• Club Number 18039
  • District 9685
  • Chartered 1946

The Four-Way Test

Community Service

In 1932, Rotarian Herbert J. Taylor created The Four-Way Test, a code of ethics adopted by Rotary 11 years later.  The Test has been translated into more than 100 languages and forms a foundation for all Rotarians to follow, when conducting their business, personal and community lives.

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History of The Four-Way Test

Back in 1932 Herbert J. Taylor was assigned, by the creditors of the Club Aluminum Cookware Company, the task of saving the company from being closed out as a bankrupt organisation.

Taylor said “While they had a good product, their competitors also had fine cookware with well-advertised brand names.  Club Aluminum also had some fine people working for it, but their competitors had the same.  Our competitors were naturally in much stronger financial condition than we were.”

Taylor felt that the Company needed to develop in their organisation, something that their competitors would not have in equal amount.  He decided it should be the character, dependability and service-mindedness of the Company personnel which makes the difference, and he felt that a simple measuring stick of ethics that everyone in the company could memorize, would do the trick.  He further believed that the proposed test should not tell people what they must do, but ask them questions to help them to find out whether their proposed plans, policies, statements or actions were right or wrong.

After much thought, and not a few prayers, Taylor picked up a white card and wrote out The Four-Way Test of the things we think, say or do:

  1. Is it the truth?
  2. Is it fair to all concerned?
  3. Will it build good will and better friendships?
  4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Taylor said “I placed this little test under the glass top of my desk and determined to try it out for a few days before talking to anyone else in the company about it.  I had a very discouraging experience.  I almost threw it into the waste-basket the first day when I checked everything that passed over my desk with the first question, "Is it the truth?".  I never realized before how far I often was from the truth and how many untruths appeared in our company's literature, letters and advertising.

“After about sixty days of faithful, constant effort on my part to live up to The Four-Way Test, I was thoroughly sold on its great worth and at the same time greatly humiliated, and at times discouraged, with my own performance as president of the company.

“I had, however, made sufficient progress in living up to The Four-Way Test to feel qualified to talk to some of my four department heads.  One was a Roman Catholic, the second a Christian Scientist, the third an Orthodox Jew and the fourth a Presbyterian.  I asked each man whether or not there was anything in the test that was contrary to the doctrines and ideals of his particular faith.  All four agreed that truth, justice, friendliness and helpfulness coincided with their religious ideals and if constantly applied in business should result in greater success and progress.  These four agreed to use the test in checking proposed plans, policies, statements and advertising of the company.

Later, all employees were asked to memorize and use the test in their relations with others.  “Over the years, steady progress was made in reaching the ideals expressed in The Four-Way Test.  From a bankrupt condition in 1932, our company within a twenty-year period had paid its debt in full, paid its stockholders over one million dollars in dividends and was worth over two million dollars.”  (This was written in about 1952).

“Intangible dividends from the use of The Four-Way Test have been even greater than the financial ones.  We have enjoyed a constant increase in the goodwill, friendship and confidence of our customers, our competitors and the public... and what is even more valuable... a great improvement in the moral character of our own personnel.  You cannot constantly apply The Four-Way Test to all your relations with others in business without getting into the habit of doing it in your home, social and community life.  You thus become a better parent, a better friend and a better citizen.”

Herbert J. Taylor (18 April 1893 – 1 May 1978) was a member of the Chicago, Illinois USA Rotary Club at the time, and later became President of his Rotary Club and then District Governor.  In 1944, when he was an international director of Rotary, he offered The Four-Way Test to the organisation and it was adopted by Rotary for its internal and promotional use.  He served as President of Rotary International in 1954-55.

The Four-Way Test has been promoted around the world and is used in myriad forms to encourage personal and business ethical practices.

Ethics Essay on The Four-Way Test

We are assaulted daily in the media with news about ethics, from the corporate and government sectors in particular, but also from athletics, the behavior of both coaches and athletes.  It is not only the questionable ethics of the people in the news, but the ethics of the media in their reporting.  In spite of having spent my career in journalism, don't expect me to be an apologist for sloppy reporting!

Ethics is defined in various ways, but central to any definition is that ethics is decision-making – decision-making based on individual responsibility for making right decisions.  Ethics is not just what is imposed by law, not just what is defined in company policy, not just what is written into a code.  Ethics is more than what is expected by civilized society.  Ethics rises above each, and all, of those standards.  Ethics is the choice to do what is right, not because it is required or expected, but because it is RIGHT.  That requires making sometimes hard decisions.  But therein is ethics.

