credit card for non-work related activities, office managers might change the policy. For example, every charge must be approved by a controller or spending limits might be imposed. This means that the activity of your coworkers fails the generalization test.

        Your coworkers might argue that their utility increases when they do not have to pay for their own meals. However, if the spending is rampant and substantial enough, this behavior might contribute to the closing of the company. The decrease in utility from losing a job is far greater than the increase of a free meal. This means that their behavior fails the utility test as well.

        In a previous job I faced a similar situation. My office would provide dinner for any employee working late (past 7pm). Every morning the office manager would take a quick survey of how many people were planning to work late and order food accordingly. The assumption was that if you are working til 7pm, you have already worked at least an 8 hour day (and been compensated for that time). My question is, would it be ethical to simply work til 7pm, have a free dinner, then stop working? How many “extra” hours would you need to work before you could ethically have a free dinner?

  38. Seong Bae said:

    After college, I went to work at an IT consulting company as a technical consultant/software developer. We did custom development for large corporations, writing software based on the customer’s requirements. In addition, our company also sold proprietary portal software to these customers. I was working on a project where we made updates to the portal software that we already sold to a customer and installed in their environment. Also, I had access to their environment and could make updates whenever needed. One day, while working on a new feature for the customer, I found a bug that had been there ever since the software was first installed. Even though the customer wasn’t aware of the bug, I knew that this was a serious bug that may cause a significant impact in the future. I thought about going into the customer’s environment and making changes myself without notifying the customer. In doing so, the credibility and reputation of our software would remain high. On the other hand, if I tell the customer about the bug and how it’s been in their system for past 2 years, they would lose confidence in our software and, furthermore, in our company. I didn’t know what to do. To make the situation more complex, the portal software was written by the management and they were very proud of it. If I tell them about the bug and how it’s been there ever since the software was written 7-8 years ago at the time, and that this bug is present in other customers’ portal as well, it would really embarrass the management in front of fresh consultants like myself. My dilemma was that I could just keep quiet and fix the bug without letting anyone know. At the end, I decided to tell my manager and just follow what he would say. He was honest and told me the fix the bug and notify the customer and that’s what I did.

    • zhengzhen bian said:

      My analysis on Seong’s dilemma:

      There’s absolutely no issue in how he handled the situation, which was to report the problem and notify the relevant people. But what if he fixed the bug without letting anyone know and achieved the seemingly optimal situation? Is it still ethical?

      It looks to me that it certainly passes the utilitarian test because the client is still confident, the management still feel good about themselves, the system is safer, and Seong wouldn’t worry about being put in any potential disadvantages for exposing this embarrasing long-hidden bug. Seems like a win for all.

      If Seong decides to secretly fix the bug and keep the issue to himself, the purposes behind his action would be two-folded: 1) to protect the company’s business from damaged client trust, and 2) to protect himself from getting into trouble for telling the truth. So if everyone in the same situation chooses to do the same, will Seong still achieve his purposes? I think it is generalizable, as long as the client will never find out.

      But I don’t think it would pass the virtue test because it is an employee’s responsibilty to report such issues to his/her supervisor. How to deal with the bug is a business decision that should not be made by Seong alone. No matter what’s the purpose of not telling the truth, even if it’s for the good, it would be against the employee’s business ethics to withhold information.

    • Shih-wei said:

      By applying the generalization test, I would say that to prevent more severe negative impact on company’s image by acting without the client’s permission, the technical consultant should not delete the bug at his own will even though he/she had the access to the environment. I would say that if Seong went ahead and deleted the bug, it would be unethical according the generalization test.

      If we apply the utilitarian test, assuming that the odds of being caught by the client is 80%, the total net utility will not be increased if someone went ahead to delete the bug in the system. If the consultant gets away from being caught (with a probability of 20%) after getting rid of the bug by himself/herself, the company image will not be harmed. However, if the consultant deleted the bug without getting the permission from the client, there will be 80% that this action will not only harm the company’s image badly (even more severely comparing to admitting the mistake, the bug, in this case), but also lose the client’s trust for future business. Hence, getting the permission in advance will be ethical.

      Taking into account the virtue test (the integrity test), since the company has established business relationship with the client for three years, it is unethical to deceive the client and watch the client running into potential system failure without warning it.
      Seong decided to tell his manager who told him the fix the bug and notified the customer. This behavior and action is ethical.

    • kerem a said:

      I believe that Seong’s dilemma is a typical dilemma that most of the software developers face during their professional careers. As a computer engineer myself, I found myself in similar situations. His manager acted in an ethical way by telling him to notify the customer. However, this is not always the case. If I was in Seong’s shoes, then I would probably follow what my boss would say regardless of the fact that the action is ethical or not. Nevertheless, let me take our Ethics professor’s perspective and apply the three tests to this dilemma.

      If the utilitarian test is applied, it is essential whether the action goes unnoticed or not. The reputation of the company may be compromised if the customers recognize that the bug was fixed without their knowledge, thus the utility of the company will decrease. Customer’s utility will increase since the bug that may potentially cause system failures is resolved. On the other hand, fixing the bug will benefit the company’s image and credibility, hence its utility, if the customer does not observe Seong solving the issue. Customer will not confront any possible inconveniences in the future with the resolution of this problem, so the utility of the customer will, again, increase.

      According to the generalization test, customers will eventually notice if every software company begins to fix the bugs of their installed systems. Then, credibility of the entire software industry will be at stake, most possibly leading to stricter quality assurance tests and supervision by auditing firms. This will result in increased costs for the whole industry.

      In terms of the virtue ethics test, the answer is crystal clear. The customer should be told about this issue and the bug has to be resolved.

      Therefore, the best course of action would be to fix the bug after telling the customer about it, which is exactly what Seong did.

  39. Richard Ciccotelli said:

    Dilemma: At my first firm, I was assigned to a client as the associate auditor for their four companies. As I was reviewing the records of one of the companies, I noticed several discrepancies that were not covered by my specific audit tests. No single discrepancy was large enough to warrant a change in the audit procedures, but the nature of the entries made me uncomfortable. I thought the controller (head internal accountant) was either incompetent or she was being intentionally oblique.

    I brought this to the attention of my direct supervisor and she advised me to ignore it because the variances were not individually significant. I was stubborn. I presented the situation to the audit partner and convinced him to let me test more of the company’s records. As it turned out, the controller was incompetent. The discrepancies were the result of her carelessness and lack of comprehension. There was no change to the financials, but she was fired because of my findings.

    I was directly responsible for her losing her job and my findings did not change the audit. Should I have let it go and allowed her to keep her job?

    • ST Sec C said:

      Responding to the dilemma Richard Ciccotelli posted:

      Although the lost of job of the controller was directly related to Rich’s finding. I think it is still necessary to present this situation to the audit partner. In this scenario, although the discrepancy was large enough to warrant a change in the audit procedures, we don’t know the exact reason why there’s discrepancy. If the discrepancy was caused by the controller’s incompetency, the controller is likely to make the same mistake again, and resulted in a more serious consequence. By pointing out the controller’s carelessness and lack of comprehension, it actually benefits the company in the long run. If the mistake was later on being found, it could harm the company’s credibility. As an auditor, he/she should have fiduciary duty to companies which hired him/her. Besides, I don’t think Rich should be directly responsible for her firing. Rich just reported exactly what he found but he the firing decision of the controller wasn’t made by him.

    • Chengjia Huang said:

      Hi Richard, I think it is ethical for you to do all these. First, I think this passes virtue test because it is an auditor’s responsibility to report discrepancies even if it might be immaterial. Second, what you did also passed utilitarian test because you increased the company’s utility by pointing out mistakes they have and, in my opinion, also increased the controller’s utility by pointing out the mistakes she had in her working methodology. Finally, this also passes the generalization test since if everyone just ignore the “immaterial” discrepancy, the company will never find that the controller is incompetent, and in long term this problem will become material, which means actually you can not ignore all these.

