Bill Cosby’s Rationalization: #14. Self-Validating Virtue

stuart-smalleyThe smoking gun Bill Cosby deposition took place over four days in September 2005 and March 2006, during which time the comedy icon answered questions in a lawsuit alleging sexual assault filed by Andrea Constand, a former basketball operations manager at Temple University. Cosby settled the case, we now know, to avoid the testimony of several women who were prepared to back Constand with similar stories of being sexually assaulted. The deposition did not become public until it was revealed this month by the Associated Press and the New York Times.

Here is a fascinating exchange from that deposition:

Constand’s lawyer:  Do you feel that you are a good person?

Cosby:   Yes.

With this, Bill Cosby illustrates one of the more common and troubling rationalizations, #14 on the Ethics Alarms list, Self-validating Virtue:

A  corollary of the Saint’s Excuse  is “Self-validating Virtue,” in which the act is judged by the perceived goodness of 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 (or were) 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.

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. All of us, no matter how virtuous,are capable of becoming the bad guy…especially when we are convinced that we are not.

Very few people can admit that they are not good people. Public polls suggest that over 90% of Americans think they are the most ethical people they know. I am certain Cosby was sincere in his answer. His complete absorption by this rationalization explains the apparent astounding hypocrisy between his words, public image and private life. Cosby doesn’t believe he has done anything wrong. How could he? He’s Bill Cosby, and Bill Cosby is good.

Indeed, Cosby embodies the kind of person described by Michael (Jeff Goldblum) in “The Big Chill”:

“Nobody thinks they’re a bad person. I don’t claim people think they do the right thing.They may know they do dishonest or manipulative things……but think there’s a good reason for it. They think it’ll turn out for the best. If it turns out best for them, it is by definition what’s best.You also come up against a question of style. My style may be too direct. Perhaps given my style I seem more nakedly……opportunistic or jerky or… – Whatever. All that’s happening is I’m trying to get what I want. Which is what we all do, but their styles are so warm……you don’t realize they’re trying to get what they want. So my transparent efforts are more honest and admirable….Don’t knock rationalization. Where would we be without it? I don’t know anyone who can go a day without two or three rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.”

Well, let’s say that for Bill Cosby they are exactly as important as sex.



17 thoughts on “Bill Cosby’s Rationalization: #14. Self-Validating Virtue

  1. This rationalization is characteristic of the narcissist and sociopath. The narcissist will get mad if you point this out. The sociopath just doesn’t care as your opinion means nothing to them. However ordinary people sometimes will do terrible things and immediately fall into this rationalization, I.e. the behavior of soldiers drafted into the military and engaging in ethnic cleansing.

  2. “There is a way that seems right to man, but its end is the way to death.” Proverbs 14:12. No evil recognizes itself. That’s what makes evil such a dangerous foe. It was always this way. I imagine it shall always be this way.

    Bill Cosby was, at one time, my favorite comedian. I now despise him. I suppose I have learned my lesson-an image is not a man. However, I share a little of that disgust for myself. This information was available for years, and because I blindly followed the “okie doke”, I never even knew that he had been accused.

    Sadly, this only came to true light when Hannibal Buress exposed it in his comedy-not because it was the right thing to do-but because Bill Cosby’s admonishments of black culture had irritated him. This worries me because it seems to imply that the monsters who do evil and vicious things will be allowed to continue to do those evil and vicious things, so long as they do not dare to ask others to exhibit moral behavior.

    • Burress just reminded everyone of what the media and public had chosen to ignore once. I had written about this back in 2006, but there was no social media then, and Cosby hadn’t alienated so many of his natural allies by lecturing black groups about black culture dysfunction.

      • I suppose my point is, if the media and the public chose to ignore this once, don’t we all (and by all I mean media members and adults in the time frame) share some small part of the shame of such a fiasco? You, of course, may be excluded because of what you wrote about in 2006. I, unfortunately, can make no such claim. I was attending one of his comedy shows in 2006 (or maybe 2007, but why split hairs?).

        I probably erred by using the term “exposed” in relation to Hannibal Buress. I should have said it only seemed to become a problem for Mr. Cosby in the press after Buress made a point of it in his comedy routine.

        It’s pretty clear that Mr. Cosby is a despicable scumbag. But, I have got to say, America looks pretty ethically culpable here too. It’s a matter of degrees, I suppose. Whatever evil we do, we rationalize away. “Well, we didn’t rape women.” True. But many of us, and I am forced to include myself, were part of the structure that allowed Mr. Cosby to get away with it over thirty-five times. These smaller evils pave the way for the greater evil. And the past is fraught with these occurrences. “We didn’t kill Jews.” Yes, but you said nothing when they were being killed. “We didn’t own slaves.” Yes, but you profited from their labor, and did nothing to combat the obvious and vicious evil of the institution.

        I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the Cosby situation appears to be the perfect reminder that it is not enough just to avoid doing evil. There is also an obligation to stop evil when it is occurring.

        • Celebrity worship indeed facilitates crimes and bad conduct generally through “The King’s Pass” and “The Saint’s Excuse.” Cosby is in the group of ethics corrupters that includes Jack Kennedy (and Ted), Frank Sinatra, Bill Clinton, Hillary, Woody Allen and others.

  3. I imagine that folks in Australia had a similar problem with Robert Hughes. A well known comic actor, Hughes once starred in the popular “Hey, Dad” family sitcom. But even then, he was known by every insider to be a closet pedophile who abused the children of his TV family and took trips to Indonesia to satisfy his cravings. Last year, about two decades after that show went off the air, he was finally charged and convicted. A lot of people couldn’t accept that “good old Bob” was a monster beneath the good humor. I’m sure a lot of us who grew up with Bill Cosby had that problem, too. I would have myself, had I not already had an in-depth introduction into the sordid realities beneath the kindest show biz legends.

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