Everyday Ethics – What If Everybody Did?

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By: Jim Mitchell, CLU®, ChFC®

In our last issue, I talked about using the Golden Rule as a guide to ethical conduct on a day-to-day basis—what I called “everyday ethics”. There is another guide that I find helpful, too. It is a simplification—philosophers would say a vast over-simplification—of what Immanuel Kant called the categorical imperative. My version is: “What if Everybody Did”?

In other words, “what sort of place would the world be if everyone acted in the way I am considering acting?”

After I finish my candy bar in the park, I am considering dropping the wrapper on the ground. The Golden Rule—Do unto others as you would have them do unto you—is not a very helpful guide here. The park will not do anything unto me, regardless of whether I drop my candy wrapper or not.

But “What if Everybody Did?” is helpful in this situation. If everybody dropped their candy wrappers in the park, the park would become cluttered and ugly. That is why there are waste cans periodically throughout the park, so that people will dispose of their trash in them instead of littering. It is clear that dropping my candy wrapper on the ground would not be a good thing to do.

It turns out that “What If Everybody Did?” is useful to me in dealing with more complex ethical dilemmas, too. Here is one example: In a good number of our cities we see people standing on street corners with cardboard signs. The signs typically say that these people are homeless and hungry. The people want a handout. Do I give them one?

Surely, compassion suggests that I should share my good fortune with those less fortunate than I.  Sometimes it hurts me to just pass these people by. But I do not give them money. Why not? “What if Everybody Did?”

Many of the people standing on the street corners are addicts and use the cash they are given to feed their addiction. If everybody gives them cash, they will have more money to feed their addictions and will never seek treatment. Instead, my wife and I support a homeless shelter and addiction treatment center. If no one gave the homeless cash, more of them would seek shelter and treatment in this warm and healthy place.

Not all of the people on the street corners are addicts. A number appear to be able-bodied young people. What if everybody gave them money? Then they would have no incentive to ever enter the workforce and find a job that is productive for themselves and for society. Conversely, if no one gave them money, they would have an incentive to get a job. (Yes, Virginia, there are plenty of jobs available for people who really are willing to work.) With a job, they have an opportunity to gain self-respect, to learn additional skills and advance to become productive, contributing members of society.

Whether or not you agree with my approach to the question of  Whether to give handouts to people on street corners, I hope “What if Everybody Did?” is a useful guideline for you as you think through the ethical dilemmas in your life.