Everybody Does It – Part 1: Cultural Norms

A few weeks ago at the Ethics Alarms blog, Jack Marshall published his list of 24 ways people justify unethical behavior. He starts the list with an old rationalization that is the basis for several others:

1. The Golden Rationalization, or “Everybody does it”

This rationalization has been used to excuse ethical misconduct since the beginning of civilization. It is based on the flawed assumption that the ethical nature of an act is somehow improved by the number of people who do it, and if “everybody does it,” then it is implicitly all right for you to do it as well: cheat on tests, commit adultery, lie under oath, use illegal drugs, persecute Jews, lynch blacks. Of course, people who use this “reasoning” usually don’t believe that what they are doing is right because “everybody does it.” They usually are arguing that they shouldn’t be singled out for condemnation if “everybody else” isn’t.

Since most people will admit that principles of right and wrong are not determined by polls, those who try to use this fallacy are really admitting misconduct. The simple answer to them is that even assuming they are correct, when more people engage in an action that is admittedly unethical, more harm results. An individual is still responsible for his or her part of the harm.

If someone really is making the argument that an action is no longer unethical because so many people do it, then that person is either in dire need of ethical instruction, or an idiot.

Despite Jack’s warning in the last paragraph, I’d like to write a few posts about situations where “everybody does it” is a actually a pretty good argument. I’ll let you decide whether I’m in need of ethical instruction or if I’m just an idiot.

I’ll start with the most obvious example: I don’t think anyone in this country doubts that driving on the left-hand side of a two-way road is unethical. First and foremost, it creates an immediate and potentially deadly hazard to oncoming traffic. Second, even if there’s no traffic, driving on the left side increases the possibility that a pedestrian will get hit because he or she was looking the other way. It’s so dangerous that I think we can safely say that only drunks and maniacs drive on the left-hand side of the road.

Or Englishmen. At least while they are in England, because everyone there drives on the left-hand side of the road.

I’m not sure how people ended up driving on different sides of the road in different countries — the best explantions I’ve heard have something to do with differences in the types of wagons pulled by horse-drawn teams — but whatever the reason, once one side began to dominate common practice, it would have been a huge gain in safety and efficiency to require everybody to drive on that side.

In other words, it’s the right thing to do because everybody does it.

(Arguably, the ethical rule is not “drive on the left side of the road” but rather “drive on the agreed-upon side of the road.” Driving on the other side is unethical not because there’s something bad about that side, but because it violates our common agreement about how to drive safely. That common agreement is exactly the sort of consensus ethical rule I’m talking about when I say that “everybody does it” can be a good justification.)

For another example, in the condo building where I live, except for the occasional party, I never hear the sounds of my neighbors’ lives. It would be rude for any of us to play lound music or crank up the television. If was a persistent problem, it would be cause for a complaint to the board.

This is very different from when I lived in a college dormitory, and everyone played loud musing all day and late into the night. It’s not that my college dorm mates were any less ethical than my condo neighbors. They were just younger and in college. Tolerating their neighbor’s loud music was a small price to pay for being able to play their own loud music. If anyone had complained, he would have been the one behaving rudely.

It was a case of different cultures, different rules. When the rules are defined in terms of cultural norms, then “everybody does it” isn’t just an excuse, it’s the way the rules are made.

It’s important to note that cultural norms variation of “everybody does it” only works when everybody involved is a willing participant in the culture. It’s no excuse for cultural practices such as gay bashing, slavery, or burning the heretics.

3 Responses to Everybody Does It – Part 1: Cultural Norms

  1. Playing devil’s advocate, if the rules are made by the society (group consensus) then there is technically nothing that, if agreed upon by the majority, can’t be deemed “ethical” so long as the majority signs off, can it? There being no way to objectively determine an absolute right or wrong, if the majority condones slavery or inequality, then that meets the requirements of group consensus ethical determinations. Interesting response, thanks for the post.

    • If we define conduct as ethical whenever the majority condones it, then that would be the case, but I don’t think that’s a very useful definition of ethical, because it wouldn’t give you any guidance as to what society should or should not condone. But as I describe here, there are some cases where I think majority consensus is the only meaningful ethical factor.

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