Rationalization List Update: 29 (a). The Gruber Variation and 47. Contrived Consent, or “The Rapist’s Defense”

Remember the TV show fondly...hate the rationalization.

Remember the TV show fondly…hate the rationalization.

In the midst of the disturbing revelation—via Dr. Jonathan Gruber’s many videos— that our government thinks that passing laws that have a large impact on our lives should be accomplished by conning us, as well as the discouraging realization that many of our Democratic and progressive friends and neighbors agree, there are some good things to come out of Gruber’s clarification of how the Affordable Care Act was enacted. We know, for example, that at least one of the major political parties no longer believes in American democracy as it was intended to be practiced, with an informed electorate and a civicly literate citizenry. That’s good to know, just as while it is horrible to have one’s house is infested with scorpions, it is still better to know it than not. We now also know that a substantial part of the news media is in cahoots with these democracy deniers—as of last night, for example, neither NBC nor ABC had broached the topic of the Gruber videos, a full week after they had become public. Again, that’s horrible, but we need to be aware of it, and it is good that we are.

Among the silver linings in this particularly threatening cloud is that it alerted me to two more—well, one and a half more—rationalizations for the Ethics Alarms Rationalization List. They have many applications beyond the Affordable Care Act. Say hello to 29 (a). The Gruber Variation, and 47. Contrived Consent, or “The Rapist’s Defense.”

The Gruber Variation doesn’t warrant its own category, but it is a very specific riff on 29. The Altruistic Switcheroo: “It’s for his own good, which is described on the list thusly:

“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.”

The Gruber Variation adds contempt to the mix, as it uses the presumed mental inadequacy of a victim to justify manipulating him:

29 (a). The Gruber Variation, or “They are too stupid to know what’s good for them”
This is the useful and apparently popular version of The Altruistic Switcheroo based on paternalistic concern and contempt for the victims of unethical conduct. They have been deceived, tricked or otherwise coerced, ignoring their autonomy and treating them with disrespect, because the unethical actor views them as so dumb and unworthy of self-determination, he or she is justified in manipulating them for his—of course, theirs too, if they only were smart enough to realize it!—own benefit.

47. Contrived Consent, or “The Rapist’s Defense.”

Many of the rationalizations involve a wrongdoer’s claims that the victim of wrongdoing justified the unethical act. In  Rationalization #2. The “They’re Just as Bad” Excuse, or “They had it coming the claim is that the wrongdoing of the victim either earned the misconduct or somehow made it ethical by the victim’s own conduct. The related Rationalization #7,The “Tit for Tat” Excuse, posits that one can do anything, no matter how wrong under normal conditions, to someone who engages in the wrongful conduct toward you. It is the rationalization for vengeance. #10, The Unethical Tree in the Forest, or “What they don’t know won’t hurt them,” stands for the convenient and absurd proposition that as long as someone doesn’t know they have been lied to, cheated or otherwise harmed by unethical conduct, that conduct isn’t really unethical.

#29. The Altruistic Switcheroo: “It’s for his own good,” is self-explanatory. #36. Victim Blindness, or “They/He/She/ You should have seen it coming” adopts the position that a victim is responsible for his or her own mistreatment by being insufficiently alert to prevent it. #42. The Hillary Inoculation, or “If he/she doesn’t care, why should anyone else?” is the argument that forgiveness, acceptance or submission after the fact by the victim or target of unethical conduct somehow makes bad conduct more virtuous.

Contrived Consent, or “The Rapist’s Defense,” aims to cleanse unethical conduct by imagining that the victim consented to it, or secretly sought the result of the wrongful act. The most infamous example of this rationalization is, of course, the rapist’s defense that the victim either was inviting a sexual assault by flirtatious conduct or provocative dress, or secretly “wanted it.” This is also a common theme of totalitarian rationalizations: the peasants don’t want to have to think for themselves. They want to be dominated and brutalized.

It is, perhaps, the ugliest rationalization of all.

10 thoughts on “Rationalization List Update: 29 (a). The Gruber Variation and 47. Contrived Consent, or “The Rapist’s Defense”

  1. ” This is also a common theme of totalitarian rationalizations: the peasants don’t want to have to think for themselves.”

    What I’m very much afraid of is that the peasant’s DON’T want to think for themselves. I would almost guarantee that the media think this way, or, at the very least, don’t want to “upset” the public. After all, somebody’s gotta protect our fragile sensibilities (sarcasm, sorry).

    • Understanding the sarcasm, I’d like to point out the historical fact that the “peasants” will put up with a lot, as our lives are really busy with just living. However, eventually, sometimes suddenly, those same peasants always let their feelings known, leading to an ancient Japanese maxim roughly translated as: “Don’t piss off the peasants”.

