Introducing Rationalization 1A: Ethics Surrender, or “We can’t stop it”

White Flag: Last LapForty six rationalizations have been added to the Ethics Alarms Rationalizations List, and today I not only stumbled upon a carelessly omitted one, but realized that it belongs near the top.

Ethics Surrender, or “We can’t stop it,” is the rationalization that argues that if society is incapable of effectively preventing unethical conduct, for whatever reason, we might as well stop regarding that conduct as wrong. This is yet another variation on the most common and insidious rationalization of them all and #1 on the list: “Everybody Does It.”

The Golden Rationalization has many variations, among them…

“It’s done all the time.”

“It’s always been done this way.”

“It’s tradition.”

“Everybody is used to it.”

“Everybody accepts it.”

“Nobody’s complained before.”

“It’s too late to change now.”

…and others. Ethics Surrender, however, warrants particular attention, as it encourages moral cowardice and ethics complacency. “We can’t stop it” is a lazy capitulation that assumes cultures can’t change, and we know they can and do change, both for better and worse, all the time. One society has been convinced, though legitimate, persistent, coherent and ethically valid arguments, that a common practice or conduct is bad for society, society can stop or seriously inhibit that unethical practice of behavior, either by law, regulation, or best of all, the evolution of cultural consensus. The examples of an Ethics Surrender resulting in undesirable societal consequences are too numerous to list, and many of them are still controversial. I would assign having children out of wedlock, adultery, lying by elected leaders and the use of illegal recreational drugs to the “We can’t stop it, so let’s say it’s not so bad” category. The most obvious and currently significant example is illegal immigration, wrong, but increasingly being rationalized by both advocates and lawmakers who have run out of ideas and principle. At this moment, we are hearing the defenders of dubious police shootings making that argument to avoid examining possible changes in law enforcement policy so there will be fewer deaths without putting police in peril.

Ethics is hard. Rationalization 1A, Ethics Surrender, or “We can’t stop it,” wrongly concludes that it is impossible.



11 thoughts on “Introducing Rationalization 1A: Ethics Surrender, or “We can’t stop it”

  1. This is true. And here is the thing. Just because we should not criminalize something does not mean we should affirm it as ethical and moral.

    the clearest example is idolatry. It is immoral and unethical to worship anyone except the Lord God JEHOVAH. and yet, we can not criminalize such conduct without giving up our freedom of religion.

  2. Believe it or not, I have seen this, and called it “moral/ethical drift”. I’m pretty sure I either labeled this(or maybe I read it and am not giving it proper credit) while reading “The Mountain People”. You’ve probably read this, but it’s about the Ik people of Africa.

    • I’m mistaken. I just found it in one of my old psychology texts (Myers, D.,Social Psychology, 9th Ed.). I must have seen it here, then years later, while reading The Mountain People, thought “could this be called something like Ethical Drift?” I will have to reevaluate my self-estimated brilliance.

  3. And, we certainly can stop it, with a loud enough voice. However, we then run the risk of imposing our values (if we equate values with ethics) on others. My belief, however, open to correction, is that ethics are not belief or cultural(ly) specific. They may or may not be absolutes, but, as a general rule, are across-cultural and profession.

  4. I say impose away. Values or ethics or whatever. Some are clearly better than others. It’s better to revere life than not to. It’s better to work than not to. It’s better to give than not to. It’s better to forgive than not to.
    If you place a high value on honesty that is a better way to live than to be dishonest. Some “values” are better than others. They just are. The way you can tell is by the results. Good values, or ethics, or whatever you call them produce good results for everyone. Bad ones produce bad results.
    I’ve had it with tolerating harmful values and harmful actions.

  5. I think a related one is “You can’t turn back the clock”. Like the “we can’t stop it” rationalization, the “You can’t turn back the clock” rationalization is a surrender to unethical or disastrous behavior. We used to have a decent public schools system, so why don’t we just go back to the system that worked? Why don’t we go back to requiring more individual responsibility for people’s actions? Why don’t we get rid of all of these new, poorly understood investment instruments that keep causing economic collapses (did you know they are now bundling sub-prime car loans as investment grade bonds and selling them to your 401k?)?

    • Good one, and I think I’ll add it. In that context, though, maybe 1A deserves its own number. I was thinking of “we can’t stop it” in the context of “so many people are doing this that the Genie’s out of the bottle,” but yours is another angle, the ratchet theory.

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