New Year, New Rationalizations! Meet #38-40: “The Pioneer’s Lament,” “The Desperation Dodge,” And “The Evasive Tautology”

rationalizations 38-40

Let’s begin the new year with some additions to The Rationalizations List, shall we? Remember, any time you detect thoughts that echo these (or any of their 37 companions on the current Ethics Alarms Rationalizations List) you are either lying to yourself to justify unethical conduct, or adapting unethical reasoning habits that will lead you astray sooner or later.

38. 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.

39. 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.

40. 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.

12 thoughts on “New Year, New Rationalizations! Meet #38-40: “The Pioneer’s Lament,” “The Desperation Dodge,” And “The Evasive Tautology”

  1. “It is what it is is” a favorite saying of mine. Now you tell me it’s an evasive tautology. I thought it was being realistic.

    • It is realistic.

      If I understand Buddhism (a big “if”), it starts with a ruthless acknowledgement of the reality of pain and death, eschewing the comfortable evasion of living in a palace and pretending things are otherwise.

      That, however, is only a starting point from which springs an ethical code more rigorous than many of us follow.

      “It is what it is” is also something Marcus Aurelius might have said, in reference to the things he couldn’t control even as Emperor of Rome. Stoics were big on rolling with the punches that they couldn’t block.

      It’s only an “evasive tautology” if you stop thinking at that point. Otherwise it’s an insight-producing tautology, like a lot of the math in the physical sciences.

  2. Jack, I feel highly honored by your mention of me in connection with #38. Thank you for all that you do to help others understand and apply ethics.

    That #38 seems most closely related to #14, the Futility Illusion. Now, I am thinking of a kind of Ungood Samaritan…using the “Coward’s Dodge,” a.k.a. the “Going-With-the-Herd Excuse,” that might also be a relative of #38, or #14, but seems most closely related to Hamm’s Excuse, #17.

    How many times have each of us ignored our moral luck, and coped with a situation by not facing it? We feel insulated by being in a crowd, or, of being anonymous and not directly affected by some situation, and so we do nothing, thinking (maybe hoping), “In a crowd like this, surely someone else will step up and take care of [some problem], before I do, better than I can.”

    An example of a person who rejects that course is the young man who Jack posted about a couple of days ago, who sacrificed his life while sparing his schoolmates from attack by a suicide bomber. A person who falls to this ethical failure is one who risks being like Martin Niemoeller, who said of Nazi persecution, “First they came for the communists…”

  3. Your example for #38 sounds similar to “everybody does it”. You may want to note that selective enforcement is itself often unethical, which of course does not justify the unethical behavior that led to the punishment.

    • It’s in the same range as EDI, as are several of the Rationalizations. This one is about enforcement rather than legitimacy—the unethical actor knows he’s being unethical, but feels that he deserves no conseuqnces. It’s “Nobody’s being punished for it,” not “everybody’s doing it.”

      Selective enforcement is its own topic, and a big, complex one. I can be unethical (unfair, vindictive, incompetent) or useful as social control (punishing the big fish and celebrities to publicize the law) or just unavoidable (you can’t stop all speeders, or call all NBA fouls.)

  4. Then there’s the (grown-up) child’s threat, often unstated, maybe the worst: If I don’t do it — vote for the incompetent, ignore the cheat, speed past the poor rain-sodden ethics lecturer whose car broke down on the way to the airport … It Will Kill Grandma! (Not to be mistaken for “my mother will kill me if” which is just a way to get away from a boring date.)

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