Ethics Alarms frequently refers to rationalizations, which lie at the core of most unethical conduct. They are, as one ethicist put it, lies we tell ourselves to allow us to pretend that what we know is wrong, isn’t. Some rationalizations are used so frequently, by us and others, that we come to believe them.
The list of rationalizations has been available on the blog under the Rule Book heading from the beginning, but it is constantly updated, and even though posts frequently link to it, it is clear to me, especially from comments that resort to exactly the same examples of flawed ethical reasoning that populate the list, that a lot of visitors never see it. For those readers, and also those who may not have read the Unethical Rationalizations and Misconceptions page recently, I am posting the whole list of 24 rationalizations here. If you have a candidate for #25, please send it in.
1. The Golden Rationalization, or “Everybody does it”
This rationalization has been used to excuse ethical misconduct since the beginning of civilization. It is based on the flawed assumption that the ethical nature of an act is somehow improved by the number of people who do it, and if “everybody does it,” then it is implicitly all right for you to do it as well: cheat on tests, commit adultery, lie under oath, use illegal drugs, persecute Jews, lynch blacks. Of course, people who use this “reasoning” usually don’t believe that what they are doing is right because “everybody does it.” They usually are arguing that they shouldn’t be singled out for condemnation if “everybody else” isn’t.
Since most people will admit that principles of right and wrong are not determined by polls, those who try to use this fallacy are really admitting misconduct. The simple answer to them is that even assuming they are correct, when more people engage in an action that is admittedly unethical, more harm results. An individual is still responsible for his or her part of the harm.
If someone really is making the argument that an action is no longer unethical because so many people do it, then that person is either in dire need of ethical instruction, or an idiot.
2. Consequentialism, or “It Worked Out for the Best”
The ethical nature of an act must be evaluated when it is done, and not based on its results. Consequentialism is an open invitation to extreme “the ends justify the mean” conduct, where even cruel and illegal conduct becomes “ethical” because good consequences happen to arise out of it, even when the good was completely unintended or unpredictable. Snooping into the contents of your host’s medicine cabinet is wrong, and the fact that you discovered a mislabeled pill bottle with rat poison in it doesn’t make your violation of her privacy ethical, even though it allows you to tell her and save her life. That is good fortune, not ethics. Similarly, an ethical act doesn’t become wrong because it happens to set in motion an unpredictable chain reaction resulting in a catastrophe. In the classic old “Star Trek” episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” Dr. McCoy rescuing a woman from being killed results in Nazi Germany winning W.W. II. That doesn’t mean his courageous and selfless act was unethical. It was still the right thing to do.
3. Marion Barry’s Misdirection “If it isn’t illegal, it’s ethical.”
Former D.C. Mayor ( and current unethical D.C. Councilman for Ward 8) Marion Barry earned himself a place in the Ethics Distortion Hall of Fame with his defense of his giving his blatantly unqualified girlfriend a high-paying job with the DC government. Barry declared that since there was no law against using the public payroll as his own private gift service, there was nothing unethical about it. Once the law was passed (because of him), he then agreed that what he did would be wrong the next time he did it.
Ethics is far broader than law, which is a system of behavior enforced by the state with penalties for violations. Ethics is good conduct as determined by the values and customs of society. Professions promulgate codes of ethics precisely because the law cannot proscribe all inappropriate or harmful behavior. Much that is unethical is not illegal. Lying. Betrayal. Nepotism. Many other kinds of behavior as well, but that is just the factual error in the this rationalization.
The greater problem with it is that it omits the concept of ethics at all. Ethical conduct is self-motivated, based on the individual’s values and the internalized desire to do the right thing. Barry’s construct assumes that people only behave ethically if there is a tangible, state-enforced penalty for not doing so, and that not incurring a penalty (that is, not breaking the law) is, by definition, ethical.
Nonsense, of course. It is wrong to intentionally muddle the ethical consciousness of the public, and Barry’s statement simply reinforces a misunderstanding of right and wrong.
Closely related to the Barry Misdirection is……
4. The Compliance Dodge.
Simply put, compliance with rules, including laws, isn’t the same as ethics. Compliance depends on an individual’s desire to avoid punishment. Ethical conduct arises from an individual’s genuine desire to do the right thing. The most unethical person in the world will comply if the punishment is stiff enough. But if he can do something unethical without breaking the rules, watch out!
