“It’s a serious problem.”
“Something needs to be done.”
“This is a public health issue.”
The media defenses of New York Mayor Bloomberg’s controversial decision to ban the sale of large soft drink servings in New York City, and Bloomberg’s defense as well, set up a classic utilitarian argument for a government intrusion into personal choice and lifestyle. It is, simply, that the ends justify the means, and as we all know, sometimes they do.
Sometimes, however, those means sacrifice too much: lives, dignity, fairness, liberty, fun. Sometimes employing those means require crossing lines that have not been crossed before, opening the door to more and greater sacrifices that even advocates of the particular measure would find objectionable and wrong. This leads to the slippery slope dilemma, and invokes absolutism. Some things must never be considered as just means, no matter what the ends being sought may be. Emmanuel Kant’s philosophy of absolutism declared that it was always wrong to use human beings against their wills to solve problems, no matter how great the problems are. The Declaration of Independence holds that a human being’s rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness must never be breached by government.
“It’s a serious problem” and “We have to do something” are mantras that permit both reasonable and unreasonable intrusions on liberty, personal choice and dignity. “We have to do something” about the thousands upon thousands of human lives lost to abortions: Let’s make abortion illegal. Let’s require licenses for sex.
“It’s a serious problem” that some people who can afford it refuse to but health insurance. Let’s make them do it.
“We have to do something” about the levels of obesity because it is making people sick. “It’s a serious problem” that only government has the power to address. Let’s tell people what they can eat and drink. Let’s ban sugar; let’s limit fat. Let’s do public weigh-ins, and permit open discrimination against fat people. Let’s make exercise mandatory, and take public benefits away from people who make themselves obese.
If you think I’m able to make a reflex call on the ethics of Bloomberg’s ban, you are wrong. This kind of public policy decision, much like the Obamacare individual mandate being judged by the Supreme Court, and yes, like the decision (by the Bush administration) of the U.S. to use torture against terrorists, and the decision (by the Obama administration) to target individuals on foreign soil, including American citizens, for drone assassination, sets cultural and societal ethics standards with wide-ranging consequences for our society for decades to come, and perhaps forever. It is a classic ethical conflict, pitting ethical principles, values and philosophies against each other, and must be discussed, analyzed and debated seriously, not with bumper sticker slogans and insults about broccoli and nanny states, or one-sided formulations like “we have to do something!” which bypass ethical analysis entirely.
I’ve been looking for an opportunity to apply Prof. Laura Nash’s “12 Questions Toward Ethical Decision-Making” to a public policy issue, and this is a perfect subject. But I’m not going to answer her questions right now: you should. Here they are, from her 1981 Harvard Business School article, “Ethics without the Sermon.” She crafted the questions for business, but they apply in government equally well. What I have always liked about Nash’s questions is that they forego ethics jargon, and go to the heart of what makes a decision right or wrong in the short and long-term. Ideally, they should be paired with the Josephson Institute’s model for ethical decision-making, which leads the Ethics Alarms Ethical Decision-making Tools, right before the Nash questions. But let’s start with Prof. Nash. Does Bloomberg’s ban seem like a reasonable and ethical course of action, after all of her questions are considered and answered?
TWELVE QUESTIONS TOWARD ETHICAL DECISION-MAKING
[These 12 questions for examining the ethics of a decision were adapted from the steps formulated by Harvard Business School Professor Laura Nash in her Harvard Business Review article, "Ethics without the Sermon" (1981)]
1. Have you defined the problem accurately?
2. How would you define the problem if you stood on the other side of the fence?
3. How did this situation occur in the first place?
4. To whom and to what do you give your loyalty as a person and as a member of the organization?
5. What is your intention in making this decision?
6. How does this intention compare with the probable results?
7. Whom could your decision injure?
8. Can you discuss the problem with the affected parties before you make your decision?
9. Are you confident that your position will be as valid over a long period of time as it seems now?
10. Could you disclose without qualm your decision or action to your boss, the head of your organization, your colleagues, your family, the person you most admire, or society as a whole?
11. What is the symbolic potential of your action if understood? If misunderstood?
12. Are there circumstances when you would allow exceptions to your stand? What are they?
Source: NY Times
Graphic: The Improper
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