    • Lauren Meehan said:

      On a personal level, I feel that what you did was ethically correct and was also the right answer for the company (in the long term at least; maybe not the short term since change can be disruptive to organizations). I hope that I would have the courage to act in the same way you did if faced with the same scenario. I can only imagine how hard it was for you, as a new team member, to go against the initial advice you were given and bring attention to the event.
      But beyond personal opinion, I would also suggest that your actions pass the utilitarian test. It is clear that the success and well-being of the company and its obligations has much higher utility than one person’s job security. If this person had continued to be incompetent, it would no doubt lead to future complications with regard to important business for the company. It also could have severe financial penalties for the organization, as we all know the IRS does not mess around when it comes to proper bookkeeping.
      What if you had not continued to push the issue? My guess is that this person would have continued to act in the manner they did before you were assigned to the project. There is no doubt that having someone inept for a role in that role causes the utility of the company to go down.
      In short, it sounds like you did the right thing.

  40. Xiaoer He said:

    Dilemma: This is quite a common scenario in China right now, and a lot of people question what they should do in such situation.

    The number of elderly people have significantly increased in recent years, as a result, there are more elderly get injured while out on the street. Maybe they fell, suddenly felt sick or due to some other discomfort. In the past, when such event happens, the people around would usually take the elderly to the hospital, or try to find ways to make them feel better. However, that is no longer the case. Nowadays, if an elderly gets injured, chances are nobody would offer help, even if someone did, people around the person would warn him/her to be careful, and think twice before offering help. In some extreme situations, the injured elderly may end up dead on the street. So what causes the sudden change in attitude? This is primarily due to elderly often accuse the helper for causing the injury in the first place, so they could get some monetary compensation. Nobody wants to do good and then end up in court, so the only natural choice is to protect oneself and not offering any help. Is this ethical?

    • Russell Lin said:

      I am having a hard time applying the generalization test on this dilemma. However, it is quite clear that helping troubled elders will maximize utility (albeit a very small number of cases where law suits ensue), and such act is definitely a demonstration of courage and honor.

      I too would like to apply John Rawls’s test of “The Veil of Ignorance”. Imagine if you don’t know whether or not you are an injured elderly person, or an healthy bystander/pedestrian, I believe the choice is very obvious.

      • Umar Chaudhary said:

        Sharon & Russell,

        This is a great question. I read this and pondered it for a bit. Let’s see if we can use the generalization test on this one. So we are trying to decide whether it is unethical to NOT help someone because you are afraid of getting sued, correct? So let’s say that all people stop helping for fear of being sued. What happens?

        People get hurt and they know no one will help them. They lose the idea of wanting to profit off of the situation and decide they just want help. At this point, your original reason for not helping them does not exist anymore. So it does NOT pass the generalization test.

        At least that is my take…this is a very hard question to answer. There are a lot of interesting bits to this question. I would love to hear some other opinions on the matter. Thoughts anyone?

        • Bret Doverspike said:

          Wow. What a challenging dilemma, and correspondingly interesting analysis. Sharon, Russell, and Umar – I am really impressed by the different approaches you have taken in your thoughtful responses. I think another underlying issue here is identifying what is “intrinsically good” in this situation. Is it not true that health, or at least the absence of physical pain, is intrinsically good? If so, and indeed I believe it is, don’t we all deserve it (not just the young or the rich)? And taking this analysis to its logical conclusion, therefore mustn’t we all do what we reasonably can to prevent pain, or heal those who are in pain? Indeed, a logical analysis shows that “your” pain is just as undesirable as “my” pain. In this way, by actively not helping an injured person, one fails to pass the utilitarian test; that is, it is unethical to not help an injured person when helping them would create more utility.

    • MS Sec C said:

      I agree with everyone’s responses so far. Personally, I find it hard to justify NOT helping the elderly.

      But if I may, I would like to play devil’s advocate for the purpose of argument. Let’s take a look at the first elderly person who decided to pull this scam and sue whoever came to their aid. Do you believe the elderly person was acting ethically? Do you believe the elderly person’s actions are generalizable? The answer to both questions is obviously not.

      Sure enough, people began to realize the risk if they choose to help a sick elderly person on the street. And now, the elderly are left alone when they experience symptoms of illness or pain. So is it ethical to leave an elderly person who MAY be in pain?

      I think it depends on the individual who has to make the decision to help or not to help. Each individual needs to decide for him/herself whether the elderly person has ulterior motives. If the elderly person has ulterior motives, not helping would pass all tests. However, if the elderly person does not have ulterior motives, then not helping would not pass any of the tests.

      If you believe the elderly person has ulterior motives, that is sufficient grounds upon which to refrain from offering your help (for obvious reasons). If you believe the elderly person is being honest and will NOT slap you with a lawsuit for offering your help, then I believe you should help out (again, for obvious ethical reasons).

      On these grounds, I would argue that the scam would may actually be deterred if no one helped the elderly. This is because the scammers would no longer feel that they can use this dirty trick to make money. Of course, this will result in a loss of utility for the elderly who are honest.

      Given the environment that has been created by dishonest elderly people, I think it would be best if all the elderly stayed home if they were at risk of suddenly falling sick when they are on the street or they ventured out with a trusted friend or family member. I know this doesn’t seem fair, but unfortunately, their dishonest counterparts have left them no choice.

      I am glad I have never had to face such a decision because I know I would find it very difficult to do nothing if I saw someone in pain, elderly or not.

  41. Kate Sansing said:

    Dilemma: How should companies and professionals treat people who have a past criminal history but who have paid their debts to society by serving out sentences? Is it fair to dismiss someone’s ability to be a good employee solely on the basis of a prior criminal background? How can these people ever have a chance to turn their lives around and become reintegrated back into society, if no employer will give them a chance?

    As a professional vocalist and musical entertainer, a number of years ago I formed a partnership with the leader of a band who had an outstanding reputation playing large nightclubs, festivals and private events. This band leader was one of the most gifted musicians and entertainers I had ever worked with, and he and I built a very successful following during the two years we performed together. As a team we both enjoyed many professional opportunities that never would have happened if we had not worked together. Our partnership ended, however, when I was tipped off that he was a convicted felon.

    On a personal level, the nature of the crime made it difficult for me to continue to interact with him in the same way. I also felt that he had violated my trust by not disclosing the information. Indeed — the reason he had not disclosed the information to me from the beginning was because he thought I never would have worked with him — and he would have been right. On a professional level, I was concerned that my reputation would be damaged if others found out about his past and I continued to closely associate with him. But I also had to consider that the crime was committed 12 years earlier and he had served his criminal sentence.

    At the time this information came to me, we had existing contracts to play many upcoming large and prestigious events. Given the financial and professional opportunities those events presented, I considered whether I could just continue as if I had never learned about the crime. If I disclosed his background to the companies who had contracted us to play, or if these companies found out on their own, many of them may have tried to cancel our performances. Our ability to perform and entertain had nothing to do with his criminal past, but still, I understood why people would be uneasy having a convicted felon entertaining at their party or event. Ultimately I decided that I could not work closely with someone who had violated my trust and engaged in activities that were so contrary to my expectations about tolerable behavior. I made the painful decision to terminate the partnership and I sacrificed opportunities and earnings, as well as personal friendships because of this decision. It became a significant setback for my music career.

    This person may well have been rehabilitated from his past behavior, and he continues to be a superb entertainer for venues that are willing to hire him or that are unaware of his criminal background. Did I make the right decision to discontinue working with him? If everyone reacted the way I did, then no formerly convicted felons would ever be able to work again or become productive members of society. However, I found the nature of his crime so despicable that I don’t know how I could have continued sharing the stage and interacting with him.