No set of rules will apply in all situations, and one who is determined to look for loopholes in a set of laws, or rules, or in an ethics code, so that he or she can do something self-serving, dishonest, or dastardly, is likely to find a way. This is one reason why the ubiquitous corporate ethics programs that emphasize “compliance” are largely ineffective. By emphasizing compliance over ethics, such programs encourage the quest for loopholes. Remember that when Enron’s board realized that one of its financial maneuvers violated its Code of Ethics, it made compliance possible by changing the Code.
When an organization or society makes compliance…doing the right thing to avoid unpleasant consequences… the focus of its attempt to promote ethical conduct, it undermines the effort by promoting confusion in the not-infrequent circumstances when doing the right thing hurts. The better approach, and the one promoted by Ethics Alarms, is to teach and encourage good behavior and ethical virtues for their own sake. When the inevitable loophole opens up in the rules, when the opportunity to gain at someone else’s expense is there and nobody will ever know, it is the ethical, not the compliant, who will do the right thing.
5. The Biblical Rationalizations
“Judge not, lest ye not be judged,” and “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” have been quoted by scoundrels and their allies and supporters for centuries. Neither quotation means what those guilty of ethical misconduct would have us believe, but the number of people who accept the misreading is substantial.
“Judge not, lest ye not be judged” (Matthew 7:1) is frequently cited to support the position that it is inherently wrong to judge the conduct of others. Of course, if this were indeed the intended meaning, it would rank as one of the most anti-ethical sentiments ever put into print, a distinction we would not expect from the Bible. For the very concept of ethics involves the development of customs and practices that evoke approval from one’s group and those in it, and there cannot be any approval without judgement. Judging the actions of others and communicating (and perhaps even codifying) that judgement is the way ethical standards are established and maintained. To use the Biblical text in this manner is to make ethical standards all but impossible.
“Judge not…” stands instead for two tenets of wisdom, both debatable (but not now):
- Don’t judge people. Ethics involves the judgement of behavior, which is everyone’s duty in a society. Judging the whole of a person, however, as wicked, or immoral, or good, is beyond the ability of human beings. Except in very rare cases, we cannot look into a human being’s soul and determine that because he or she has done wrong, that person is a bad person.
- Be prepared to be judged by the same standards you use to judge others.It should also be noted that in several other places the Bible specifically instructs us to “judge.”
- Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8: 7,10,11) is frequently used to support the contention that only those who are perfect, that is, saints, are qualified to condemn the behavior of others. This use of the Bible passage illustrates the insidious nature of using famous phrases divorced from their contexts. The quote is from the tale of the adulteress, in which Jesus admonishes a crowd preparing to stone an adulteress, and exhorts her to “go and sin no more.” It is a story about redemption, a caution against hypocrisy, and an extension of the Golden Rule, as Jesus is calling for sympathy and empathy rather than righteous anger, especially from the men who had done exactly what she was being stoned for.
One must also remember that stoning was a life-threatening ritual in Biblical times. Like many metaphorical passages in the Bible, this metaphor can be carried too far, and has been. There is a big difference between participating in the physical wounding of an individual when one has been guilty of similar failings, and simply disapproving such conduct and calling for appropriate punishment. Interpreting the passage to mean that nobody can ever be punished or admonished for ethical misconduct except by the ethically pure is simply a cynical justification for a universal lack of accountability and responsibility.
6. The “Tit for Tat” Excuse
This is the principle that bad or unethical behavior justifies, and somehow makes ethical, unethical behavior in response to it. The logical extension of this fallacy is the abandonment of all ethical standards. Through the ages, we have been perplexed at the fact that people who don’t play by the rules have an apparent advantage over those who do, and “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!” has been the rallying cry of those who see the abandonment of values as the only way to prosper.
The very concept of ethics assumes that winning isn’t the only thing, Vince Lombardi to the contrary, and that we must hold on to ethical standards to preserve the quality of civil existence. Although maxims and aphorisms cause a lot of confusion in ethical arguments, this one is still valid in its simple logic: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
7. The Trivial Trap (Also known as “The Slippery Slope.”)
Many argue that if no tangible harm arises from a deception or other unethical act, it cannot be “wrong:” “No harm, no foul.” This is truly an insidious fallacy, because it can lead an individual to disregard the unethical nature of an action, and look only to the results of the action. Before too long, one has embraced “the ends justify the means” as an ethical system, otherwise known as “the terrorism standard.”
Closely related to The Results Obsession is the “white lie” syndrome, which embodies the theory that small ethical transgressions are not ethical transgressions at all.Both carry the same trap: the practice of ethics is based upon habit, and one who habitually behaves unethically in small ways is nonetheless building the habit of unethical behavior. Incremental escalations in the unethical nature of the acts, if not inevitable, are certainly common. Thus even an unethical act that causes no direct harm to others can harm the actor, by setting him or her on the slippery slope.
