Short Cuts for Ethical Thinking

Short-Cuts for Ethical Thinking

When we think ethically, most of us use principles like these to save time.


When my wife and I travel, she is big into short cuts. I usually prefer looking at a map, and coming up with the most logical way to get from Point A to B. My wife however, grew up in a family where it was imperative to get from Point A to B in the shortest possible time allowed by physics. So, we take a lot of short cuts. And sometimes we get to Point B faster, and other times, it takes longer, and other times we get hopelessly lost.

A short-cut often gets you to somewhere faster. However, with a short-cut, there’s no guarantee. Sometimes you’ll get their faster, sometimes longer, and sometimes you’ll get hopelessly lost. Below are some commonly-used short-cuts for ethical thinking. They are not systems for thinking through ethical dilemmas. They are short-cuts. Sometimes short-cuts work, and they take less time and energy. Sometimes they’ll take more time, or they’ll lead us to the wrong place. Short-cuts won’t answer all of the questions. None of these short-cuts hold up to intense scrutiny (which is, by definition, why they’re short-cuts).

We all use short-cuts for ethical thinking; there’s nothing inherently wrong with them. However, it’s important to know whether we are using a system for thinking through ethical dilemmas or whether we are using a short cut.


Short-Cut #1. Do no more harm.

This short-cut is sometimes called the principle of nonmaleficience. The idea is that the best course of action is one that harms no one. If a person cannot do good, then at least do no harm. Or, if all you can do is do harm, then do nothing. Avoid evil. This is an old short-cut, dating back to Hippocrates and the ancient Greeks.

Of course, the problem is how to know what will cause harm and what won’t. We can’t predict the future, and so it’s not easy to know what will cause harm in the future. And what about the dilemmas that cause harm no matter what?


Short-Cut #2. Act as if everyone is watching.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), our third president, recommended an ethical short-cut that is sometimes called transparency. The idea is to act as if everyone is watching. If everyone was watching your ethical action, and you feel embarrassed, wrong, or guilty, then the ethical action was wrong. If you made the ethical choice, did the ethical act, and everyone thought you were a good person, then the ethical decision was the right choice.

The problem becomes “who is everybody?” Usually, everybody means “the people like us” or “the people I know.” If truly, the whole world were watching you make an ethical decision, you would have a wide variety of opinions on your action.

It’s similar to the people in organizations who say “everybody says….” Usually these people aren’t being willfully dishonest. They just mean, “Everybody that I’ve talked to about this topic in the last day or two says…” It may be only a couple people, but its “everybody.” Sort of.


Short-Cut #3. Do what is best for the most people.

Always a popular one, this short-cut advocates stepping back and getting the big picture. Which course of action will benefit the most people? Take whichever action will do the most good for the most people.

While this is a good idea in theory, its difficult to put into practice. First, it’s impossible to know the future and who will benefit. Second, the idea of “benefit” is a troublesomely ambiguous concept. In the 1800s, European-Americans thought that it would benefit the most people to move the Native Americans off whatever land they were on. The 19th century government thought it would benefit the Native Americans to move them on to reservations. What kind of benefit, and who actually gets that benefit have been problematic questions to answer.


Short-Cut #4.  What if everyone does it?

When considering whether an act is ethical or not, this short-cut suggests that we imagine what it would be like if everyone in the world did that act. If everyone does the act and it destroys humanity, then its wrong.  If everyone in the world were to do the act, and civilization survives, then its ethical. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a big supporter of this idea.

It’s an interesting short-cut, and it works for some issues. If everyone committed murder, then civilization wouldn’t survive, so therefore murder is ethically wrong. But how about playing golf? If everyone in the world played golf, then no one would be around to farm the land or police the streets.


Short-Cut #5. Uphold the individual’s dignity and rights.

Again, this one’s a great idea. We uphold the intrinsic worth of people, no matter what. Human dignity should transcend rules, laws, and regulations. Treating people with respect and encouraging their autonomy is always a good idea.

Unfortunately, dignity is no so easily defined. A person who is terminally ill and in great pain: will pulling the plug let them die with dignity? Or will it just let them die? Who gets to decide where dignity is, and how its defined?


Short-Cut #6. What sort of person would do such a thing?

Aristotle (384-322 BC) was one of the first big thinkers in Ethics (and in everything else). One of his ideas about ethics is that good people do ethical things, and bad people do unethical things. It was the idea of the “virtuous person.” He believed that if we taught people to be virtuous, we could minimize ethical problems. So, the short-cut here is to say, when faced with a questionable act, what would a good person do? What would a bad person do?

There’s no end to Aristotle’s influence on human society, so I don’t mean to question him. But the reality is that sometimes good people do bad things (and vice versa).


Short-Cut #7. Whatever feels right is what is ethical.

We should just go with our gut. Use our common sense. Whatever feels right. This is sometimes called intutionism, the idea that we will “just kind of know” the right thing to do.

While its true that being aware of our own feelings, beliefs, and values will give us a clearer picture, the idea that our gut will somehow be the best decision-maker will not always cut the mustard. Making choices is always a highly emotional event for humans, and emotions can sometimes lead us down the wrong path. Fear, greed, jealously, and other unhelpful emotions always influence our gut. While our gut can and should be a source of information for us, allowing our gut to decide is to allow our unpredictable emotions to have more decision-making power than they deserve.


2010, Jim Ollhoff, PhD



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