Allow me to take you through some situations, and consideration of some decisions, that will perhaps help us put The Four-Way Test to an increasingly meaningful application.  Let me first take you on a vicarious trip.

On your vacation, you and a lifelong friend go to the Great Smoky Mountains on a hiking expedition.  On a precarious climb, your friend falls down a steep slope, cracks his skull against a boulder, and lies bleeding and unconscious.  You manage to get him back up on the trail, and somehow summon the strength to carry him to your car.  You drive him to the nearest town, where there is a small private hospital.

As you approach the hospital, you recall that your friend is self-employed and has no medical insurance, while you work for a large company and have full coverage with the group.  You are concerned that, with no insurance, he might be sent on to a more distant public hospital.  So quickly you switch billfolds with your unconscious friend.  He is identified by your name, your insurance information goes on the hospital record, and your friend gets the emergency treatment you are convinced he needs.

A doctor later tells you that he will be fine, but he is very lucky to have such a dedicated friend who got him treated quickly – for without early emergency treatment he almost certainly would have died.

Now I pose for you a pair of troubling questions.

First, is truth-telling an absolute principle that should not have been violated, even under such circumstances as these?

Second, does the end justify the means? Does saving the life of a friend justify the lie, and what amounts to the stealing of services?

On the one hand, we are confronted with principles that could be considered absolute.  To lie is wrong.  To steal is wrong.  But if we do not allow for an exception in this instance, your friend might have died.

On the other hand, desirable results may tempt us to argue that the end justifies the means.  A life was saved because of a misrepresentation and the acquiring of services that otherwise might have been withheld.  But if we universalise this justification, we would then be required to agree to many wrongs, even some criminal acts, if it could be argued that some good purpose was served.

What I have related is a true story.  It happened a few years ago to two friends from New Orleans, and they were convicted of theft by deception.  But that was in response to the law.  In terms of the ethics of our Four-Way Test, how do we balance questions 1. (TRUTH) and 4. (BENEFICIAL)?

What we have introduced – and what we face almost daily in our professions, our businesses, our personal lives – is the classic struggle between two important ethical considerations in our decision-making – principle and pragmatism. Examples are so very common among us that most of them go unrecognised.

Gentlemen, the lady of your life cuts her hair but you liked it long.  She asks your opinion and you tell her how becoming it is.  Or ladies, the man in your life wears a tie you think is ghastly, but you bite your tongue and compliment him on his good taste.  In each case, it's a lie – never mind that it's classified as a white lie – but it's justified as serving the good cause of keeping good relations.  How do we balance Questions 1. (TRUTH) and 3. (GOODWILL)?

Some such examples might be dismissed as flippant and of little serious concern.  However, distinctions between principle and pragmatism often take on much more serious consideration in real life.  Some very real examples:

It is unfortunately becoming common for those who violate the law and/or ethics to ride their publicity to fame and fortune – one might say from shame to riches.  Some who come to mind are G. Gordon Liddy, Monica Lewinsky and more recently New York Times reporter Jayson Blair.

The world continues to debate the wisdom of what was called a preemptive strike against Saddam Hussein.  A long-standing principle holds that a civilized society does not start a war.  On the other hand, it was argued that Iraq was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and had already demonstrated its willingness to use them.  Principle versus pragmatism.

Society was conflicted over media showing of the bodies of the dead sons of Hussein.  Although such display is generally avoided, it was in this case thought necessary to accomplish the purpose of assuring the Iraqi people that the sons of Saddam were truly no more a menace.  More principle versus pragmatism.

Some few months ago, a team of doctors sought to separate 29-year-old twins, congenitally joined at the head.  The patients died.  Medical ethicists debated whether the doctors were justified in attempting to give them a better life, in spite of the risks.  Principle versus pragmatism.

A few years ago, 85 children and their teachers were taken hostage at West End Christian School in my home-town, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  The governor of the state promised in a telephone call and in a videotaped message that if the gunman would come out peacefully without harming the children, he would be granted the press conference he requested and would be pardoned.  But when he emerged in response to this promise, he was pinned violently to the ground, handcuffed and led away to jail, screaming "...but the governor promised...."

Was the obvious lie justified, in that it resulted in ending the crisis with no physical harm to any of the children?  Or were the children taught by demonstration that the authorities are not to be trusted?  Do we justify a decision because "it works"? Or do we stand on principle and insist that truth should have been maintained?  How shall we balance TRUTH against BENEFICIAL?

