There’s are many words flying around these days about ethical issues, whether it’s about how much or even whether the government should collect personal information on us to protect us or gay people should be granted the legal status of being married. Unfortunately there seems to be a great deal of heat but not much light on the moral dimensions.
So here are two great questions I often suggest students consider before they make any moral or ethical decision (if they have the luxury of having time to make any decision):
1. How would I feel if someone did that to me?
2. What if everyone did that?
I wish I could claim responsibility for these two questions, but the first comes from Thomas Nagel, a professor of philosophy at New York University, and the second from Immanuel Kant, of the world’s great philosophers.
The first question asks each to consider the implications of our actions on ourselves before we make a decision. I remember a student considering cheating on a exam in another class the next week, saying to me that he asked this question and realized that if he did, he would not feel he actually had been fair to others and not happy with a good grade he didn’t really earn fairly.
The second question applies the universal test to any ethical decision. Kant described this test as acting so as if realized your action would be good for everyone–not just yourself. If you treated someone fairly, then that action would be good for everyone; conversely, if you lied or cheated, that action would not be good for everyone, yourself included.
Try these two questions on any moral or ethical issue you face or on one you see in the news these days. If you don’t get a clear answer, at least you will have taken the time to think about your decision, especially its potential consequences.