Two Great Questions to Ask Before Making An Ethical Decision

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.

Students Moving Rocks 012

1 Comment

Filed under Ethics, Philosophy and Ethics, Philosophy for Beginners, wisdom

One response to “Two Great Questions to Ask Before Making An Ethical Decision

  1. Someone commented that the first made sense but that the second might be changed to “what is everyone knew I did that?” A good shift of focus, bringing what’s private into the public realm. However, the question is Kant;s who was more concerned about intentions (a “good will”) than consequences (how how would judge anyone). That focus in ethics is closer to utilitarian or consequential philosophers that ethical behavior is to be judged by its consequences, with the chief one being “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Some contemporary ethics say that the two main moral ways of assessing human behaviors are looking at the motivations of the actor and the consequences.

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