Discussions about ethical issues, not to mention attempts to encourage ethical behavior, are constantly derailed by the invocation of common misstatements of ethical principles. Some of these are honest misconceptions, some are intentional distortions, some are self-serving rationalizations, and some, upon examination, simply make no sense at all.
Some common ones are listed here. It will never be a complete list, and additions are welcome. All of us can benefit from reviewing them from time to time, so that we may detect them in the arguments of others, and be aware of what we are doing when we use them ourselves.
Note: The numbering changes periodically; a new #10 was added on 1/12/14, pushing all subsequent rationalizations up one.
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. The “They’re Just as Bad” Excuse, or “They had it coming”
The mongrel offspring of The Golden Rationalization and the Bible-based dodges a bit farther down the list, the “They’re Just as Bad” Excuse is both a rationalization and a distraction. As a rationalization, it posits the absurd argument that because there is other wrongdoing by others that is similar, as bad or worse than the unethical conduct under examination, the wrongdoer’s conduct shouldn’t be criticized or noticed. As a distraction, the excuse is a pathetic attempt to focus a critic’s attention elsewhere, by shouting, “Never mind me! Why aren’t you going after those guys?”
Its other familiar, equally absurd but even more corrupting manifestation is the “They had it coming” variation. This argues that wrongdoing toward a party isn’t wrong because the aggrieved party doesn’t deserve ethical treatment because of its own misconduct. But the misconduct of a victim never justifies unethical conduct directed against that victim.
3. 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.
4. Marion Barry’s Misdirection, or “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……
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.”
8. 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.
9. The Reverse Slippery Slope
Turning the slippery slope argument around, defenders of unethical conduct like to project legitimate criticism of genuinely harmful conduct into apocalyptic over-reach and ridiculously broad application of the principles at issue. “Irresponsible not to put our kids in safe car seats? What’s next, mandating special armor and helmets when they are just walking? Will we be required to have soft foam around their little chairs in the home in case they fall off?” This attempts to make the original, legitimate point seem unreasonable by raising related but absurd variations that are self-evidently unreasonable.
10. The Unethical Tree in the Forest, or “What they don’t know won’t hurt them.”
The habitually unethical as well as the rarely unethical who don’t want to admit they have strayed are vulnerable to this classic, which posits that as long as the lie, swindle, cheat, or crime is never discovered, it hardly happened at all…in fact, one might as well say it didn’t happen, so you can’t really say anything really was wrong…right? Wrong. First of all, a remarkable percentage of time, the wrongful act is discovered. Even if it is not, however, the unethical nature of the act is intrinsic, and exists independently of how many people know about it. Just as a tree that falls in the forest with nobody around both makes noise and causes damage, so undetected, well-disguised or covered-up wrongs are exactly as wrong as those that end up on the front pages. They also cause the same amount of harm much of the time. A cancer you don’t know about can still kill you. #10 is one of the dumber rationalizations.
11. The King’s Pass, The Star Syndrome, or “What Will We Do Without Him?”
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…
11. (a) “I deserve this!” or “Just this once!”
Especially common to the hero, the leader, the founder, the admired and the justly acclaimed is the variation on the Kings Pass that causes individuals who know better to convince themselves that their years of public service, virtue and sacrifice for the good of others entitle them to just a little unethical indulgence that would be impermissible if engaged in by a lesser accomplished individual. When caught and threatened with consequences, the practitioner of this rationalization will be indignant and wounded, saying, “With everything I’ve done, and all the good I’ve accomplished for others, you would hold this against me?” The correct answer to this is “We are very grateful for your past service, but yes.“
12. 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.
13. The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause”
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. The Saint’s Excuse is that the ends justify the means, because the “saint” has decided that the ends are worth any price—especially when that price will have to be paid by someone else.
14. 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.
15. 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.
16. 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.
17. 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.
18. 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.
19. 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.
20. 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.
