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When is “Everyone's Doing It” A Moral Justification?

  • Ronald M. Green (a1)

The claim that “Everyone's doing it” is frequently offered as a reason for engaging in behavior that is widespread but less-than-ideal. This is particularly true in business, where competitors’ conduct often forces hard choices on managers. When is the claim “Everyone's doing it” a morally valid reason for following others’ lead? This discussion proposes and develops five prima facie conditions to identify when the existence of prevalent but otherwise undesirable behavior provides a moral justification for our engaging in such behavior ourselves. The balance of the discussion focuses on testing these conditions by applying them to a series of representative cases in business ethics.

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1 An act is excusable if moral agents regard it as impermissible but are prepared to withhold deserved blame or punishment to one who performed it because of factors such as that person's incapacity or ignorance. An act is morally justified if one who performs it does not merit blame or punishment for doing so.

2 See, for example, Bainton, Roland, War and the Christian (New York: Abingdon Press, 1960).

3 In his Leviathan, Ch. XV, and De Cive, Ch. III:27, Hobbes anticipates subsequent discussions of this issue in his assertions that conduct in accordance with the laws of nature is not obligatory when no others act as these laws require. In more recent literature, discussions touching on aspects of this question are found in Singer, Marcus, Generalization in Ethics (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), pp. 152161;Baier, Kurt, The Moral Point of View, abridged edition (New York: Random House, 1965), especially pp. 135ff.; and Glover, Jonathan, “‘It Makes No Difference Whether or Not I Do It,’” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supp. Vol. XLIX, 171190 [Reprinted in Peter Singer, ed., Applied Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 125–144]. Relevant aspects of Hobbes's, Singer's, Baier's and Glover's treatments are discussed in notes below.

4 Singer, Generalization in Ethics, p. 153.

5 I am indebted to my colleague, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, for this litany of uses of the “Everyone's doing it” claim.

6 Hobbes appears to address an aspect of this consideration when he observes that one is exempted in foro externo from obeying the laws of nature when no others do so and when, by obeying these laws, one “procures his own certain ruin.” Correspondingly, Hobbes insists that one may not disobey these laws, even in foro externo when one has “sufficient security that others shall observe the same laws toward him.”— Leviathan, Ch. XV. See also Singer, Generalization in Ethics, p. 161.

7 Singer recognizes this consideration as a restraint on the use of physical violence in non-life-threatening situations.— Generalization in Ethics, p. 157.

8 Glover signals the consideration of one's “contribution to an amoral climate” in the course of his effort to provide a consequentialist justification of not acting in ways that others might act in one's stead.—“‘It Makes No Difference Whether or Not I Do It,” in Singer, ed., p. 132. Glover neglects the public rule dimension of such conduct, however, and relies only on the various direct impacts of one's conduct on others or the internalized psychological consequences of acting in ways that violate one's moral ideals.

9 In his treatment of the question of when others’ behavior justifies our acting in ways that would be undesirable if everyone were to act this way, Baier partly expresses the reasoning behind his conditions when he observes, “[I]f I have reason to suppose that others will not refrain [from such conduct], I surely have reason not to refrain either, as the only reason to refrain is to avert the evil consequences. If these cannot be avoided, there is no reason why I should make a sacrifice” (ibid., p. 135). It is not clear from Baier's discussion that he has discouragement, as opposed to direct effects in mind. Nor is it clear whether he also takes into account the possible consequences of one's conduct if it were (even only hypothetically) to become public knowledge, that is, whether he goes beyond a strictly utilitarian estimate of consequences to evaluate the impact of conduct as a public rule. Baier again partly takes into account the public rule dimension of conduct when he says, immediate consequences aside, that we are required to refrain from such conduct “if the morality or the custom or the law of the group already does contain a rule forbidding such behavior” (p. 136). But he does not discuss conduct not yet inscribed as a public rule, but nevertheless unacceptable as a form of publicly acknowledged behavior in the society at issue.

10 Williams, Bernard, in his “A Critique of Utilitarianism,” [in Smart, J. J. C., and Williams, Bernard, Utilitarianism: For and Against (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 98100] presents a case in which an individual is faced with a murderer's offer to spare twenty lives if the individual will kill one person instead. Ostensibly, this is the kind of situation where this fifth condition might come into play. However, this condition does not stand alone. Conditions 3 and 4, with their focus on the implications of the implicit public rule generated by a form of behavior for encouraging or discouraging undesirable conduct by others, must also be taken into account. In this case, the relevant consideration is the invitation that acquiescence to such a threat represents to those who would use other persons as agents of violence. Because Williams does not see this larger structure of reasoning, including its public rule dimension, he retreats to a non-consequential ist, virtue-oriented position to counter the morally repugnant implication of strict consequentialism here.

11 For a discussion of this matter, see Singer, Generalization in Ethics, p. 159.

12 The “unavoidability” consideration included in conditions 1 and 5 obviously requires a reasonable and impartial weighing of relative alternatives. For example, if all the ways I can avoid personal economic hardship in refusing to engage in a widespread practice will cause the even greater economic hardship of going out of business, this would count as an instance of the “unavoidable” harm indicated by condition 1. Similarly, if my refraining from a form of conduct inflicted serious evils on people and the only ways open to me to avoid this outcome involved imposing even greater harms on these same people, this would count as an instance of the “unavoidable” harm indicated by condition 5.

13 I think of this as the Judenrat condition. During the events of the Holocaust, members of the Jewish leadership serving on Jewish councils (Judenrat) in German-occupied areas frequently argued that their complicity in heinous German crimes was necessary to prevent German seizure of control and the consequence of even worse suffering by the Jewish people. Although events usually tragically proved these arguments to be factually mistaken, the valid moral logic of the arguments themselves is expressed in this condition.

14 In some cases, the first condition may also identify a situation of moral requiredness, as when an individual has responsibilities to other persons in a firm or community who might be harmed by that individual's refraining from complicity in an undesirable practice.

15 For a good discussion of this concept, see Gert, Bernard, Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 141146.

16 Similarly, John Rawls maintains that the “expository device” or the “original position” arises from and expresses more basic considerations in the moral reasoning process. See his A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 21.

17 Gert, Morality, pp. 146–48.

18 This conclusion may be amplified by prudential reasons for not doing so, including the value of such a refusal in preventing future extortion of your firm in this setting and the possible harms such payments might inflict on your policies and standing in the home country.

19 For a discussion of ethical issues in the marketing of formula to third world nations, see Sethi, S. Prakash and Post, E. James, “Public Consequences of Private Actions: The Marketing of Infant Formula in Less Developed Countries,California Management Review, XXI: 4 (1979), 3548.

20 Hardin, Garrett, “The Tragedy of the Commons,Science, 163 (1968): 1248.

21 Rawls outlines this approach to moral theorizing in A Theory of Justice, p. 20.

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Business Ethics Quarterly
  • ISSN: 1052-150X
  • EISSN: 2153-3326
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