    • ann sec c said:

      Applying the generalization test, I think your reaction (especially in an employment framework) was ethical. If we shun felons in a professional context, it would only perpetuate the social stigma of crime and further discourage criminal activities.

      Regarding the virtue test, we would have to decide whether we view our society (or our corporation) as forgiving, or one who would forever identify and react differently to former felons. In my experience, employers seem inclined to treat former felons differently, as job applications have a special section to fill out to declare if you are a former felon.

      This would indicate, though, that a felony is a crime worthy of lifelong employment discrimination. It’s important to consider that the legal classification of “felony” may not always be a reliable metric for a crime worthy of lifelong discrimination. In your example, of course, you felt the crime was despicable and therefore your personal virtues may not have been upheld had you continued your professional relationship. But what may be classified as a significant crime in one state (say California, for having an open alcohol container while driving) may be perfectly legal in another (like West Virginia). Therefore, the legal classification of the crime may not necessarily be the best benchmark to use when evaluating prospective employees or coworkers.

    • JINGCHWEN HONG said:

      Given the nature of the situation, I agree with your actions. As mentioned by Professor Hooker in class, ethics requires you to make rational choice based on three necessary conditions. First, to be consistent with your goal, therefore, would you hire him had you known he was a convicted felon? Second, to have a consistent rationale, do you have a history of working with convicted felons? Third, to be consistent with who you are. Although the band leader may have tried to redeemed himself with good performance but the burden isn’t on you to behave inconsistently with yourself. Since he was your business partner gives you the right to know more about him because you are linking your success to the fact you can depend on him as a trustworthy partner.

      Through all the job searches I’ve had throughout my life, almost always, on any job application, there is a required question which asks if you have ever been convicted before. Sometimes they even go as far as asking if you have had any moving violations. Admittedly, it’s tough finding a job when you carry the convict felon history but that was a privilege that convicted felons give up when they chose to behave unethically when committing their crime. Therefore as a convicted felon, the band leader already knew that he would always have to check the box of being a convicted felon and that it would hinder his job search. However, I would not say that all employers would refuse to hire felons, so there are still employment opportunities available where they can prove themselves and earn employers/partners trust.

      Lastly, applying the generalization test, if all convicted felons fails to disclose their history, what would be the result? Or would it be unethical misrepresenting facts on your resume? It might not even have an impact on the company that hired you because you work really hard after being hired. The result is that they might all get the job they want but there would probably be a lot of distrust in the workplace once the truth is known.

    • Paul Jung said:

      To the greater topic of dismissing a person based on criminal record:This would be an unethical act. If all employers were to dismiss a person with a criminal history, then these same people would never get a job. Granted from the perspective of the employer, this would probably be generalizable as they achieve their purpose of keeping people who they don’t believe to be “good” away and will most likely always find someone else who is “good”. However, this would not pass the utilitarian test as anyone with criminal history would always lose utility from being unable to find a job. This could even snowball by facilitating a former criminal to commit additional crimes which would ultimately decrease the utility of society at large. From a virtue standpoint, the employer is only sticking to their core beliefs and by doing so they are passing the virtue test.

      To the specific circumstances you found yourself in, I would agree with @JINGCHWEN HONG and would point primarily to the virtue test as this is a clear delineation on you personally. To have continued working with your former partner would have gone against your grain and from that standpoint would not pass the virtue test in this direction.

  42. Ryan Janzen said:

    Dilemma: A contractor and I measured various segments of asphalt that he had paved and had measurements that varied by about $10,000 worth of work. I was in charge of determining how much to pay him for the work. When the total contract was worth over $1 million, $10,000 wasn’t that big of a deal. In order to resolve this specific conflict, we decided to physically measure the work together. I observed him measuring the work and realized he added an extra foot here and there. I of course called him out on it but by the end, i did not trust his measurements at all. He was very stern and would not cede to my lesser measurements.

    The contract was just beginning and I didn’t want to get it off on the wrong foot. At the same time, I could validate his measurements by measuring the asphalt in cubic feet instead of square yardage. The contract called for square yardage. What is the best ethical decision? Should I rationalize and alter my measurements and pay him for the additional $10,000 or should I stick to my original measurements and potentially create more conflict and costs further down the project? No one would know either way.

    • Eric Han said:

      It seems as though you made the right decision, Ryan. In the grand scheme of the total project, letting a few square yards sour the relationship may have cost you a lot more in the end. If you apply the generalization principle, it seems nothing would ever get done because people would be arguing over a few dollars here and there. Clearly, what the contractor did was unethical, but the rest of the contract could have gone a lot worse if you had made the other choice.


      Ryan, there is some clear virtue involved in the case you just presented. The contractor was evidently distorting the facts, and you did well to call him out on the erroneous measurements. The material quantity involved is not relevant here because if you apply the generalization test to this case, i.e. what will happen if everyone did the same, it turns into a problem worth bigger than $10,000. The motive behind his actions was purely money, so there was no virtue involved. Also, the total utility of the world is diminished by the company paying him an additional $10,000, which could otherwise be used to create more jobs or for some philanthropic purpose.

      The best solution in this case would have been to rationalize your measurements and call him out on it so that he realized that there was someone breathing down his neck at every point. This would, in turn, ensure that he did not inflate costs further down the project. If there’s a million dollar project coming from one direction, few contractors would try to screw that up by defrauding their customers of a trivial amount of money. Keep it up, you did the right thing.

      • rehman Rashid said:

        While I agree with Eric that $10,000 seems immaterial to the total value of the project, I have to disagree that Ryan shouldn’t have argued over this issue. As Rohan mentioned, if ignored, the ramifications of this issue are huge. This issue runs the risk of creating a slippery slope and if you apply the generalization test, then every contractor will fudge their measurements and find creative ways to earn more money from each project. One contractor hoarding $10,000 from one client leads to hundreds and thousands of contractors hoarding hundreds of thousands of dollars from several clients. Furthermore, if every contractor fudged their measurements, then the original purpose of hoarding more money would no longer be achieved. Eventually, the customers would catch on to this deception and either do the work themselves or find new mechanisms to ensure contractors comply with the measurement rules.

        Additionally, I agree that if ignored, this issue lowers total utility. Each customer has $10,000 less to spend on either some other societal good or perhaps on some other project that may benefit another type of contractor or supplier. For example, if Ryan has $10,000 more to spend, perhaps he can reallocate that $10,000 towards some other house project (i.e. re-model his kitchen). Ryan now benefits from a remodeled kitchen and an additional party (kitchen contractor) benefits from a new job, hence total utility improves.

  43. Brooks Gagstetter said:

    I do not believe that collusion is unethical. If every company were to work together to price fix then each company would be able to improve the utility for their individual company and overall industry. I understand that this creates a problem with monopolies but in a system of efficient markets wouldn’t this naturally create new competition and force the monopolies to either buy the smaller companies or cut prices to undermine them? In either situation this would benefit the customer. Looking long term, even if these companies charged higher prices through collusion this would create a larger volume of money transfer and thus creation of wealth. I do understand that monopolies are generally viewed as bad, but I don’t believe they are unethical. I do not believe that collusion would defeat competition or innovation. Is collusion unethical?

    • Van Morgan said:

      No, collusion is not ethical because it does not pass the utilitarian test.

      The situation described, in which free market competition can eliminate monopolistic profits would only hold true in industries without increasing returns to scale. Otherwise the large incumbents could simply lower their price to a level profitable for the incumbents, but not so for the new entrants (or even easier, simply threaten to do so).

      Regarding the other point, that the utility of the individual company would increase–that is true. The problem is that the utility loss to consumers would be greater than the company utility gain, leading to a net society utility loss.

      So, if every industry in which it is possible to do so were allowed and did collude on price, there would be a large net utility loss to society even as individual companies and owners of capital benefited.

