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Reversibility Test:

The Reversibility Test captures a central idea in Kantian formalism, the idea of universalizing one's actions. It is also the main idea behind the Golden Rule. Positively, it tells us to do to others what we would have them do to us. Negatively, it tells us not to subject anybody to something when we would be unwilling to have them subject us to it. Thus, we are treating reversibility as a key procedure to asking the universalizing question: "would I recommend that all persons in this situation act this way?"

On the worksheet, we add the guidance that the test is about treating others with respect. Again, we do this in the spirit of Kant who sees the issues of treating other as ends (rather than only means) as an issue of respecting the autonomy of all humans. Kant sees the universalizing question and the ends question as essentially the same, and so we combine them into this test. We think it helps make the test a more faithful caricature of Kantian ethics.

Steps in Applying the Reversibility Test

  1. Determine who is going to be affected by your action.
  2. Determine how they are going to be affected.
  3. Reverse roles: put them in your place (as the agent or doer of the action) and yourself in their place (as the one subjected to the action).
  4. Answer this question: If you were in their place, would you still find the action treated you with respect?

Closely related, alternative tests:

  • Does the proposed action treat others with respect? (Does it recognize their autonomy or circumvent it?)
  • Does the action violate the rights of others? (Examples of rights: Free and informed consent, privacy, freedom of conscience, due process, property, freedom of expression)
  • Would I recommend that this action become a universal rule?
  • Am I treating others in this situation only as a means to my own ends? (one is allowed to treat others as means, as in a business transaction, but not only as means)

Problems with the Reversibility Test.

Problem: Many students misapply the reversibility test in situations where they are being asked to comply with a morally questionable proposal. Take the case of the supervisor ordering you to dump a drum of toxic chemicals in the field behind the plant. A group of students might claim that this would fail the reversibility test because it upsets the supervisor: if you changed places with her, you would be upset when she refused to carry out your order.

Remedy: There are several responses to this. First, would she really be upset that a subordinate refused to carry out an order that was illegal? Second, the issue in the reversibility test is not whether your action may upset someone, but whether it treats those who will be affected by your action with respect. Refusing to carry out your supervisor's illegal order is consistent with treating her with respect if, in your refusal, you make it clear that the grounds of your refusal is not your lack of respect but your concern about the illegality of the order; in other words you are not objecting to the person but to the order. Third, an action may not be reversible with all stakeholders especially if stakeholder interests conflict with one another. In this situation, you must work to honor all the conflicting interests. If this should prove impossible then you must honor those that have the highest moral value. Sacrificing the safety and health of the people living near your plant in order to keep from upsetting your supervisor seems to get it backwards. Finally, have them focus on the action of the supervisor. Is his action reversible in relation to you or to the public whose health and safety is at stake? If his action violates the test of reversibility and you, nevertheless, go along with it, then your compliance would also violate this test.

If students have trouble working with the idea of reversibility, have them substitute other closely related tests. The Golden Rule is familiar and turns on the notion of reversibility. Another alternative would be to have them look at the rights involved. (Formalist ethical approaches argue that reversibility underlies our system of basic human rights and duties.) A third alternative is to have them examine whether their course of action treats stakeholders with respect or upholds their dignity.

Problem: Closely related to the previous problem is the tendency to reduce the reversibility test to the harm test. Often the question, "Would I think this a good choice if I were among those affected?" gets converted into the question, "What impact would my proposed action have on others?"

Remedy: Point out that the reversibility test focuses, not on the consequences of your proposed action, but on whether this action treats others with respect. Does it circumvent their ability to make decisions for themselves? Does it deceive or manipulate them? Is it paternalistic toward others in that it seeks to make decisions for them that they are capable of making themselves? Results enter into the answers to these questions but they are not the central issue; the central issue, again, is whether the proposed action treats others with dignity.