21. Ethics Accounting (“I’ve earned this”/ “I made up for that”)
Related to 11(a) above. You cannot earn the right to act unethically by depositing a lot of ethical deeds in the imaginary ethics bank, nor can an unethical conductbe erased by doing goodfor 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.
22. 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.
23. 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.
24. 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.
25. 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
26. “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.
27. 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.
28. The Revolutionary’s Excuse: “These are not ordinary times.”
An argument for those who embrace “the ends justify the means”—but only temporarily, mind you!—the Revolutionary’s excuse has as long and frightening a pedigree as any of the rationalizations here. Of course, there is no such thing as “ordinary times.” This rationalization suggests that standards of right and wrong can and should be suspended under “special” circumstances, always defined, naturally, by those who defy laws, rules, and societal values. Their circular logic results in their adversaries feeling justified in being equally unethical, since times in which the other side engages in dishonesty, cheating, cruelty, and more is, by definition, extraordinary.
The inevitable result is a downward spiral of conduct, until unethical behavior is the norm. Ironically, the rationalization that “these are not ordinary times” no longer is necessary at that point. Unethical conduct has become ordinary, the new normal. This is, it is fair to say, the current state of American politics.
29. The Altruistic Switcheroo: “It’s for his own good”
This rationalization is a pip, because it allows one to frame self-serving, unethical conduct as an act of good will and generosity. Cheating the young sprout will teach him to be more careful the next time, and it’s just a pleasant coincidence that you benefit from the deception. It is true that misfortune carries many life lessons, that what doesn’t kill us often makes us stronger, and that what hurts today may be the source of valuable wisdom and perspective later, but it really takes a lot of gall to cheat, lie to, steal from or otherwise harm someone and claim it will be a good thing in the long term. Yet an amazingly large number of people possess this much gall, because the Altruistic Switcheroo is very common, especially among parents who want to convince themselves that bad parenting is really the opposite. A marker for this rationalization is the statement, “You’ll thank me some day”—the specious theory of the sadistic parent who named his son “Sue” in the famous Shel Silverstein song made famous by Johnny Cash. No, he won’t.
30. The Prospective Repeal: “It’s a bad law/stupid rule”
Citizenship, an ethical value, requires obeying the law, but a lot of people convince themselves that that laws are voluntary, and that it is somehow ethical to violate “bad” ones, defined, of course, as those that are inconvenient, burdensome, or that stop you from doing what you want to do. Laws embody the ethical values of society, and if one of them seems wrong to you, you are nonetheless obligated to follow it as part of the social contract. To do otherwise is unethical. Your options are limited: write and speak in opposition to the law (or rule), in hopes of changing the societal consensus; work within the system and with others to change the law; find a legal and ethical way around it; or violate it openly as a matter of conscience, and accept the penalty—civil disobedience. It isn’t ethical to violate what you think is a bad law while it is still a law, because this creates an obvious breach of the Rule of Universality: if everyone followed that course, we would have chaos and anarchy. There are bad rules and laws, no doubt about it. It must be the group—society, the culture—that decides when one of them needs to be amended or eliminated. The individual who does this unilaterally is threatening the stability of society, and that’s unethical no matter what the law is.
31. The Troublesome Luxury: “Ethics is a luxury we can’t afford right now”
Ethics is never “a luxury.” It is slyly effective to describe it as such, however, and those who do so usually believe it—which means you should sleep with one eye open when they are around, watch your wallet, and never turn your back. Saying ethics is a luxury simply means that the speaker believes that one should be good and fair when it is easy and benefits him or her, but when problems loom and crises have to be faced, ethics are optional. This attitude is another calling card of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “Bad Man,” the law abiding citizen who will cut your throat for his own benefit if he finds a legal loophole. In a true crisis, ethical values are often the only thing standing between us and catastrophic misconduct in the throes of desperation and panic; they aren’t luxuries, they are life-lines. When you hear yourself saying, “I’ll do anything to fix this! Anything!” it is a warning, and the ethics alarm needs to start ringing hard. Grab those ethical values, and hold on to them. They are the last thing you can afford to be without at such times.
