14 What is Ethical Judgement?


Ethics is concerned with the kind of people we are, but also with the things we do or fail to do. This could be called the “ethics of doing.” Some people, however, don’t take the time to consider the ethical dimensions of given situations before they act. This may happen  because they have not gathered all of the necessary information needed, while others might rationalize excuses, employ defense mechanisms, or incorrectly gauge the intensity of the situation.

A well-known joke shared regularly when many of us were growing up asks, “How do you clean Dracula’s teeth?” The response is very simple: “Very carefully.”  When we think about the question, “How do we make ethical decisions in our modern world?” the response to this childhood joke seems very appropriate here as well.  Unfortunately, we live in an time where many important situations are not thought through carefully, and too often, are responded to impulsively.

We need to help students realize that in order to know what to do in a given situation, they should explore issues carefully–gathering all the relevant facts, considering the actions involved, and evaluating the potential consequences. Once they have clarified these points, their personal values can guide them in making a final decision.  This is the process and basis for what we can call “ethical judgment.”

Judgment on an ethical issue will usually depend on two things: values and priorities.

Values are the things that we hold important for our sense of who we are. They are expressed in statements such as “human life and dignity should be protected,” or “cheating is wrong.” They develop over time and are influenced by family, religion, education, peers and a whole range of experiences, both good and bad, that have helped shape us.

In some situations, even people who agree on the same values, will disagree on the decision because a particular situation brings different values into conflict. This will require people to prioritize their values. It is sometimes referred to as an “ethical dilemma,” where there does not seem to be any solution without compromising one’s values, or where one’s decision may have negative consequences.

This was famously demonstrated by social psychologist Stanley Milgram, whose research experiment exposed how external social forces, even the most subtle, have surprisingly powerful effects on our behavior and our ethical judgment.

Milgram created an electric ‘shock generator’ with 30 switches. The switch was marked clearly in 15-volt increments, ranging from 15 to 450 volts.  The “shock generator” was in fact phony and would only produce sound when the switches were pressed. 40 subjects (males) were recruited via mail and a newspaper ad. They thought they were going to participate in an experiment about memory and learning. In the test, each subject was informed clearly that their payment was for showing up, and they could keep the payment regardless of what happened after they arrived.

Next, the subject met an “experimenter,” the person leading the experiment, and another person told to be another subject. The other subject was in fact a confederate to the experiment, only acting as a subject.  The two subjects drew slips of paper to indicate who was going to be a “teacher” and who was going to be a “learner.” The lottery was in fact a set-up, and the real subject would always get the role of the teacher.

The teacher saw that the learner was strapped to a chair and electrodes were attached. The subject was then seated in another room in front of the shock generator, unable to see the learner. The subject was then instructed to “teach” word-pairs to the learner. When the learner made a mistake, the subject was instructed to punish the learner by giving him a shock, 15 volts higher for each mistake. The “learner,” keep in mind, never received the shocks, but pre-taped audio was triggered when a shock-switch was pressed.

If the experimenter, seated in the same room, was contacted, the experimenter would answer with predefined prodding such as “Please continue,” “Please go on,” “The experiment requires that you go on,” “It is absolutely essential that you continue,” “You have no other choice, you must go on.” If the subject asked who was responsible if anything would happen to the learner, the experimenter answered “I am responsible.” This gave the subject a relief and many continued with the process of administering shocks.

Although most subjects were uncomfortable doing it, all 40 subjects obeyed up to 300 volts. 25 of the 40 subjects continued to complete to give shocks until the maximum level of 450 volts was reached.

So what happened to each participant’s ethical judgment?

While we would like to believe that when confronted with ethical dilemmas we will all act in the best possible way, Milgram’s experiment revealed that in a concrete situation with powerful social constraints, ethical systems can be compromised. This experiment also shows us the necessity for people to improve their ethical judgment.


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Introduction to Ethics Copyright © by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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