    • B. Claud said:

      Collusion is not ethical for the reason that Van stated: it does not pass the utilitarian test. Additionally, collusion cannot be considered as a necessary and/or acceptable functioning of efficient markets. Unwarranted price fixes and asymmetric information among groups of firms distorts the market and disadvantages those outside of the consortium. Market economists have long shown that cooperation between groups with similar aims (be it farmers that need grazing land for their cattle, or software companies seeking to discourage piracy through price ceilings) often creates a self-propagating phenomena known as Tragedy of the Commons. When firms seek to enrich themselves at the information disadvantage to others, it is likely they will continue this way until there is little net benefit to them. By colluding with firms they would typically compete with, they are exposing themselves to increased risk, while cannibalizing opportunities for monopolistic profits.

      Also, collusion cannot be deemed ethical on the fallacy of efficient markets. Markets are not efficient, as evidenced by the need for legislations such as Sarbanes-Oxley, seat belt requirements, and information security. Markets often fail to penalize players when large externalities are present. In this case, collusion forces a large negative externality to market participants, particularly its competitors, consumers, and in the long run, itself.

      • rg said:

        In addition to failing to the utilitarian test, colluding does not pass the generalization test. If all companies colluded on price to maintain high prices (this test does not apply to highly commoditized products like oil), new entrants would be able to enter the market and charge low prices with probably better refined technology , products and processes for more price sensitive customers. Similarly, companies colluding on low pricing will create opportunities for new entrants to differentiate themselves on better products and better services allowing for higher prices.

        Additionally, price collusion does not pass the virtue test. Collusion either raises prices, possibly passed the value of the product or hinders innovation that can lead to better products and services. Both situations are less advantageous for the greater population and therefore not ethical.

  44. Adam Scharnke said:

    Is lying to your coworkers to protect the interests of yourself and the company ethical? For instance, as an engineer I had developed a good working relationship with a number subordinate union member coworkers by earning their respect and trust over time. I had told them that I would always be upfront and honest with them rather than feeding them vague information like they were used to. When asked about a particular project I wouldn’t say “we’re working on it” but rather I’d tell them the actual status (good or bad). In one instance I was working on scoping out a capital project that was very attractive to management because it had a really nice ROI. While the capital costs were large, this project would save the company over $800,000 yearly through staff elimination. At one point I was measuring the location layout when a few employees approached me and asked what I was doing. I explained to them that we were looking to replace several old manual machines with a new fully automated system. One worker asked me if this project would eliminate any positions (specifically his position). I had to lie and say no- management was just looking to free up employees to do “more value-added tasks”. While I was uncertain whether the project would get approved, undoubtedly it would eliminate eight positions if it were implemented. There was simply no way I could release that information however- this was during 2008 when the economy was poorly performing, layoffs were prevalent and the unions were on edge. If I told the employees that the main goal of this project was to eliminate their jobs, not only would there have been some sort of mutiny, but I’m pretty certain management would have fired me for divulging that confidential information. Was it unethical for me to lie to protect my job and the company from what would have turned into a hostile situation?

    • Anoop Shah said:

      Adam, my personal reaction to your situation had I been in your shoes would have matched your actions exactly but evaluating your actions under the frameworks we’ve learned in class may lead to a different conclusion. The situation was complicated because you had an obligation or promise to two parties, one to the company as a whole to identify capital projects that would provide high returns and another to the union workers who you had promised to be upfront and honest with. Under the generalization principle, I believe your action of breaking your promise to the union workers to be forthright was unethical. The fact of the matter is you made a commitment to always be honest with this group, and the act of breaking this commitment undermines the point of a commitment. If everyone who made a promise or commitment chose to break the promise for personal benefit, the reasoning behind a promise would dissolve. On the other hand, you maintained your obligation to your bosses and management to keep the information confidential, which I am assuming you were directed to do. Perhaps a better more ethical response would have been to ask the union employees to direct their questions to management. However, I think under the utilitarian principle your actions are validated. Revealing the information would have not only potentially led to your firing, but it also would have increased tensions between management and the union while delaying the capital project, which would have benefited stockholders, from going forward. By withholding the information, you eliminated the risk to your job and allowed the capital project to go forward and thus created more utility for the company as a whole. Additionally, you provided the opportunity to management to explain the reasoning behind their situation to union heads in a formal matter, a course that would likely alleviate the potential backlash from layoffs as compared to a situation where the information was released to the union-workers in an informal manner. By withholding the information, you created more utility overall. Evaluating the situation with virtue ethics leads to more questions than answers for me. In terms of loyalty, where should your loyalty lie to a greater degree, the company or the union workers to which you made a commitment to be forthright? Were your honor and integrity compromised by withholding the information? All in all, you were put in a very difficult situation that was further complicated by the external economic environment.

    • Amran gowani said:

      The key to this dilemma revolves around the basis for your reasons. If your reason for not divulging the information to your subordinate was to prevent unrest among the union, then my analysis concludes that your actions pass the generalization test. If every person in a managerial position possessed sensitive information but chose not share it, the subordinates may lose faith in him as an honest leader, but they will not necessarily become hostile or refuse to work. In this case, withholding the information passes the generalization test because every person in the same position would undertake the same action and the reason would still be justified.

      Furthermore, your action also passes the utilitarian test. By telling the truth in this case, the information would likely cause union hostilities and a work stoppage. This would cause a much larger drop in net utility throughout the company than the loss of utility experienced by the eight workers who were laid off. By lying directly to your colleague, you have chosen a path that minimizes the net utility loss and is therefore ethical.

      Finally, your action is more uncertain when faced with the Virtue Ethics test. On one hand, directly lying to your coworker is not a reflection of your beliefs, since you prided yourself on building trust with them and respecting them. They expected that you would be honest with them as well. On the other hand, your action sought to minimize the total net pain/suffering experienced by the sum of your coworkers and the company as a whole and this action therefore meshes well with your value system. Since your reason for lying was to prevent hostilities that might ultimately have caused significant stress on your organization, you have acted ethically and in accordance with who you are.

      Given this analysis, I conclude that your actions were indeed ethical and rational.

    • Jason Doran said:

      @Amran and Adam
      I agree with Amran’s analysis and application of the Generalizable Test. Where I find these ethical dilemmas interesting is when people try to apply the Utilitarian Test in the consideration of one doing something that would surely cause himself dis-utility. First of all–in much the same way your dilemma involved–I feel like it the uncertainty over whether the eight employees will be fired versus the probability that you will get fired, should matter. When I put myself in your shoes, I imagine I would rationalize to myself that since I cannot cause these eight workers to be fired nor prevent their firing, but since I can control whether I get fired or whether the union is put into upheaval mode, I should factor into my decision, less, my loyalty to these eight coworkers. The factors I consider in my decision-making process, therefore, should be weighted according to the degree to which they are under my control.

      So, when computing, for example, the net change in utility caused by my getting fired and one of my colleagues keeping their job, I feel like I am being less ethical by hurting myself rather than hurting someone else. And this is not because I think I am inherently more valuable than someone else. Rather I am thinking it is unethical to mistreat yourself. It shows lack of appreciation for the life you have been given. Then again, it is about odds and probability, right…

  45. Doug Hilling said:

    Is going to war and killing humans ethical?

    • Kate Sansing said:

      In response to Doug’s question of whether going to war and killing humans is ethical, this is more of a general question like the “is abortion wrong?” question that Professor Hooker mentioned in the syllabus. However, since there are so many companies that contract with the U.S. Defense Department for which some of us may work in the future, it’s a compelling question.

      I believe the answer to Doug’s question depends on the reason for going to war. Some people may argue that going to war does not pass the generalization test. Ghandi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” But only the lives of soldiers should be deliberately targeted during a war. Deliberately targeting innocent people cannot be justified. Although some loss of civilian life is inevitable in any war, if the reason for entering into the war is to protect future lives and preserve the general welfare and freedom of a populous, then I believe that waging war can pass the generalization test. Simply killing for the sake of engaging in violence or creating terror does not pass the generalization test.

