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Arts & Letters Daily


Universal consequences test

A person can be invited to ‘test’ his judgment by considering the consequences of applying his judgment to all like hypothetical or real situations. Suppose a teacher punished a fifteen year old boy for denying that he had stolen the teacher’s car keys when in fact, he had stolen them. In other words, the teacher punished the boy for lying to the teacher. Suppose Teacher B agrees with Teacher A that the boy should be punished but disagrees with Teacher A’s reason for punishment. Teacher B thinks that the boy should be punished due to the seriousness of stealing other people’s car keys because such theft increases the temptation to steal cars. That must be discouraged in order to protect private property, argues Teacher B.

Neither teacher is willing to give in to the other person’s argument. Finally, in desperation Teacher B asks Teacher A to consider the consequences of punishing everyone for telling lies or making false statements. For example,  what about the two-year old who sometimes imagines things to be different from what they really are? What about old people who sometimes experience memory lapses? What about the problem of ‘selective perception’ frequently characterizing witnesses at the scene of an accident? What about a teacher who ‘signs in’ a fellow teacher who is late for school? What about failing to report some personal income on the income tax returns? What about the ‘white lie’ to cover a minor breach of rules in order to avoid embarrassment? What about a ‘white lie’ to get a friend ‘off the hook’? What about withholding vital information as a witness in a civil court case? What about a lie to protect the innocent in time of invasion? What about war spies who live a life of deception on behalf of a country they love? These are just a few questions Teacher B might ask to invite Teacher A to consider the universal consequences of punishing people whenever they make false statements. Applying the universal consequences test might help Teacher A to reconsider the adequacy of his ‘justification’ for punishing the boy for lying.

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