Stages of Ethics

In a previous post, here, I discussed the stages of ethics. To recap, they are

1. Something is wrong because I'll get punished for it.
2. Something is wrong because a higher authority says so.
3. Something is wrong because society/the people around me say so.
4. Something is wrong because it's wrong.

The 4th stage is ethics, someone thinks about why something is wrong (or right). Most people would claim they are in the 4th stage, but we know there are some who are not. It would be great if there was a test one could take which would tell us which stage we were in.

The problem with ethics tests is that people know what the answers are supposed to be. How someone answers a question on a test and how someone behaves in real life can be two different things. For example, this Wall Street Journal article reports that some employers require applicants to take personality tests, which purportedly measure work ethic and honesty, among other traits. However, cheaters simply give the answers the test wants, sometimes even getting answer keys online. As one cheater put it, this type of test "weeds out people who are honest and selects those who lie."

A true test of ethics would see how people behave when no one is looking. But then we wouldn't be able to obtain results. If we watch people behave, then they don't behave naturally. This is an example of quantum physics played out in real life: the act of observing something alters the thing being observed.

But I'm not looking for a test that allows outside observers to determine your ethics, I'm looking for a self-administered test that individuals can take to assess their own ethics. This would be like those tests that measure political philosophy (are you conservative, liberal or libertarian?)

When no one else will see the results of the test, I suspect that people will be more honest. However, I also think they still will be able to know what the correct answer is supposed to be and there will be a bias. I also think that people might think they're answering honestly, but how they think of ethics and how they act might be two things. For example, someone who says it's wrong to take office supplies home for personal use might take a computer keyboard home, justifying it by saying the office has so many unused ones hanging around, they won't miss one. This is where theory and practice clash.

Maybe the best test would be this. Present a scenario that describes someone behaving in a way that might or might not be ethical. The test-taker then lists reasons the bahavior might be considered ethical and reasons the behavior might not be. Maybe the way someone debates an issue will be the way we can gain insight into that person's ethics.

For example, here's a scenario. It's winter in the San Francisco Bay Area. At 6:00 PM it's already dark. A man is driving home from work. His daughter is in a school play tonight, beginning at 6:30. He wants to be on time, he promised his daughter he would be there. But traffic is really bad. It looks like he'll be late. Unless he drives in the carpool lane. That lane is for cars carrying two or more people. But he's alone. Describe some arguments that say ethically it is OK for him to drive in the carpool lane, but also give some arguments that say ethically that it is not OK for him to drive in the carpool lane.

My guess is that the arguments people describe would tell a lot about the stage of ethics they are in. I'm not saying I could necessarily interpret them, but I think we might be able to gain insight. For instance, does someone say, as an argument for it's OK, "It's dark, the probability that the Highway Patrol will be able to see that he is solo is so low, he won't get caught." That seems to imply stage 1. Or someone who says, as an argument for it's not OK, "Too bad, you should have planned for the possibility of traffic, the law is the law." That implies stage 2.

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