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Why the tests?

There are certainly many problems with the simplified tests we propose here. They caricature the ethical theories they are supposed to represent. They might lead to simplistic decision making. They leave out some important current approaches to ethics. We will deal with these objections toward the end of this essay.

So, given all these objections, why risk it? Our reply assumes the tests are used carefully, and with awareness of the shortcomings. First, we think these tests actually help to move students' ethical decision making toward an appropriate level of complexity.

Our experience teaches us that students mostly think in terms of outcome-based reasoning, except when they don't. When they don't, they will talk of basic rights. Research supports this observation (see Keefer M. & Ashley, K.D. (2001) Case-based Approaches to Professional Ethics: A Systematic Comparison of Students' and Ethicists' Moral Reasoning. Journal of Moral Education 30: 377-398). Both of these kinds of reasoning are usually at a low level and unanalyzed. Students often do not even know they are switching between them or how the appeals differ.

The ethics tests make the contrasts among the different types of tests explicit and apparent. Students learn that they are different and that occasionally they disagree. Just learning this much is a useful achievement.

In addition, the tests help the student learn that ethical decision making is not simply a matter of applying rules. The rules, in the guise of these ethics tests, often don't establish a definitive answer (or even a set of definitive answers). The most help they can provide is to guide thinking on the issues and to rule out some clearly inappropriate choices.

The tests also provide some structure when evaluating a set of options. We have argued in the section on teaching with cases that some structure is necessary, and this structure is a reasonable one with which to begin. The tests should not be the only structure, but they are a good introductory one.

Finally, for those interested in exploring theories of ethics in more detail, these tests are a door into that exploration. What a critic may call shortcomings in these tests can also be treated as their strengths. We borrowed them from others and developed them because we think they capture essential insights about the sorts of questions major ethical theories propose to ask about decisions.

So, use these tests because they help make students' thinking more complex, they make explicit essential insights about major ethical approaches and make explicit the differences among those approaches, they teach students that the test do not always provide clear answers, and the tests provide some structure to students as they explore their own insights about a case.