      Waging war can satisfy the utilitarian test if it ultimately leads to saving lives in the long run and otherwise contributes more happiness, less suppression, more freedom, etc, for a population. To satisfy the virtue test, one needs to consider who is fighting whom. It would not be virtuous to fight innocent people who are not in danger of harming the safety and welfare of others. It is, however, virtuous to fight those who pose a threat to the safety of the innocent. It is also virtuous to protect the innocent and to protect those who are helping you protect the innocent (such as a fellow soldier).

    • Hadi faraj said:

      This is indeed a good question and one that a lot of us sometimes have to think of or even face with the turbulence taking place around the world and the increased violence. My quick answer is: No this is not ethical. I am a big believer and follower of Gandhi’s philosophy and thoughts that directly focus around this question. Gandhi has been able to win a war without killing humans. If he was able to do that, then anyone else should be able to do the same. I am totally against beating, hurting or even killing someone else in war or under any other context. That being said, someone would counter my argument by saying: Well, what do you do if someone has evill thoughts and tries to hurt/beat/kill you without any rational thinking? In this case, I say, you have to understand this person’s background, culture, way of thinking and if you live around this person, you have a big responsibility to educate the person and raise his awareness by informing him that what he is or may try to do is irrational and does not in any way fulfill his goals. I know this sounds too good to be true and ideal, but I truly believe that each person has a level of goodness in himself and it is up to the educated, more rational and fortunate people to educate others and help them in order to reveal the good in them. Wars where people must kill/die have never had a positive outcome on anyone and never will. Last but not least, I believe that each person has the right to defend himself if he is in danger of being hurt/beatean/killed if all other means of education and rational awareness fail. But even the self defense method could be applied without killing humans. That being said, each person has the free will to decide whether to go to war and kill humans or not.

    • Tom hayes said:

      The question of the ethics of war, for me, bring to mind the concept of Just War Theory, which mirrors the framework for ethical decision-making that we have been discussing. Generally, for a war to be considered “just”, it must satisfy the following four conditions:

      1) The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
      2) all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
      3) there must be serious prospects of success;
      4) the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.

      Each of these criteria has an analogue to at least one element of our framework:

      Generalization: What would happen if every nation with the same goal pursued that goal through war? For certain goals, such as the pursuit of greater wealth, this is not generalizable. Every nation wants greater wealth, but the pursuit of wealth through war results necessarily in the destruction of property, life and wealth. Every nation would be an aggressor, and every nation would be a victim. Thus, the reason for going to war would be invalidated through its execution. However, in the case of self-defense, any nation can, and does, respond with force when attacked. The reason is that the waging of modern warfare always carries the prospect of “lasting, grave and certain” damage (principle 1). Thus, self-defense through war is generalizable.

      Utilitarianism: We go to war if it is the best way available to achieve our goals. Given the destructive nature of war, it is difficult to envision a scenario where this would be the case for proactively waging war. However, war in self-defense has a much better chance of being the best utilitarian option, as an aggressor is likely to inflict more pain on an attacked population if they were to passively surrender than if they were to defend themselves. However, a nation could not defend themselves in a utilitarian fashion by, say, launching nuclear weapons at an attacking nation. Thus, war must be both the most practical alternative (principle 2), be waged in order to achieve a goal rather than simply inflict pain (principle 3), and must be waged in a way that minimizes pain (principle 4).

      Virtue: This is a difficult one to justify in the context of war, but we can make the case that freedom is a virtue worth defending. While deaths may result (obviously not virtuous behavior when taken by itself), we can say that it is rational to sacrifice one virtue (the defense of human life) to preserve another virtue (freedom), especially when the virtue being preserved applies to more people than the virtue being sacrificed.

      Thus, for most circumstances, war can not be considered ethical under this framework. However, given the proper circumstances and execution, war in the name of self-defense can indeed be considered ethical.

      • ANONYMOUS said:

        Of course going to war is ethical as long as it is in self-defense.

        Generalization test: If every country defended itself against threats, it would not take away the benefit of a country defending itself through war. In fact, if we look at the generalization test from the other way, if no country defended itself against attackers, the attackers would take over and bad people (for instance terrorists) would eventually rule.

        Utilitarian test: Countries like Iran who openly express desire to destroy entire nations being stopped creates a large amount of utility to millions of people. This outweighs the loss of the smaller number of human lives in a war (especially when the enemy’s main goal is to hurt people of different religions, etc.).

        Virtue test (loyalty): Loyalty to one’s country when your country is acting in self-defense is more important than loyalty to another country with evil intentions.

  46. Doug Hilling said:

    As a student worker here at school, I have heard many stories about professors paying their student workers more money than what was honestly earned. School policy limits hourly pay of MBA student workers to $22/hour. Therefore, if a work student works 100 hours over the course of a semester, the work student should be paid pre-tax wages of $2200. However, in many cases, professors have paid student worker as much money as allocated to them by the school budget. For example, in the case where the student actually should be paid $2200 (earned), professors have paid student workers up to $4500 (budget) because the professor values the work students help at $4500 because of all the time the work student saved the professor over the semester. In addition, the professor knows that if he doesn’t spend his entire allocation, less money will be allocated next year. Is it ethical to pay the student worker more?

    • michael morgan said:

      In response to Doug’s point on payment of student workers, I believe it is ethical. If a professor generally believes that a student deserved more money than they should have received based on the level of their work, then he should pay them the value that he feels they worked. It can almost be considered a bonus. I can get a set salary, but if I exceed expectations, I may receive a lump sum of money at the end of the year. The utilitarian test can be applied here. The action would create more utility for the student worker and less utility for the school as it would reduce their funds. However, I am sure the professors make the decision based on the fact that they do not want to appear as though they are improperly budgeting their money. In a similar aspect, I have noticed certain practices that many student clubs execute as far as their club budgets. Many student clubs create budgets requesting for more funds over the course of the year than they actually need. They perform this with the mindset that the Graduate Business Association will deny them all of the funds that they request anyways. Thus, if they request more than they need, then GBA will deny them of a portion and ultimately provide them with at least the amount of funds they want. However, if they request the exact amount of money they need, then GBA will most likely deny some of their funds and they will ultimately receive only a portion of the funds they need to execute their programs for the year. It is my understanding that a majority of clubs perform this act to ensure they have adequate funding. Should this practice be continued? This seems like it falls into the generalization rule to me. Everyone seems to be lying on their club budgets to get extra funds, so will the reasons for false budgeting still apply? According to the GBA, the reasoning that they do not allocate the amount of funds that every club asks for is because many funds do not get used by the end of the year and subsequently, go to waste when they could have gone to use elsewhere. Thus, poor budgeting in the past has led GBA to cut budget requests. According to the utilitarian criterion, if my ultimate goal is to get the exact amount of money that I need to execute my events, rather than lie to ensure that I get the amount of funds I need, shouldn’t every club just ask for the exact amount they need? If everyone produced more accurate budgets, then wouldn’t the GBA cut less budgets as a result of increased trust? Is it ethical for the GBA to punish new executive boards on clubs for poor budgeting practices performed by the previous executive board? What are your thoughts?

    • JAS SEC B said:

      From a utilitarian perspective, it certainly seems ethical to pay the student worker the full $4,500. Under the premise that 1) the professor cannot spend the money on anything else and 2) the professor’s annual budget is perpetually determined by his expenses from the prior year, it appears to be mutually beneficial and would then certainly net more utility.

      The virtue ethics test in inconclusive. While paying $4,500 would be dishonest and disloyal to the school, it is also a great act of friendship and loyalty to the student.

      Ultimately, it is unethical to pay the student the $4,500 because the decision is not generalizable. If the professor’s primary intention is to improve the student’s financial position, and then every professor did the same for their students, then the school would have to raise tuition to cover their costs. As the student would no better off in the end, the decision would be self-defeating.

    • David Bolin said:

      I feel like this is a very narrow view of the people involved. In terms of the generalization test, I do not believe it generalizes.

      Let’s think about where this money comes from. In general schools get their funding from Alumni Donors, and Current Students.

      The money belongs, not to the professor, but to the school. The professor has just been entrusted with the responsibility of allocating the school’s capital in a way that maximizes the benefits received by the school.

      So let’s consider what would happen if EVERY teacher gave EVERY student worker more pay than allowed regardless of the value created.

      The people who have given their hard earned money for a purpose have been cheated out of it. While the numbers are small, glut reduces donors. (I don’t think that keeping your budget is creating value, which is why I would donate, and as a result, if a donor ever learned of this glut he would probably stop donating.)

      This would mean that the school would have to lower the budget available for teachers to pay students, and the purpose for doing the action would disappear-The budget would not be maintained.

      While this echoes JAC SEC B’s point, the important distinction is the presence of the donors as this negates the utility argument. You could improve the utility of every student by giving them student work because it is subsidized by donors. However, not every student is a student worker, and therefore you aren’t improving the utility of the student body, just redistributing it from students and donors to student workers.

      That aside, Money doesn’t come from nowhere. If the student truly earned the money by producing something that ads more than $4500, then Utility for all has been increased through this practice, but from the sound of it, its really a desire to keep your budget that drives these decisions (at least in terms of how we have framed the question, I’m not that cynical) In this manner, the actions have not increased the utility of the populous but rather redistributed.

  47. John Hooker said:

    I received this dilemma from an MBA student. Several publications rank MBA programs and, as part of the ranking, ask MBA students to respond to a student satisfaction survey. Students are frequently urged not to air their grievances in the survey, because it hurts the school ranking and therefore the value of their degree. The question: is it ethical to provide rose-tinted responses to the survey to boost the ranking?

    • CP- A4 said:

      That MBA survey response is not generalizable. If everyone lies, responder wouldn’t be able to get that ranking advantage (If this is the purpose). So he/she won’t achieve his/her original goal. This action & purpose cant be generalized.

      But….here’s another perspective.
      The reality is almost every responder knows the impact of this survey. So now the question the purpose of providing a “rose-tinted” respond is to gain advantage or to simply to keep up because everybody is already providing “bad” data?
      From the perspective of “keeping up”, this action would be generalizable.
      Utility test: pass, because then the data will be evenly contaminated. No school will be at a disadvantage. And maybe the race becomes how good can you be “representing” your school.

      • Amran gowani said:

        I sent an email to all of my classmates to encourage them to speak favorably about the school even if they didn’t want to. I agree that it is not generalizable and is akin to cheating on an exam. If every student at every MBA program did the same thing, every school would achieve a perfect score and the purpose of increasing relative rank would not be achieved.

        Despite this, the political realities of the situation offer no benefit by not partaking. If we assume that the majority of schools are unethical, or savvy, and encourage their students to rank the school highly, and we decide not to, we are only hurting ourselves. In this case, doing the ethical thing offers only detriment. How are we supposed to reconcile the fact that acting ethically helps others and hurts us?

      • John Hooker said:

        The concern here is that if others are gaming the system with positive responses, then an honest response will penalize us. However, if others are really gaming the system, then doing the same is generalizable.

        We can’t simply assume, however, that “everybody is doing it.” We have to check it out. I think a more realistic scenario is that others avoid using the survey as a forum to air their personal grievances with the school, which means it is generalizable for us to do the same. Students everywhere have complaints of some kind, and there is no need to voice them in a survey.

        This is very similar to Exercise 25 in Chapter 4. There, Stacy interviews job applicants to his firm and is asked to describe the firm in a positive light, even though it is having problems. There is no obligation for Stacy to describe all his personal complaints about the firm, because employees at almost any firm have complaints. No one expects them to bring this up in an interview. However, if this firm has unusual problems (as Stacy’s firm doers), it is misleading (and therefore unethical) not to bring them up. My analysis of this case is given in the online supplement.

        It is the same with the survey. MBA students everywhere have complaints. However, if our program has unusual problems that readers would expect someone to mention, they should be reported.

        • Andrew Weaver said:

          I agree that providing “rose-tinted” responses is likely not generalizable. However, as Professor Hooker says above, the action is generalizable when we’re certain that this is a common practice at B-Schools. The problem inherent in the survey is that every student will be penalized for being truthful, if the truth is that the program is lacking in some satisfaction area. A low score (and hence a rankings drop) won’t mean that all of the sudden the administration will know that the facilities need to be updated, or that certain professors aren’t top notch, and that the issues will be resolved. What it will mean is that lower caliber students go to the school, fewer alumni donations will be received, and the best faculty will move to “better” programs. In fact, what will happen is the exact opposite of the intended consequences of someone who wants to air their grievances. The Economist should know better than to use this information (and extreme conflict of interest) for any serious rankings adjustment, and I don’t believe that we know for absolute certain the extent to which its really taken into account. To me this is like polling GM on how fun to drive (a subjective characteristic akin to satisfaction) their cars are. Is it unethical for GM to say that they’re extremely fun, even better than BMW and Mercedes? No one will believe them, and for good reason. There is plenty of good information available on GMAT scores, job offers, professor research, student to faculty ratio, student work experience, and employer feedback that is actually useful in determining the “quality” of a business school. Surveying “satisfaction” is too subjective, a major conflict of interest, and something that should be gathered by a prospective student or employer from talking with current students and alumni.

        • Rupesh Kalaria said:

          In response to Professor Hooker, is not partaking in the survey to voice complaints (“avoid using the survey as a forum to air their personal grievances”) result in the same situation as if a student gave false positive remarks?

          Applying the generalization test you have the following. If all students who had complaints did not partake in the survey then only positive results of all the schools would be present. Everyone would know that only positive responses are present in the survey and would not pay attention to the rankings when they came out; defeating the purpose of the survey and rankings in the first place; non generalizable.

          In reality, as Amran has pointed out, there is no benefit of not completing the survey and stating the positive aspects of your program. You have schools that think the same way and face the same dilemma. Sadly game theory ends up being used instead of ethics, and it seems that if you don’t do the same, you are only hurting your fellow students and alumni in the process with lower rankings.

    • MA secb said:

      I think providing rose tinted answers to boost school performance in rankings is not ethical because it is not generalizable. It definitely undermines the value of the ranking system and provides false information to prospective students. If everyone did the same thing students and employers would look for other ways to evaluate business schools. Students at other schools may be very conscious about their school’s reputation and do unethical things to improve it but other people’s unethical actions do not justify hiding important facts. Systematically encouraging students to lie/hide information about the school could also lead to very unrealistic and obviously biased survey results. That would raise questions about the ethics of the whole community. Accuracy of the responses is also very important from a utilitarian point of view because individuals coming to school with a distorted view of the school would be very unhappy and the school experience would be worse for everyone including staff and faculty. Another important point is that these surveys and rankings help prospective students assess their fit with the schools. The responses to those surveys are not only used in rankings but some additional comments are published so that people are better informed about some facts.

      • Joe Roth said:

        I’d echo this sentiment. Encouraging students to distort their responses in a certain manner appears to me to fail the generalization test. Furthermore, I think this actually is an interesting real-world example of the consequences of this test failing. If we assume that, like Tepper, every business school encourages a similar practice, then the entire rating process devolves into propaganda. This is – at the very least – misleading to the consumers of the information (a group of which we were likely recently a part). If the purpose of these ratings is to help students to get a feel for life at the school, this practice seems to deliberately subvert that goal.

        Coupling this with the fact that the survey is a voluntary response poll (and therefore potentially susceptible to response bias) makes it even more unlikely that the results are consistent with the “reality” of the MBA programs. I’d imagine that a random sample of students selected to complete the survey (and compensated for their time) would be more representative.