  2. Interesting additions, but I think that the Gruber Variation needs a bit of a caveat in nuance regarding its description: it needs to be distinguished from both legitimate teaching techniques which involve parallels and certain grey areas.

    To handle the last first, I’ll just give a few examples, starting with Project Alpha ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Alpha ) and the Sokal Hoax ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair ). Both involved presenting people who were supposed to safeguard against deception with a hoax in order to expose the holes in said safeguards. Both involved rationales which closely paralleled the Gruber Variation in several respects, and were criticized for actually following that sort of logic (I disagree, although I do think that both were ethically “grey”).

    We can also bring up the Carlos hoax ( see http://skepdic.com/carlos.html , http://www.abc.net.au/science/correx/archives/randi4.htm , and the article starting on p. 28 of http://www.skeptics.com.au/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/theskeptic/2ndcoming/skepticism.pdf for details), which was, in essence, an attempt to demonstrate the fake and predatory nature of “channeling” scams by creating a (intentionally) fake channeler who would “come out” as fake, exposing the techniques used and casting doubt on the other scammers who were infesting Australia at the time.

    On the other hand, there are legitimate teaching techniques which involve factors which would otherwise be unethical (usually deception) in order to teach a lesson. The most famous user of this sort of teaching technique is, of course, James Randi (who was also involved in both the Carlos Hoax and Project Alpha, above).

    Of course, when Randi does it, he lets you know that he’s deceiving you, and many deceptions are revealed moments later (my personal favorite involves him taking off his glasses and pushing his thumbs through to reveal the absence of lenses). Others are revealed as tricks without actually disclosing the mechanisms involved.

    A friend of mine who’s a middle-school science teacher follows a similar method: he’ll teach basic critical thinking by assigning students a report on the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus or the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide, giving them a list of sources designed to make the topic seem real (the former is a Photoshop hoax; the latter is the chemical name for water). If the student goes beyond those sources, of course, the deception will be quickly revealed… but he’s found that the students rarely bother to (or think to, for that matter). He reveals the truth, of course, when the reports are due… usually to the shock of the classroom.

    Often, he finds that his students are shocked by the very notion of a hoax… or by the idea that they can’t trust information they find on random websites online.

    He uses similar methods throughout the year, teaching students the importance of things like critical thinking and the scientific method by repeatedly tricking them and either revealing the trick or challenging them to figure it out.

    I mention this to contrast it with the Gruber Variation (and the Altruistic Switcharoo in general): This sort of teaching method is rather transparently genuinely for the student’s benefit. The question becomes, accordingly, what’s the difference?

    Well, first off, my friend isn’t really advancing a political agenda with his methods (except, perhaps, indirectly). More, the “payoff”, to his goals, occurs not with the deception, but with the reveal (unlike in the case of Gruber, where the reveal detracts from or is irrelevant to his agenda, depending on how you look at things). My friend isn’t really profiting from deceiving his students: he’s profiting from learning how he deceived them and how to expose such hoaxes.

    Or, in other words, he’s not using it as a rationalization. The “for their own good” part is, simply put, actually true.

    On the other hand, he’s still manipulating, deceiving, and tricking his students (to give them valuable life experiences in as controlled a manner as possible and to teach them important lessons about critical thinking), in a manner justified by their presumed mental inadequacy (or, more specifically, naivete and lack of said education), for their own good (“good” here being the learning of said lessons).

    So, to go back to the point of all of this, I think we can learn a good bit about this sort of unethical (and ethical!) conduct by contrasting the two types of circumstances… perhaps even form some rule-of-thumb rules and heuristics.

    A few to start off with?

    Someone who is ethically practicing deception of this type will avoid it unless the deception is inherently necessary to their goals — and not just to bypass legitimate opposition or to defraud.

    Someone who is ethically practicing deception of this type will almost universally be planning to reveal the deception from the beginning of the deception.

    Someone who is ethically practicing deception of this type will generally arrange things in such a way that their goals are accomplished by the revealing of the deception rather than the deception itself.

    Someone who is ethically practicing deception of this type will generally avoid substantially profiting from the deception or using it to advance their goals prior to revealing the deception (the “substantially” being necessary because of things like classroom engagement and media attention).

    Someone who is ethically practicing deception of this type will take what steps are possible, to the maximum extent possible, to mitigate any harms which can potentially be caused by the deception.

    And that, I think, is as good a starting point as any.

    • Comment of the day, obviously. if the purpose of the deception or cheat is genuinely for a student’s best interest, to take one of your examples, then it’s not a rationalization, as you point out. Remember, rationalizations are all lies. If they aren’t lies, then they aren’t rationalizations.

