Imagine that three people see a twenty-dollar bill on the front seat of an unlocked car. Each person walks past and leave the cash there. Why? The first person wanted to take the money but passed up the opportunity for fear of punishment if caught in the act. The second rejected the temptation out of a conviction that God makes certain rules that people are to follow, and one of those rules is that we shouldn’t take things that don’t belong to us. The third refrained from taking the money because of empathy—awareness of how frustrated and angry she herself would be if some of her money were stolen.
The action is the same for each individual—no one took the money. But people do things for reasons and the reasons behind the same action in the case above vary significantly. The bumper-sticker-sized version of the first person’s ethics is “Whatever you do, don’t get caught,” while that of the second person is “Thou shall not steal.” The final persona builds her morality around “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” These different reasons grow out of differences in theories about what constitutes right behavior.
Though none of the three people may have been immediately conscious of these theories at work, the theories were there, and they guided each person’s behavior.
Also consider the motives or the reasons behind the action.
Why they did what they did—the theoretical basis of their actions—is significant.
The reality is we must make decisions about the ethical issues confronting us, and we must have a theoretical foundations on which to build and evaluate these decisions.
In other words, the issue is not whether we have a theory, but whether we are conscious of the theory we do have and believe it is the best available guide for our life. We do not choose to be ethicists; we cannot opt out of that. The real question is whether we are going to be good ethicists.
Steve Wilkens, Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics