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.