32. The Unethical Role Model: “He/She would have done the same thing”
This is a fantasy rationalization, and therefore a wonderfully versatile one. Just pick the great, famous and admired man or woman who you think would be most likely to engage in the wrongful conduct you are considering, and you will immediately feel good about it. If you are doing no worse than Churchill, of Gandhi, or Lincoln, or Martin Luther King or Princess Diana, after all, how bad can you be? This is a clever rationalization, but a transparent one. Andrew Jackson was a racist and a killer, but he isn’t admired for being a racist and a killer. FDR was vindictive and ruthless, but those aren’t the qualities that made him a great President. Lincoln, Jefferson, Oprah—it’s easy to cherry-pick flaws among the great and famous, but absurd to use those aspects of their personalities as objects of emulation. It is true: Clarence Darrow would have bribed a jury (and did); Arthur Miller would have neglected a disabled son; Jackie Kennedy would have lived a lie. The fact that we can find someone objectively remarkable who engaged in just about any crime or unethical act we can imagine merely proves that even the best of us fail to negotiate the challenges of life perfectly. It isn’t an excuse to stop trying to do the best we can in our own lives.
33. The Management Shrug: “Don’t sweat the small stuff!”
It isn’t just small lies that lead down a slippery slope to corruption. Small but unethical short cuts, lazy mistakes, careless inattention and routine sloppiness do so as well. The Management Shrug is the favored rationalization of supposed “big thinkers” who are willing to make a million tiny concessions—often involving harm to others and needless risk—in pursuit of their grand design. Not only does the accumulation of little wrongs, ineptitudes and transgressions erode values, cultural norms and efficiency, it also eventually undermines the mission and goals as well. “Don’t sweat the small stuff” is the mark of a bad manager as well as leaders who encourage and foster bad management. The philosophy is one of built in excuses for failures, on the logically absurd theory that a thousand little failures won’t add up to one big one.
34. Success Immunity, or “They must be doing something right!”
We often hear this when a successful individual or organization is justly criticized for unethical habits, routines, tendencies or policies, and defenders recoil at the suggestion that a successful formula might be altered in any way. Thus have cruel hazing traditions by winning football coaches received official passes from greedy university presidents, and careless and risky management practices been ignored by voters, as long as an elected leader’s policies haven’t imploded yet. Success immunity is related to #10, the King’s Pass, but it is even more illogical: it assumes that the wrongful and irresponsible aspects of an individual’s or organization’s conduct must somehow be part of a magic recipe for success, rather than a serious flaw in that recipe that can and should be removed. “The chef puts a roach in his soup? Well, it’s delicious! He must be doing something right!” I’m sure he is, but that something isn’t the roach. This rationalization embodies the popular and over-used conservative mantra, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The problems with that cliché are 1) things that aren’t broken can still be improved, 2) things that are broken will often keep working until they fall apart and someone is hurt, and 3) “not broken” is a long way from “the best it can be.” “They must be doing something right!” carries this illogic to the point of absurdity by asserting that what clearly is broken should still not be fixed, because the individual or organization continues to be successful in spite of it, on the Bizarro World theory that the perceived success could somehow be a result of it. Like many rationalizations on this list, Success Immunity twists common sense to avoid admitting that obviously unethical conduct is what it is: wrong.