Many states have struggled with controversy over legalized gambling, whether casinos, lotteries, race tracks, or bingo. Many believe that gambling is wrong as a matter of principle.  Proponents tout its financial benefits, especially when other revenue sources dry up.  Still, if gambling is deemed morally wrong, the justification violates principle.  How shall we balance FAIRNESS against BENEFICIAL?

And perhaps most seriously of all, we are pitting principle against practicality in the matter of human life, both at its beginning and at its ending.  Without straying into a debate on the controversies of abortion and assisted death, let me point out the dichotomy, that in the heat of emotion, is commonly overlooked.

Those who identify with the woman's freedom of choice position, may in effect say, If you don't believe in abortion, don't have an abortion.  But it's my choice what I believe or do.  This underscores the practicality of individual rights.

On the other hand, those who identify with the right-to-life position argue that as a matter of principle they speak for the unborn, that a woman's choice deprives another being – the unborn child – of the opportunity for life outside the womb.

The two sides will likely not ever compromise so long as one appeals to an absolute principle and the other to a practical position.

At the other end of life, we are caught up in ongoing news of assisted death of the terminally ill, and in debates on when – or even if – it is ever justifiable to pull the plug on life support systems.

Many hold as a matter of principle that life is forever precious, and that families and doctors have no right to play God with the life of another.

But those faced with prolonged and hopeless suffering may conclude that heroic medical measures are not really preserving life but only demonstrating the ability of modern medical science to maintain bodily functions in what would otherwise be a corpse.

Again, we are left with a hopeless dilemma that cannot be compromised so long as some appeal to an unbending principle and others to a tempting practicality.

So it is, fellow Rotarians, that in the examples we have considered, our attempt is to recognise that sometimes principle and practicality clash, and ethics calls on us to seek a process of intelligent decision making.

Let us come, then, to look at our Rotary Four-Way Test in what may be a new and more introspective way.  Its four questions appeal to: TRUTH, FAIRNESS, GOODWILL, BENEFICIAL.

Our credo embraces the best of both principle and pragmatism.

In the first two questions, we find words of principle.  TRUTH.  FAIRNESS.

These principles call us to an apparently unbending dedication to seek truth, to dedicate ourselves to fairness.  As ideal expectations, they are not always totally attainable, but they are worthy goals.  A Rotarian who does not seek to attain the goals is falling short of the lofty standards idealised in these probing questions.

The other two questions embrace practicality.  GOODWILL.  BENEFICIAL.

These are goals usually attainable through the intelligent application of human reasoning.  They call us to practical analysis of actions, seeking the greater good that may result from our decisions.

The Four-Way Test – our Code of Ethics, is designed for those who are willing to dedicate themselves and their businesses and their professions and their social positions all that they are to the principles and the practicalities that have made Rotary what it is.

Look around almost any community – your own, for instance – and you will see that civic, social, political and economic leaders are in large part Rotarians.  I submit to you that this is no accident.  But it does lay upon our shoulders an added burden of responsibility.

It has been said that “Leaders do the right thing; managers do things right.”  That is a valid definition of ethical leadership.  Managers are employed to do the defined things right, in other words to follow.  But leaders, in order to do right things, must be the decision makers, those who determine what is right.  Rotarians, I repeat, are those leaders.

The Four-Way Test can serve us as a trusted ethical guide.  Through it, we are pointed to the ethics of principle.  Through it we are pointed to the ethics of practicality.  But as responsible, individual Rotarians, we are trusted to recognise the differences.  We are expected to apply both principle and practicality in an ethically mature way.

It is not enough that we ASK the four questions.  It is not enough that we make a decision based on some ONE of the questions.  Our Four-Way Test is not only our call to lofty principles, and to beneficial practicality – it is our challenge to combine them in ethically responsible decisions and actions.

As Rotarians, we cannot content ourselves to be conformists in what may be ethically questionable.  Our ethical convictions may bring us to challenge our colleagues, perhaps even challenge a law.  Recall that great moral heroes of history are those who were willing to stand for right, often in defiance of society and its norms.  We could mention Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa.  They were leaders.  They were not conformists.

Today, we are challenged by our Four-Way Test to prove ourselves worthy of the obligations we assumed when we accepted the name that we wear with pride, the name Rotarian.  To wear that name proudly, we must diligently adhere to principles.  We must equally consider practicalities.  We must conscientiously answer and balance the questions of our Four-Way Test.

We must, as Rotarians, be visible examples of ethically right conduct.  And we are indeed fortunate to have the Four-Way Test as our ethical guide.

Dr. Frank Deaver
Professor Emeritus of Journalism,
The University of Alabama
Member, The Rotary Club of Tuscaloosa, Alabama

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