      In negotiation, one doesn’t lie to deceive. One is engaging in a ritual designed to arrive at a mutually beneficial result. So you are right to focus on the profit…negotiation works from the theory that seeking to maximize benefit (if both parties engage in it) will result in a less than optimum result.

      All 5 of your starting points are excellent…and truly starting points. Great—now one of us has to write a scholarly paper.

      • I can’t quite agree with your comment here for a variety of reasons.

        The first issue is that we don’t analyze intentions or thoughts when conducting ethical analysis — we analyze conduct. We condemn things as unethical (or accept them as ethical) regardless of whether the rationalization is genuine or not.

        The second is that rationalizations aren’t necessarily lies. In the Gruber case, for instance, there’s a damned good chance that he was genuinely enunciating his thought processes — and, accordingly, the statement that it was “for their own good” was hardly a lie.

        It isn’t being false (or a lie) that makes this sort of thing a rationalization — it’s that the stated motive doesn’t excuse or justify the conduct. The proper reaction isn’t, “No, it wasn’t” — it’s, “Perhaps. So?”

        Or, simply put, the ends don’t justify the means.

        But, as the example of the science teacher helped illustrate, this isn’t always the case. There are times when we can legitimately accept the means of deception as justified given the ends. There are times when we can look at someone manipulating, deceiving, and tricking others while claiming it’s for their own good, and accept that as genuine, true, and acceptable.

        There are also “grey areas” — times when the acceptability and/or ethicality of the conduct is questionable.

        The questions then arise: “When is it acceptable? When is it unacceptable?”

        A few more questions then immediately follow: “What makes these cases acceptable or unacceptable? What’s the difference?”

        Or, to put it another way — the discussion needs more nuance… which gets back to my initial opening statement.

        My initial comment was largely an attempt to deal with this.

        The classic technique for doing so is to look for cases which we can accept as ethical (e.g. my friend’s teaching), cases which we can accept as unethical (Gruber). You then contrast the two, looking at the differences and seeing which of them are ethically relevant. You can then continue by looking at cases which are more debatable (the “grey areas”).

        I, admittedly, skipped a few steps of the analysis in a way that would have gotten my undergraduate philosophy professors to metaphorically slap my wrist and tell me to show my work. That’s fine: this is a blog comment and not an academic paper or a book. Additionally, my goal wasn’t to advance a formal ethical theory or provide an explanation — it was just to give us a starting point for discussion.

        I also wasn’t quite as coherent or focused as I usually try to be. I apologize for that: it’s partially because I was developing my thoughts as I wrote (see “blog comment, not ethics paper”), but also partially because I’m on heavy painkillers at the moment.

        Anyway, seeing as I’ve gone off on a tangent again, I might as well get back to my original point: that I was trying to find differences in aspects of the conduct which we could point to as not being excused by the ends (or alleged ends). I think I did find several.

        (As a parenthetical postscript, I also disagree on your point about negotiation: a skilled and ethical negotiator generally doesn’t lie, but may attempt to deceive. This is generally done in the manner of an advertiser or salesman — through things like framing and emphasis. Actively lying in the negotiation can actually be grounds for the nullification of the resultant agreement — see, for instance, the phrase “misrepresentation in the inducement”).

        • A couple points…I’m on a laptop in an airport, and I can’t type under the best of circumstances.

          It’s for their own good is the ends justifies the means for sure. It’s an unethical mindset and philosophy, but people believe it, argue for it, and practice it. They aren’t rationalizing—they are expressing a values system. Gruber was taking money, a lot of it, from a client. I don’t believe for a second that he did this for the good of anyone—listen to the guy. He’s a hired gun. For a rationalization to qualify, you have to have someone who knows they acted unethically who is using the rationalization to convince others, and himself, otherwise. And “their own good” in the case of the rationalization’s instant use doesn’t refer to the uninsured and those who obviously benefit, but those who do NOT benefit and who were tricked, per Gruber. The uninsured who wanted insurance weren’t tricked. The ensured who supported the measure believing that they were not being taxed and could keep their plans were. THEIR own good? Clearly not.

        • When is deception acceptable? That decision must be made by the victim. The deceiver cannot ethically make that decision, nor can involved third parties…….

  3. Sideshow Bob: “Because you need me, Springfield. Your guilty conscience may move you to vote Democratic, but deep down you long for a cold-hearted Republican to lower taxes, brutalize criminals, and rule you like a king. That’s why I did this, to save you from yourselves. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a city to run. ”

    Apparently, the idea of politicians doing this has been around for a while.

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