35. The Tortoise’s Pass: “Better late than never”
Indeed, when it comes to rectifying or ending unethical conduct, late is definitely better than never. This is, however, nothing but a particularly insidious employment of the worst of all rationalizations, #21, The Comparative Virtue Excuse or “There are worse things!” Late is also better than setting the neighborhood on fire, but finally doing what should have been done before harm resulted is nothing to be proud of, unless the agency taking ethical action never had the opportunity of ability to do it sooner. Yes, abolishing slavery in 1865 is better than never abolishing it at all, but the 13th Amendment doesn’t erase the wrong or relieve the accountability of allowing slavery to continue from 1776 until the ban. Absolutely, ending “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was long in coming and necessary, but it is still a disgrace that it took so long to end a disgraceful policy. The worst use of The Tortoise’s Pass, perhaps, is when it is used to excuse from just punishment women who knowingly sent innocent men to prison on their false accusations of rape, and who much later come forward to recant after an attack of conscience. It is true that if you are hitting me over the head with a brick, I am grateful when you stop, and whenever you stop, the end to my pain is appreciated. Don’t expect me to thank you, however, or to relieve you of the responsibility for the consequences due for hitting me at all.
36. Victim Blindness, or “They/He/She/ You should have seen it coming.”
[Two readers, Dwayne Zechman in 2012, and Mark Draughn, who blogs at Windypundit, proposed this latest addition to the Ethics Alarms Rationalizations list, and it is an excellent one. Ethics Alarms is indebted to them both.]
Asserting the rationalization of Victim Blindness attempts to shift responsibility for wrongdoing to the victims of it, who, the theory goes, should have known that their actions would inspire the conduct that caused them harm, and thus they should have either avoided doing what sparked the unethical response, or by not doing so waived their right to object to it. This is closely related to a sub-category of #7, The Tit-For-Tat Excuse, which holds that one party’s unethical conduct justifies similar unethical conduct in return. The sub-category is “They asked for it.” Victim Blindness is similar, but it applies even greater responsibility to victims: whether they asked for it or not, they should have known their actions would be met with this unethical response, and their ignorance, carelessness or stupidity constitutes a waiver of ethics.
Clever, but nonsense. We do not judge the ethics of conduct according to the virtues, or lack of same, of its object. Rescuing a rotter from certain death is as admirable as rescuing an innocent child; horse-whipping a chiseling, cheating, wife-beating cannibal is still wrong. Predicting that another individual’s unethical conduct might follow from one’s own acts, good or bad, is irrelevant to the analysis of whether that subsequent conduct is right or wrong.
Stopping or avoiding unethical conduct that I know is coming may be wise and it may be prudent, and I may blame myself for failing to do either if that was possible, but the last person who has standing to blame me for my fate is the one doing me harm. He, not I, had the last opportunity to prevent the wrongdoing, by simply declining to do it.
37. The Maladroit’s Diversion, or “Nobody said it would be easy!”
This rationalization is used to cleverly shift the responsibility for failure away from the individual or team that mishandled a task, obligation, promise or mission. By emphasizing that the goal was difficult, a fact that indeed was known to all and should have figured into the planning and the execution of the operation to accomplish it, The Maldroit’s Diversion focuses attention and criticism away from those responsible for a disaster—those whose incompetence, lack of diligence, and poor judgment were the real reason an important task was not accomplished, not the fact that it wasn’t “easy.” The rationalization strives to avoid accountability, and conveniently prepares for an ultimate failure to succeed by planting the thought: “This objective is so difficult, who can blame him/her/them for failing to do it?”
38. The Miscreant’s Mulligan or “Give him/her/them/me a break!”
The Miscreant’s Mulligan is in a large cluster of rationalizations that aim to avoid the consequences of wrongful conduct by making others feel guilty about placing responsibility squarely where it belongs, by arguing that the miscreant isn’t so bad, isn’t different from anyone else, or that he meant well.
Among the rationalizations it hangs out with are 1. The Golden Rationalization, or “Everybody does it;” 6. The Biblical Rationalizations “Judge not, lest ye not be judged,” and “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” 10. The King’s Pass (of course); 12. The Saint’s Excuse, or “It’s for a good cause; ”18. The Perfection Diversion: “Everybody makes mistakes!” and last, right where it belongs, 21. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.” Essentially what “the break” translates into is an unearned opportunity to commit the same unethical act again…or worse, without accountability or contrition in the interim. Individuals who knowingly and intentionally engage in wrongful and unethical conduct or who breach ethical duties should always experience the appropriate consequences, be it criticism or something more tangible. Unless “Give him a break!” is accompanied by a compelling reason not found on this list, the proper answer to the plea is simple, “No.”