  48. Jackson Lane said:

    So I was watching the Dark Knight on the plane, and I just realized how much of the movie is about ethics. Like the first scene with the bank robbers back stabbing is a perfect example of the generalization test.

    But anyway, the one I want to analyze is the climax on those two boats. Basically there are two boats; one filled with criminals and one with civilians. Each boat has a switch that will detonate a bomb on the other boat. As a civilian, is it ethical to blow up the criminals?

    I don’t think the generalization test applies here and the virtues test is kind of hazy. But the utility test definitely favors blowing up the criminals over taking a chance that they will blow you up. Obviously, you provide more utility than a criminal.
    Then again, this is the probably the best example of denying someone agency. You’re blowing up the criminals to deny them agency in a similar ethical dilemma.

    • DaRREN oLSON said:

      I too have noticed that the Dark Knight is filled with loads of ethical dilemmas. As we can see from the first several paragraphs of John Hooker’s book, someone can be ethical only when they have made a rational decision. The antagonist in this plot, the Joker, proclaims that he has no rules. When someone isn’t consistent or predictable, then they can’t be rational or ethical.

      My most favorite dilemma in the movie is when Batman is racing to save either Harvey Dent or Rachel. He decides to save Harvey Dent, most likely based on utilitarian reasons. But, I’m curious how this decision plays out for the other ethical tools.

      For your specific issue about the criminals and civilians on the boats, I’d like to apply John Rawls’s test of The Veil of Ignorance. Here, you don’t know whether you’re a civilian or a criminal, but you’re making the choice from a 3rd party perspective. Then, once you’ve made the choice – you’re randomly assigned to be either a civilian or criminal. I would think that through this test, you would choose not to blow up the boat full of criminals – because you have an equal chance of being a civilian or criminal. You leave no chance for Batman to save the day and your chance of dying is 50%.

      Alternatively, you choose not to blow up the boat full of criminals and you’re lucky enough that Batman saves the day (a small probability, but certainly a realistic option in fictional Gotham city). Your chance of dying would be less than 50%. Therefore, I think this shows that it would be unethical to blow up either boat. Perhaps this is why they come to the same conclusion in the movie…

    • stephanie shapiro said:

      Allow me to mention another ethical dilemma portrayed in the movie that can be analyzed using our conditions for rational choice. Batman uses new technology to tap into every cell phone in Gotham City as a means of locating the Joker before he does more damage and kills more people. In the real world, Is it ethical for the US government to spy on citizens if it will prevent future terrorist attacks?
      Let’s apply the utilitarian test. By tapping in to peoples’ cell phones, the government does create more utility for the human population because they may be able to stop a planned attack and innocent lives will not be lost. On the other hand, does this create less utility for those people who are not planning attacks and lose their right to privacy? Losing your privacy does not mean that utility is lost. Wire tapping passes this test.
      Next, let’s consider the generalization test. If the governments reason for wire tapping is to catch potential criminals then this must be a sufficient reason for anyone to do the same. But, just like cheating fails the generalization test because if everyone acts on this same reason then criminals will find other ways to communicate plans and wire tapping will no longer serve its purpose. Wire tapping fails this test.
      Lastly, I will argue that wire tapping does not pass the virtue test. Spying on someone who thinks that they are having a private conversation that will only be shared with the person they are speaking to is not an honorable thing to do, and therefore is not virtuous. Humans are rational and intelligent beings and there are many other ways (better security at airports, for instance) to catch criminals before they act.

  49. Nakul manaktala said:

    So this is one scenario that I, and I’m sure that a lot of CMU students have faced. Suppose you are at one of the campus restaurants and order your food, but no drink. However, you do get a cup for water. Now, when you go to the soda machine to get water, the water isn’t coming out. Is it ethical to take some soda instead?

    • John Hooker said:

      Regarding the soda: On the face of it, helping yourself to soda is theft and therefore ungeneralizable.

      Here I mean theft in the ethical sense of taking another’s property without permission. This is ungeneralizable because if it were generalized, there would be no property to take. I am pretty sure that taking the soda is theft in the legal sense, too, but it is unethical even if it is legal.

      However, let’s suppose that the cashier gave you the water cup before you paid for the food. You completed the purchase on the understanding that you would get water at no extra charge. You might argue that there was an implied agreement that water would come with your meal. Lack of water was a breach of the agreement, and you remedied this by taking soda.

      Granting that this is breach of an agreement, it follows only that you are no longer obligated to hold up your end of the agreement. You can return the food and ask for your money back. It doesn’t follow that you can take soda that you didn’t pay for.

      You might insist that contract law entitles you to compensation for damages resulting from the breach of contract. I’m no lawyer, but I don’t see that the lack of water caused you any damages. Even if it did, you are not legally entitled to compensate yourself by stealing soda. You must use legal procedure.

      You might respond that my argument can’t deal with the following scenario. You purchase a cup of soda but find that the soda fountain is not working. So you take a bottle of iced tea from the cooler, which is priced the same as soda. On my argument, this is theft, because you didn’t purchase iced tea. Yet this seems ridiculous.

      I think this is like Exercise 4 of Chapter 5 in the text. In that scenario, the cashier forgot to ring up a 50 cent pack of gum. There was no obligation to return to the store to pay for it, because if the customer were to ask the store manager about it, the manager would certainly say to forget about the 50 cents. In other words, there is implied mutual consent to amend the contract (at least for ethical purposes; I don’t claim that a court of law would see it the same way).

      The same applies to the restaurant. The manager would certainly tell you to take the tea for the same price. The manager might also tell you to take the soda in place of water, but you can’t be certain of this. So you can’t yet say there is mutual consent. You have to ask.

      If you don’t ask, taking the soda is theft and therefore unethical.

    • ALAN PRUCE said:

      Taking the soda without paying is not a dilemma at all. It is not only clearly illegal (theft) but also unethical. A more interesting related question would be this:
      Suppose I order a small soda from a CMU cafe. What exactly does this purchase entitle me to? At a minimum, it clearly entitles me to one small cup of soda. Is it ethical to refill it once as I eat my meal in the cafe? Can I sit in the cafe for the whole afternoon doing homework and refill it 12 times? Can I leave the cafe for an hour for a group meeting, but keep my cup, and then come back and refill again before I go home? Can I buy a small soda on the first day of school and then use that cup for unlimited refills for the next semester?
      It seems that by the time we reach the last and most extreme example we are clearly violating the generalization test, because if everyone did this, the management would surely impose some formal restriction. That said, a refilling the cup while eating seems of course OK. Where to draw the line so that the generalization test remains intact?

      • David Rasmussen said:

        Alan your question is indeed more interesting as stealing from the Cafe under any circumstances does not pass muster under the generalization test. There should not be any doubt that taking soda as a substitute for water is illegal and unethical.

        In response to your question I need to make an assumption as to what the actual markup per soda is in the Café. If one soda costs the Café 20 cents and the price to consumers is $1.00 then taking more than five refills would yield an unprofitable sale for the Café. Therefore if generalized and everyone took more than five refills then the Café would need to either raise their prices or ban the practice of refills thus defeating the original purpose of the refill gluten. In reality the threshold is probably much lower than five refills as soda is probably expected to be one of their most profitable products on a per unit basis and management would react to lower profits per unit by placing a ban on refills. So in summation the threshold would be at or more likely well below the point of profitability.

      • amarpreet bonsor said:

        I think its absolutely clear that getting soda in place of water is unethical and illegal since its not generalizable.

        I think your query is extremely pertinent to us as students. If we apply the generalization test to the quantity of free refills we would see that it wont be long before the Cafe management clamps down on free refills and this problem would fail the generalization test.
        But the question remains that how much is too much and who monitors that? The Cafe management has not put any limit on the number of refills, nor do they mention a time period within which one can refill the cup. In fact they use “free refills” as some sort of marketing tool (I guess). So if I were to figure out whether this action is ethical or unethical based on intuition, I would say ts ethical for me to take as many refills as I need.