8. The King’s Pass
One will often hear unethical behavior excused because the person involved is so important, so accomplished, and has done such great things for so many people that we should look the other way, just this once. This is a terribly dangerous mindset, because celebrities and powerful public figures come to depend on it. Their achievements, in their own minds and those of their supporters and fans, have earned them a more lenient ethical standard. This pass for bad behavior is as insidious as it is pervasive, and should be recognized and rejected when ever it raises its slimy head. In fact, the more respectable and accomplished an individual is, the more damage he or she can do through unethical conduct, because such individuals engender great trust. Thus the corrupting influence on the individual of The King’s Pass leads to the corruption of other others through…
9. The Dissonance Drag
Cognitive dissonance is an innately human process that can muddle the ethical values of an individual without him or her even realizing that it is happening. The most basic of cognitive dissonance scenarios occurs when a person whom an individual regards highly adopts a behavior that the same individual deplores. The gulf between the individual’s admiration of the person (a positive attitude) and the individual’s objection to the behavior (a negative attitude) must be reconciled. The individual can lower his or her estimation of the person, or develop a rationalization for the conflict (the person was acting uncharacteristically due to illness, stress, or confusion), or reduce the disapproval of the behavior.
This is why misbehavior by leaders and other admired role models is potentially very harmful on a large scale: by creating dissonance, it creates a downward drag on societal norms by validating unethical behavior. Tortured or inexplicable defenses of otherwise clearly wrong behavior in public dialogue are often the product of cognitive dissonance.
10. The Saint’s Excuse
This rationalization has probably caused more death and human suffering than any other. The words “it’s for a good cause” have been used to justify all sorts of lies, scams and mayhem. It is the downfall of the zealot, the true believer, and the passionate advocate that almost any action that supports “the Cause”, whether it be liberty, religion, charity, or curing a plague, is seen as being justified by the inherent rightness of the ultimate goal. Thus Catholic Bishops protected child-molesting priests to protect the Church, and the American Red Cross used deceptive promotions to swell its blood supplies after the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Saint’s Excuse allows charities to strong-arm contributors, and advocacy groups to use lies and innuendo to savage ideological opponents.
11. Self-validating Virtue
A corollary of the Saint’s Excuse is “Self-validating Virtue,” in which the act is judged by the perceived goodness the person doing it, rather than the other way around. This is applied by the doer, who reasons, “I am a good and ethical person. I have decided to do this; therefore this must be an ethical thing to do, since I would never do anything unethical.” Effective, seductive, and dangerous, this rationalization short-circuits ethical decision-making, and is among the reasons good people do bad things, and keep doing them, even when the critics point out their obvious unethical nature. Good people do bad things sometimes because they are good people, and because of complacency and self-esteem begin with a conviction, often well supported by their experience, that they are incapable of doing something terribly wrong. But all of us are capable of that, if our ethics alarms freeze due to our environment, emotions, peer pressure, and corrupting leadership, among many possible causes. At the end of the movie “Falling Down,” the rampaging vigilante played by Michael Douglas, once a submissive, law-abiding citizen, suddenly realizes what he has done. “I’m the bad guy?” he asks incredulously. Indeed he is. Anyone, no matter how virtuous, is capable of becoming the bad guy…especially when we are convinced that we are not.
12. The Futility Illusion: “If I don’t do it, somebody else will.”
It is a famous and time-honored rationalization that sidesteps doing the right thing because the wrong thing is certain to occur anyway. Thus journalists rush to be the first to turn rumors into front page “scoops,” and middle managers go along with corporate shenanigans ordered by their bosses, making the calculation that their refusal will only hurt them without preventing the damage they have been asked to cause. The logic is faulty and self-serving, of course. Sometimes someone else won’t do it. The soldiers asked to fire on their own people when the Iron Curtain governments were crumbling all refused, one after another. Sometimes someone else does it, but the impact of the refusal leads to a good result anyway. When Elliot Richardson was ordered by President Richard Nixon to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, he refused and resigned. Cox ended up being fired anyway, but Richardson’s protest helped turn public opinion against the White House. Even if neither of these are the final result, the individual’s determination to do right is always desirable in itself. The Futility Illusion is just a sad alternative to courage.
13. The Consistency Obsession
Philosopher Emmanuel Kant demanded that ethical principles pass muster as universal, to be applied by all people in all circumstances…the Categorical Imperative. The truth is, however, that no ethical system or principle is going to work all the time. The point of ethics, and even professional ethicists often lose sight of this, is to do the right thing, not to construct the perfect formula for doing the right thing. It is not only acceptable, it is necessary to use a variety of ethical approaches to solve certain problems. In real life, situations come up that just don’t fit neatly into the existing formulas. Recognize that, and you will have an easier time dealing with them.
