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Publicity Test:

In the Publicity Test, a person's actions manifest essential elements of his or her character. What we do reveals who we are. Our actions provide others with a window through which they can view our souls. Under this test, when I contemplate an action, I ask whether I would want to be known as the kind of person who would do this. For example, if the action were cowardly, would I want to be known as a coward? If the action were irresponsible, would I want to be revealed (to myself as well as to others) as irresponsible?

This test encapsulates the approach known as virtue ethics. Virtue ethics is less about how right or wrong a particular action is and more about the character of the person. Thus, in this test, the action is judged in terms of what it says about the person, rather than on any effects that action may have.

Steps in Applying the Publicity Test

  1. Consider that the action you are about to perform provides a window through which others can see who you really are.
  2. Then take the perspective of those others who are about to judge your character through your action.
  3. Ask the following question: Would others view you as a good person for what you are about to do?


Consider the following list of virtues: Responsibility, Honesty, Articulateness, Perseverance, Loyalty, Cooperativeness, Creative Imagination, Habit of documenting work, Civic-Mindedness, Courage, Openness to Correction, Commitment to Quality, and Integrity. Does your action manifest any of these? Does it manifest the opposite, i.e., vices such as cowardliness, dishonesty, etc?

Problems with the Publicity test

Problem: Many students reduce the publicity test to the harm test by considering only the consequences of making the action public. For example, blowing the whistle on your company for illegal dumping of toxic wastes would fail the publicity test (under this misconception) because the consequences of making this dumping public would be the loss of your job and the adverse publicity suffered by your company.

Remedy: Any utilitarian calculation would include weighing the risk to your job and your company's image against the benefits brought to the public by revealing to them the illegal dumping. But this is the job of the harm principle, not the publicity principle. The issue here is what your action reveals about you the agent. What would people think about you if you passively went along with this illegal dumping? (Would they consider you a coward?) What would people think about you if you resisted this action, even to the point of going public and putting your job at risk? (Would they see you as a person of moral integrity who strives to do what is right even at the expense of personal sacrifice?) Perhaps your coworkers would look at you as disloyal (lacking the virtue of loyalty) but this would have to be weighed against the way the public you are trying to protect would view your action. Application of the publicity test can get complicated. But students can sort through most of this by keeping focused on the issue of what this action says about the agent as a moral person. Assume that our actions provide a window into our souls. What, then, does this particular action say about you as a person? Do you want to be known as the kind of person who would do this