        I do understand that rationally taking a refills over a particular threshold level would be unethical but how do we decide that figure? David’s rationale of using profitability as a measure seems solid but how would I as a consumer know the Cafe’s profitability target and its cost structure before taking that call?
        I think “unlimited refill” is a misleading marketing measure and the Cafe should mention the number of refills allowed for the consumer to be aware of his/her limits… If the consumer then goes above that figure, his/her action will be unethical without argument.

  50. Nicolas Hurt said:

    In 1977, the National Socialist Party of America (a Neo-Nazi group) planned a march in the town of Skokie, Illinois, a largely Jewish community. Many Skokie residents were Holocaust survivors and felt that the Nazi march would be “politically provocative and socially disruptive.” While an Illinois appeals court ruled that the presence of the swastika, the Nazi emblem, would constitute “deliberate provocation of the people of Skokie,” the case was ultimately brought to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled that “the use of the swastika is a symbolic form of free speech entitled to First Amendment protections and determined that the swastika itself did not constitute ‘fighting words.’ ” Thus the NSPA was allowed to march in Skokie. (However, the Nazis held 3 rallies in the summer of 1978, none of which were in Skokie; they decided that the press coverage gained from the Supreme Court case was sufficient.)
    Nevertheless, the Skokie Affair was an interesting dilemma that tested the limits of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. For our ethics class, I am interested in analyzing whether the NSPA’s actions would be ethical if they were to march in Skokie, and perhaps a more interesting debate of whether the Skokie residents were acting ethically when they opposed the NSPA’s plans to march.

    • Jackson Lane said:

      Interesting question.

      Well opposing the march passes the generalization test (the fact that the march is pro-Nazi is a necessary reason for the opposition), and it also passes the utility test, at least from the perspective of the people in Skokie, which is actually all that really matters for the utility test. All thats left is the virtues test, and I think the question here is whether free speech is a virtue.

      In these types of cases, the supreme court typically applies a balancing test between the First Amendment’s protections of speech against the interests of the state and of listeners who are harmed by such speech.

    • Felix Hong said:

      This is a sensitive debate. I think the reason that this is more a dilemma than a clear cut issue of ethics is that a strong argument can be built from either side. To adhere to the law that permits free speech, NSPA is within their perfect rights to promote whichever cause they support. With the correct reasoning, this can pass all three tests given that the NSPA are overzealous and their collective triumph outweighs the utility lost from the Jewish community. I don’t think that free speech is so much a virtue in itself but rather is it staying within the bounds of constitutional law. From the other side, the Jewish community can argue for the direct antithesis and still make a strong case that general adoption creates social tension and negative total utility would swing their way.

    • Alex Price said:

      This in fact a very interesting case- on hand is free speech and the other side is respect for the Jewish community. Perhaps the most famous free speech case is Texas v. Johnson, where the Supreme Court ruled that burning the American flag is constitutional because Johnson’s actions fell into the category of expressive conduct and had a distinctively political nature. The fact that an audience takes offense to certain ideas or expression, the Court found, does not justify prohibitions of speech. The Court also held that state officials did not have the authority to designate symbols to be used to communicate only limited sets of messages. This case is very similar to the NSPA’s case, but is perhaps a less severe example. With regards to the generalization test- the NSPA’s actions pass because if everyone had rallies for their cases, they would still achieve their purpose. The virtue test is ambiguous because the NSPA is promoting discrimination, but at the same time they have the right to free speech. The utilization test is the most interesting case because although the utility of the Jewish community is severely decreased, not allowing the NSPA to protest would result in decreased utility for numerous other acts of free speech. Although the protest may be in fact ethical, it’s ideology is still hateful.

    • Alex Price said:

      So in general, I think the argument about whether the protest is ethical or not is moot because that is more of a legal decision. What should be analyzed is if the message of the protest is ethical, which in this case, the message is certainly not.

    • John Hooker said:

      Regarding the neo-Nazi demonstration, two issues are presented: is it ethical to participate in an neo-Nazi demonstration in Skokie, and is it ethical for Skokie residents to oppose the demonstration?

      Issue 1: Is a Racist Demonstration Ethical?

      We are not asking whether the demonstrators have a legal right to march in Skokie. I will assume that they do. The question remains as to whether they should express their views in this way.

      One might make a case that an offensive demonstration fails the utilitarian test, because the distress it causes and the friction it creates outweigh any positive effect.

      In addition, a racist demonstration may encourage the unethical conduct it advocates. This is more than a utilitarian problem because it results in a violation of autonomy. If I convince someone to beat you up, then I bear responsibility for your harm even though the assailant acted voluntarily. The marchers may therefore be unethical for a second reason.

      I grant both of these points, but they don’t seem to address some of the core objections. Otherwise, a neo-Nazi demonstration could be perfectly OK if Holocaust survivors are outnumbered by right-wing extremists who derive intense pleasure from the event.

      So let’s consider a racist demonstration that passes the utilitarian test for various reasons and doesn’t incite harmful behavior. It is offensive and upsetting to a minority population, but does this make it unethical, perhaps because it is ungeneralizable?

      The mere fact that a demonstration is upsetting to some people doesn’t seem to make it ungeneralizable. I suppose the purpose of a demonstration is to induce others to consider the view in hope that they will be sympathetic. Many views about which people demonstrate are upsetting to some, such those concerning abortion, gay marriage, war, and so forth. Yet a general of policy of holding demonstrations, including those that are upsetting, doesn’t defeat the purpose of the demonstrations.

      A demonstration may include acts that are ungeneralizable because they could undermine social order. Vandalizing buildings in a demonstration is normally ungeneralizable, partly because if all demonstrators destroyed property, rights to demonstrate would be restricted. However, universal display of swastikas and racist rhetoric would not necessarily lead to their suppression. Too often, societies have been built upon racist principles.

      One might make a case that a racist demonstration in Skokie is more than upsetting; it is harmful in and of itself and therefore violates autonomy. If one could show that a neo-Nazi demonstration causes clinically verifiable psychological damage, then we have a case against it.

      It may be helpful to compare neo-Nazi demonstrations to KKK-sponsored cross-burnings in African-American neighborhoods. They, too, were more than offensive—they were threats. They threatened physical attack or even death by lynching, a frequent occurrence at one time. This kind of threat is unethical, because one either means it, or one doesn’t mean it. In the former case, it is tantamount to physical harm, because an act is judged by its intent. In the latter case, it is a lie, which is again unethical.

      If some people interpret a neo-Nazi demonstration as a threat to their autonomy, and the demonstrators have reason to believe that it is so interpreted, then their conduct is unethical.

      I conclude that a racist demonstration could be unethical even if it passed the utilitarian test, but only under conditions that are rather hard to verify. The main ethical problem is that it doesn’t pass the test. It offends and creates antagonism while offering little prospect for positive effects.

      Demonstrations that fail the utilitarian test are normally unethical, even when they promote a just cause. The mere fact that a demonstration keeps alive a tradition of public protest may establish a net positive effect, but the net positive effect must be there. Most demonstrators are on the street because they believe their protest will at least slightly improve prospects for a better society, even if it the immediate response is negative. If they cannot rationally believe this, they should pursue their cause in some other way.

      Issue 2: Is Opposition to a Racist Protest Ethical?

      I’m not sure what “opposition” means here. If it means taking action that physically prevents the demonstration, then opposition is illegal and therefore unethical. If it means saying in public that the demonstrators should call it off, then I can’t imagine why this would be unethical. We have already established that they in fact should call it off, even though they have a legal right to go ahead with it. If opposition encourages them to go away, then so much the better. If it somehow strengthens the resolve of the demonstrators, then it might be unethical on utilitarian grounds, but I seen no reason why it would have this effect.

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