14. Ethical Vigilantism
When a person who has been denied a raise he was promised surreptitiously charges personal expenses to a company credit card because “the company owes me,” that is Ethical Vigilantism: addressing a real or imagined injustice by employing remedial cheating, lying, or other unethical means. It has its roots in many of the fallacies above: Tit for Tat, the Golden Rationalization, The Trivial Trap, and The Saint’s License. Its results are personal corruption, harm to innocent parties, and the forfeiture of the moral high ground. Nobody is “owed” the right to lie, cheat, or injure others.
15. Hamm’s Excuse: “It wasn’t my fault.”
This popular rationalization confuses blame with responsibility. Carried to it worst extreme, Hamm’s Excuse would eliminate all charity and much heroism, since it stands for the proposition that human beings are only responsible for alleviating problems that they were personally responsible for. In fact, the opposite is the case: human beings are responsible for each other, and the ethical obligation to help someone, even at personal cost, arises with the opportunity to do so, not with blame for causing the original problem. When those who have caused injustice or calamity either cannot, will not or do not step up to address the wrongs their actions have caused (as is too often the case), the responsibility passes to whichever of us has the opportunity and the means to make things right, or at least better.
This rationalization is named after American gymnast Paul Hamm, who adamantly refused to voluntarily surrender the Olympic gold metal he admittedly had been awarded because of an official scoring error. His justification for this consisted of repeating that it was the erring officials, not him, who were responsible for the fact that the real winner of the competition was relegated to a bronze medal when he really deserved the gold. The ethical rule to counter Hamm’s Excuse is a simple one: if there is a wrong and you are in a position to fix it, fix it.
16. The Perfection Diversion: “Nobody’s Perfect!” or “Everybody makes mistakes!”
This is a legitimate defense if, in fact, an individual has been accused of not being perfect. Usually, however, it is an attempt to minimize the significance of genuine misconduct. When an act suggests that more than an honest mistake or single instance of bad judgment was involved, and that an individual’s conduct indicates a broader lack of character or ethical sensitivity, “Nobody’s perfect!” and “Everybody makes mistakes!” are not only inappropriate and irrelevant, but are presumptively efforts to change the subject. The fact that nobody is perfect does not mean that it isn’t necessary and appropriate to point out unethical conduct when it occurs. It also does not argue for failing to make reasonable assumptions about the ethical instincts of the actor if and when the unethical nature of conduct strongly suggests that it is not an aberration, but a symptom.
Though nobody is perfect and everyone makes mistakes, we are all still accountable for the mistakes we make.
17. The “Just one mistake!” Fantasy
Related to #16 but still distinct is the excuse that a particular unethical act should be ignored, forgiven or excused as an aberration because “it was just one mistake.” This argument intentionally glosses over the fact that one mistake can be so blatantly unethical and harmful that an ethical person literally never does such a thing, and thus the “one mistake” is a reliable indicator that the actor does not deserve to be trusted. Abuse of power is in this category. Defenders of the unethical also often use this excuse dishonestly and deceptively to designate as one mistake an ongoing episode of continuous unethical conduct. For example, Bill Clinton didn’t make “one mistake” regarding Monica Lewinsky, but hundreds of them, involving lies, deceits, cover-ups and betrayals.
18. Ethics Accounting (“I’ve earned this”/ “I made up for that”)
You cannot earn the right to act unethically by depositing a lot of ethical deeds in the imaginary ethics bank, nor can an unethical conduct be erased by doing good for someone else. The illusion that one can balance the ethics books this way is referred to on the blog as “the Ruddigore Fallacy.” Nobody earns the right to be unethical, not even once, no matter how exemplary their conduct. An unethical act is just as unethical, whether it is performed by a saint, a hero, or a villain.
19. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”
If “Everybody does it” is the Golden Rationalization, this is the bottom of the barrel. Yet amazingly, this excuse is popular in high places: witness the “Abu Ghraib was bad, but our soldiers would never cut off Nick Berg’s head” argument that was common during the height of the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal. It is true that for most ethical misconduct, there are indeed “worse things.” Lying to your boss in order to goof off at the golf course isn’t as bad as stealing a ham, and stealing a ham is nothing compared selling military secrets to North Korea. So what? We judge human conduct against ideals of good behavior that we aspire to, not by the bad behavior of others. One’s objective is to be the best human being that we can be, not to just avoid being the worst rotter anyone has ever met.