39. The Pioneer’s Lament, or “Why should I be the first?”
This rationalization was proposed and perfected in the drafting by treasured Ethics Alarms reader Eeyore, who described The Pioneer’s Lament as being the rationalization of choice for
“…a person who avoids accountability, and who rejects the full consequences of accountability for an unethical act, by taking a position of, “Why should *I* be the one who makes an example of himself? Why should *I* be the first to suffer consequences, when so many more do the same thing and get away without suffering?” That is the persecution I might feel, and how I might think, if I was pulled over for speeding while driving amidst a cluster of other speeders: “Why am I being singled out? Why should I have to pay a fine for this, when so many others are speeding right along with me (and so many more are speeding by even faster than I did while I stand still here, kept from going my way, for this futile, revenue-grabbing police action)? How likely is any punishment I receive for this going to cause me not do the same thing again? How likely is any punishment I receive for this going to cause anyone *else* not do the same thing again? What’s the point of my doing only what I should, only to miss out on doing what I can like everyone else does, when nobody else is doing what they should do anyway?”
The presumption that lack of enforcement or punishment for unethical conduct means that the conduct is no longer wrong is illogical, self-serving, unjustified and unwarranted. Wrong is wrong, whether there is a formal rule against it or not, or whether or not anyone is paying attention to the misconduct at any particular time. Whether you are the first or the only one to face the just consequences of intentional conduct you knew was wrong, the systemic problem of inconsistency is the system’s issue to address. Your conduct, however, still reaped what it sowed.
40. The Desperation Dodge or “I’ll do anything!”
Desperation and crisis do not suspend ethical imperatives. Indeed, that’s when values and integrity becomes most important. Feeling like the walls are closing in and that all may be lost is when sound ethics stand as a bulwark against the temptation to prevail no matter what the cost to others. Hearing the voice in one’s head say, “I’ll do anything!” should set off the most jarring ethics alarms of them all, because the boundary between principle and expediency, good and evil, and courage and cowardice, lies dead ahead. If one is truly ethical, there are things you will never do and must never do, no matter what the crisis. Desperation doesn’t suspend ethics. It validates ethics.
41. The Evasive Tautology, or “It is what it is.”
Comparative Virtue, or “It’s not the worst thing” is my least favorite of all the rationalizations, but The Evasive Tautology is the most annoying. It is the increasingly popular rationalization of the eternal shrug, the genesis of “Well, what are you going to do?”…”Who can blame him?”…”That’s life!”…”It’s the way of the world” and dozens of other facile clichés in many languages that essentially boil down to the excuse of ethical surrender. This is the rationalization of low expectations, not merely a rationalization but a life philosophy of passive acceptance of wrongdoing, apathy, and non-judgmental complicity in life’s injustices and the lowest common denominator of human behavior. The statement “It is what it is,” whether by others or oneself, must never end an ethical debate but begin it, with the essential follow-up being the question: “What is it?” Often, the answer is unwelcome but simple, and the very fact the Evasive Tautology is designed to evade. What is it? Wrong.
42. The Hillary Inoculation, or “If he/she doesn’t care, why should anyone else?”
This is a complex, hybrid rationalization that draws upon the warped and corrupting logic of “Everybody does it,” the Biblical rationalizations, Comparative Virtue (“there are worse things!”) and a few others to reach an absurd argument that nevertheless sometimes carried the day. One example that will live in infamy, and the inspiration for #42’s title, was Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal, which exposed him beyond all doubt as a liar, a power abuser, a hypocrite and, incidentally, an adulterer, not that anyone was surprised at that. His wife, First Lady Hillary Clinton, prominently defended her husband, somehow keeping her feminist creds at the same time, a neat trick. She knew which side of the bread her butter was on, as the saying goes: her loyalty was going to pay off more than righteous indignation. Thus she obfuscated, spun and lied for Bill, and gave his defenders this jaw-dropping argument, which they used liberally:
“If Hillary is willing to forgive him, why shouldn’t we?”
