Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Lack of consistency between ethics and actions—“You would do the same!”

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It is far from uncommon to be met with the argument “You would do the same in that situation. [Implicitly: Therefore, there is nothing wrong with doing so.]” (with many variations) when discussing the ethics of a particular behaviour. This post is mostly intended as standard answer to give to those who follow this, in my eyes, highly naive line of argumentation.

I argue the following:

  1. That someone else would also act in a certain manner in a certain situation does not make that action ethical—it can equally point to human fallability. Speaking for myself, I make no pretense of being infallible, and I readily admit that it is easier to preach than to practice.

  2. Such hypothetical situations can be dangerous; in particular, because there is often a great difference between what people say that they would do and what they actually would do. (For a number of reasons, including lying, honest misestimation, inconsistent actions and opinions from event to event, considerable dependency on circumstances, and the possibility that an unthinking “auto-pilot” action takes place.)

    In contrast, the use of well-formulated ethical dilemmas asking for what is right and wrong (not “What would you do?”) can be a valuable guide.

  3. Similar dangers arise from the fact that behaviour in specific situations will vary from person to person. For the same reason, “You would do the same.” is often even an incorrect argument, and certainly not generally convincing.

    Individual opinions on ethics are perfectly legitimate, and unavoidable, but more abstract reasoning can make them smaller and less arbitrary.

  4. There is typically more than one side to any issue and merely focusing on what one party would do cannot generally lead to a conclusion about what is right and wrong.

    A specific example: Picture yourself on an aeroplane with all engines malfunctioning. As one of two passengers, you have the opportunity to grab the one parachute and survive—or you can give the parachute to the other passenger and take a (hypothetically) 10 % chance of surviving the emergency landing. In this situation, the “You would do the same!” argument may seem plausible to you—but now picture yourself in the shoes of the other passenger instead…

    Note in particular the Golden Rulew.

  5. Case specific reasoning can easily create an inconsistent “system” of ethics, with analogous situations being treated very differently based on unimportant circumstances and superficially differences, and where broad and general rules are replaced by a large set of detailed regulations. Compare the following hypothetical rule sets:

    It is wrong to steal, unless considered necessary in order to avert a danger to life and limb or damage which is disproportionally larger than the damage caused by the theft. In the latter cases, due care must be taken to minimize the damage to the owner.

    It is wrong to steal, unless the theft is of a boat to rescue someone drowning, but only if there is no other means to save him; or of a chainsaw to cut someone out from under a fallen tree, but …; or of …, but …; [and so on ad nauseam].

  6. Humans are generally far too driven by instinct and egoism for them to be considered (naturally) ethical, and ethics is therefore best agreed upon in advance, from an abstract and disengaged “ivory tower” POV, and not left to the individual in the moment. (Where “ivory tower”, in this specific use, should not be taken to deny the value of previous practical and personal experiences of various sides and issues—quite the contrary.)

I stress that the above is directed at those who look for ethical justification or try to divert criticism—not those who are willing to admit to ethical fallability or to egoism. (Nor those who can give an ethical justification by other means.)

In a close parallel, I have heard the dangerous variation that ones “true” ethics, what one truly believes to be right and wrong, would only be revealed in a time of need. This, of course, makes a mockery of the concept of ethics—and is often hypocritical: It amounts to saying that the speaker never violates his ethics, never commits a wrongful act, but only adapts his understanding of right and wrong. A more self-insightful approach would be to realize that he is not perfectly moral, that he is human, that he occasionally does things that he should not do.

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Written by michaeleriksson

November 8, 2010 at 4:18 am

One Response

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  1. In the States, when a child complains about a parent not letting him do something and says “but everybody else gets to do it” a reply that’s been passed down for generations is: “If everybody else jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?” I recently gave that response to my son, who came back with: “it depends — how high is the bridge and how warm is the water?” I then went into a diatribe about how, if I based my parenting style on what other people did, I wouldn’t like myself or my kids much. He told me self-love was overrated. ~sigh~

    itslisa

    November 10, 2010 at 4:36 pm


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