Behavior has to be assessed on its own terms, not according to some imaginary comparative scale. The fact that someone’s act is more or less ethical than yours has no effect on the ethical nature of your conduct. “There are worse things” is not an argument; it’s the desperate cry of someone who has run out of rationalizations.
20. Woody’s Excuse: “The heart wants what the heart wants”
This was Woody Allen’s famous “explanation” for courting, bedding, and ultimately marrying Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, as Allen was living with Farrow and functioning as his soon-to-be lover’s adoptive father. It is a particularly cynical and logically thread-bare rationalization, relying on popular sentimental concepts of romance rather than any legitimate system of right and wrong. When the heart “wants” something that it is wrong to acquire, this should carry no more justification that when some other body part is involved. The brain may “want” revenge, other people’s money and to be successful at any cost. The stomach and the palate can “want” food, even when it must be stolen. The libido “wants” pleasure and gratification, even if it is adulterous. Ethical people possess consciences, self-control, and the rational ability to deny and resist “wants” that involve betrayal, hurtful conduct, crimes and wrong-doing. Woody’s Excuse boils down to “If you want it badly enough, it is OK to take it,” essentially equating passion and obsession with good. Good movies, maybe, although Woody has had mixed results making those, too. But this rationalization doesn’t make good people, and good people usually don’t rely on it.
21. The Free Speech Confusion
Increasingly popular, even with people who should know better, is the assertion that unethical conduct, including incivility, genuinely hurtful or misleading speech and outright lies, are ethical because “we have Free Speech in the country.” Indeed we do, and what a boon it is for reckless, mean-spirited, dishonest people who chose to use their right of expression to deceive, disrupt and injure—though usually short of the extent that would be criminal or justify civil damages. The First Amendment is the bulwark of our freedom; it also is license for people who want to use their rights irresponsibly to be jerks, or worse. Free speech is a right, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is right.
22. The Coercion Myth: “I have no choice!”
When people say they had to behave unethically because they had no choice, it is almost always a lie. What they mean is that they didn’t like the choices they had, and taking the unethical option involved less sacrifice, less controversy, less criticism, less effort…in short, less courage, than doing the right thing. Ethics often requires pain; if making the ethical choice was easy, there would be no need to practice being ethical. You may decide that doing the right thing is too costly or requires more personal misery than you can bear—a lost job, a ruined reputation, financial capacity, punishment for breaking with tradition or rules—sometimes that is a reasonable choice. But you still had a choice, and you are still accountable for the choice you made
23. “The Favorite Child” Excuse
This irritating, hypocritical and illogical rationalization is less a true rationalization than it is a childish deflection of accountability. It is especially popular in the political arena, and practiced with special shamelessness by pundits. When a critic points out a genuine example of dishonesty or other unethical conduct on the part of particular official, that official’s defender will immediately retort with the names of one or more examples of similar conduct by individuals the critic favors. Note that this does not in any way address or disprove the charge; indeed, resorting to this tactic usually means that the critic is correct. The argument being put forward is essentially the same as the one offered by a child admonished by a parent: “But you let my brother get away with the same thing! You like him best!” The theory is that it is unfair to criticize anyone for conduct the critic may have excused or ignored in another. That may be true, but it is irrelevant to the conduct under discussion. If the conduct of an elected official is unethical, then the official is accountable for it whether others have gotten away with it or not. Adopting the Favorite Child Excuse has several implications, none of them valid, including:
- What my guy did is OK, because your guy did it.
- The conduct of your guy, which I think is wrong, should set the standard of conduct for my guy, who I think is better than your guy.
- The worse your guy can behave without being criticized, the worse my guy can behave without my objecting.
- The conduct I deplored in your guy is acceptable to me in my guy, because you didn’t have the integrity to criticize it.
- It’s all right for my guy to do what your guy did, but I still think your guy is scum for doing it, and you were a hypocrite not to criticize him.
24. The Victim’s Distortion
When someone belongs to a group that is commonly treated with bias, or has a history of being so, or when an individual feels, perhaps legitimately, that he or she is personally discriminated against or disliked because of external factors such as appearance, social background, past indiscretions, or personality problems, the victim mindset creates the conditions of a potentially crippling rationalization. Such individuals can become incapable of distinguishing legitimate criticism from bias, and thus may refuse to acknowledge their own wrongdoing or mistakes, choosing instead to attribute the criticism to irrational and unjustified animus. Someone may be biased against you, however, and still be right in their assessment of your misconduct. We have to learn to be able to separate the critique from the critic, especially when our own ego wants the criticism to be unfair and invalid.