Let us count the ways. Why?
1. Because her relationship to her is as a wife to a husband and ours is as citizens to a national leader. The standards are different, the stakes are different, and the consequences of the betrayal of trust are different.
2. Because the seriousness of an ethical violation is not defined by who chooses to tolerate or forgive it.
3. Because her decision to ignore, forgive or tolerate may be the product of bias, self-interest, or other non-ethical considerations that make the decision unreliable, untrustworthy, and a poor template for the response of others.
4. Because she may be wrong, mistaken, or a fool.
5. Because we each are responsible for making our own ethical judgments, and to delegate those judgements not only to a third party, but to a third party who is not objective and likely to be affected by conflicts of interest, makes neither logical nor ethical sense.
43. Vin’s Punchline, or “We’ve never had a problem with it!”
This frequently heard rationalization is named for the moment in that ethically-rich Western classic, “The Magnificent Seven,” when Vin, played by Steve McQueen, says, “Reminds me of that fella back home who fell off a ten-story building. As he was falling, people on each floor kept hearing him say, “So far, so good.” Heh, so far, so good.”
When individuals, organizations and institutions are warned about conduct that is irresponsible, reckless, dangerous, or clearly unethical, as in an ongoing conflict of interest, the brush off frequently is expressed as “We’ve never had a problem with it.” This is, of course, the equivalent of Vin’s punchline. Irresponsible, reckless, dangerous, and unethical conduct IS a problem, and if bad consequences have not arisen as a result, they are almost ceretainly will. Even if somehow they do not, all Vin’s Punchline argues is that the conduct hasn’t been noticed yet (“The Unethical Tree in the Forest” rationalization) or hasn’t caused any harm (“No Harm, No Foul”). It isn’t really “So far, so good.” It is really “So far, so bad.” The conclusion that because there hasn’t been a disaster yet, the conduct is acceptable is a particularly idiotic brand of consequentialism, and a form of magical thinking. If one is juggling chainsaws, the intelligent retort to someone who claims you are risking your life should not be that it’s obviously safe because you are not yet cut to ribbons.
44. The Unethical Precedent, or “It’s Not The First Time”
This rationalization can be another variation on the Golden Rationalization, “Everybody does it,” like “It’s done all the time” and” “We’ve always done this,” but its intent is often different. The suggestion is that because an unethical act has been done before and presumably permitted, ignored, or endorsed, that presumptively ratifies the same or similar conduct as acceptable from now on. In fact, it does not. In fact, the argument is nonsensical.
An individual instance of bad conduct may have been tolerated or forgiven on the theory that a warning was sufficient, or that the circumstances prompting it were unlikely to occur again. That didn’t mean that the conduct was desirable, responsible, fair or something that would make a good societal norm. Moreover, “It’s not the first time” cuts the other way: if this conduct is happening repeatedly and with increasing frequency, that may make it worse, not more permissible.(“Hey, this isn’t the first shell that Hamas has shot into Israel! What are you so bent out of shape for?”)
This extremely versatile rationalization also can carry a similar unethical rational to the worst of all rationalization, #22, Comparative Virtue, or “It’s not the worst thing.” After all, it can’t be the worst thing because it’s been done before! “Ray Rice isn’t the first man to hit his girl friend” (so it’s unfair for the NFL to punish him severely), The most common use, however, is to use “It’s not the first time” to claim a double standard. Today, arguing on Sunday Morning shows about whether President Obama was exceeding his Constitutional authority by unilaterally changing the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, a Democratic Congressman pointed out that it wasn’t the first time a President had done this. The simple response is: “So what? It was unconstitutional then, and it’s unconstitutional now. It should have been stopped the first time, if it had been, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
In this use of the Unethical Precedent, the unethical actor or his or her defender is laying the groundwork for Rationalization #39. The Pioneer’s Lament, or “Why should I be the first?,” which stakes out a different position. The Unethical Precedent posits that because the conduct has been done before, it isn’t unethical; #39 is the fallback: “OK, it’s unethical, but it’s unfair to punish me for it if you didn’t punish everyone else before me.”
As with all of the entries on the Rationalizations List, you should protest any time you hear someone use the phrase to justify his conduct or that of anyone else. Any time you here the phrase forming in your own brain, you should realize that you are preparing to lie to yourself to justify an unjustifiable action. Finally, any time you hear, see or read about a politician or pundit using the phrase, understand that they are 1) lying, 2) unethical, 3) not very bright, or all three.
45. The Abuser’s License: “It’s Complicated”
CNN’s host Carol Costello, explaining why it was unfair to criticize Janay Palmer for marrying Ray Rice, the pro football star who punched her lights out in a hotel elevator when they were engaged, said, as the entirety of her argument, “It’s complicated.” My rationalization alarm immediately began clanging.
Later, Costello noted that the decision to stay with a potentially deadly partner was related to the emotion of love, as if love deserves an ethics pass that other emotions do not. In this context, “It’s complicated” is a matched set with #23. Woody’s Excuse: “The heart wants what the heart wants.”
Love does not get a pass, or warrant one. Love is one of the most powerful of the non-ethical consideration magnets that stop ethics alarm clappers from moving when they should, and the sentimental, warm and fuzzy tradition of excusing harmful, irresponsible, clearly wrongful conduct because it might have been motivated by love is a rejection of ethics in favor of romance. Love is not the most benign of impediments to sound ethical reasoning, but rather one of the most insidious. Some of the worst crimes in human history have been rationalized by lovers. If the the coded meaning of “It’s complicated” is “it’s love, and we can never plumb the mysteries of the heart!”, the sentiment should be received with exactly the same contempt as “It’s greed,” It’s hate,” or “It’s revenge.”
Fine: Ray Rice’s fiancee will allow him to escape accountability for criminally assaulting her, thus putting herself and other women in mortal peril as well as encouraging similarly irresponsible and reckless conduct from similarly deluded and vulnerable women. It may be complicated, but its still wrong. If we don’t criticize people who do obviously wrongful, self-destructive, anti-social things, like marrying domestic abusers and allowing them to avoid the consequences of their actions, then such conduct appears to be acceptable in the eyes of society.
“It’s complicated” has broader uses, however. The implication is that “yes, this looks bad, but if you knew all of the details, history and considerations, you would understand.” The meaning, however, is simpler still: “This was a difficult decision, so we shouldn’t judge it.”
Of course we should.
Ethics decisions are often difficult and complex; if they are easy, then there is seldom a problem. Complexity doesn’t change the nature of right and wrong. When an ethical dilemma or conflict is complicated, that is when special care, thought and analysis is mandatory. When the wrong resolution is chosen, the fact that the issue was complex is irrelevant to the fact that the final decision was unethical. If it was unethical, it is important to say so, to make certain that nobody labors under the misconception that it was the right thing to do when they face similar decisions.
“It’s complicated” is also lazy. Let’s tackle the complicated ethical issues, dive into them, and solve them. Abortion is complicated; capital punishment is complicated; the Israel- Palestinian problem is complicated; illegal immigration policy is complicated; euthanasia is complicated; the proper use of U.S. power in the world is complicated. Complexity doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of seeking the right approach to these matters. “It’s complicated” is an ethics cop-out.
The irony is that the decision of Janay Palmer to let her abuser avoid appropriate legal consequences and trivialize his conduct toward her by endorsing a dangerous social pathology and marrying Ray Rice isn’t all that complicated.
It is just wrong.