By Popular Demand: Welcome Ethics Alarms Rationalizations #55, “We’re Better Than This!” and #56, “Think of the Children!”

Think of the Children

About a week ago, I asked readers whether “We’re better than this!,” at the time being wielded like a club by Democrats to counter various Republican proposals to control, limit or cease the immigration of Muslims into the U.S., was a true rationalization that deserved inclusion on The List. The response suggested that most of you felt it was, and upon reading the responses, I agree. A rationalization is an invalid and dishonest argument used to advocate or defend questionable conduct. “We’re better than this!” fits that description, and thus I officially dub it Ethics Alarms Rationalization Rationalization#55, “The Idealist’s Delusion,” or “We’re/ You’re Better Than This.”

Like the other rationalizations, “The Idealist’s Delusion” may sometimes be fair and true, but it is still an unethical argument if there is nothing more substantive to back it up. Think of it as the reverse of  #14. Self-validating Virtue, in which unethical conduct supposedly becomes ethical because the person doing it is deemed—usually by himself— incapable of wrongdoing. Rationalization #55 uses presumed virtue to claim that a potential actor is too good to do something…without ever making the case that the considered conduct is really wrong or unwise.  #55 is a pretty neat trick, when you think about it: it simultaneously appeals to an individual or organization’s self-esteem while unilaterally declaring an objective, motive or methods demeaning. This relieves the advocate for avoiding the conduct in question of the requirement to make the case with more than vague declarations of principle. If #55 is effective, it can only be because those persuaded never engaged in critical thinking, asking and answering such crucial questions as what are the benefits of this proposed action, who will it benefit, what ethical principles does it follow or violate, and are the intended results worth the cost? The Idealist’s Delusion is a cynical tool to bypass ethical decision-making by assuming the result, and using ego and guilt to stifle objective analysis. As I wrote in the earlier post.

When “We are better than this” is followed by “because..’ and more substantive points, I have no objection to it, although “we should be better than this” is fairer. It can begin an analysis, but is not an analysis itself. However, when it is used as a substitute for analysis, it is pure rationalization.

I am also finally adding “Think of the Children!” to the list, as Rationalization #56, The Universal Trump.

Like its immediate predecessor, #56 is designed to end arguments before they start, using a conversation-stopper, dripping with sentiment, that only heartless curs and brutes can ignore. The theme on Ethics Alarms is “Bias makes us stupid,” and since everyone is biased toward children, Rationalization #56 has the effect, and the intentional effect, of spraying Stupid Gas far and wide to ensure that reasoned analysis is impossible.

Politicians are the most prolific in their use of the Universal Trump, closely followed by social workers, charity workers, churches, and mothers. The U.S. shouldn’t enforce its immigration laws because children will be hurt, and what are such gray abstractions as  national sovereignty and the rule of law to a beautiful, living, breathing, child? The U.S. shouldn’t imprison criminals because their children will be harmed, and who can willfully rob a child of a father’s love? The U.S. should never fight wars because children will be imperiled, and should not the pitiful cries of orphans lead civilized nations to stop the orgy of killing?  Sure, it’s compassion porn, but it works.

“Think of the Children!” is virtually always used as a short-term argument, never expanding analysis into a more inclusive and responsible framework by considering, for example, all of the children who may be be harmed in the future because of necessary action not taken, out of concern for children now. The theory behind The Universal Trump is that children trump everything, and outbalance all other considerations. The use of #56 is akin to a human shield, employed to block incoming logic.

21 thoughts on “By Popular Demand: Welcome Ethics Alarms Rationalizations #55, “We’re Better Than This!” and #56, “Think of the Children!”

  1. For a moment there, your use of the word Trump puzzed me – but then, thought I, he is after all a walking, talking rationalization of a politician.

  2. Rationalization # 56, The Universal Trump, is a perfect example of what the Buddhists call Idiot Compassion. Unlike politicians who do it cynically, the groups that habitually engage in this rationalization such as the liberal clergy, social workers, etc. really believe that their stance is just. They do not think of ultimate consequences of letting tens of thousands of Syrian or Central American into this county and the effect it will have on our economy and security.

  3. Jack, I don’t think these rise to the level of most other items on the list. Not even close. I mentioned as much in the previous thread.

    Most of the other rationalizations are ones that people can delude themselves into using. These, however, are boilerplate political talking points. They are propaganda. Yes, skillfully used, they WILL be repeated by people who are blinded by confirmation bias.

    The difference is that these two additions are typically SEEDED by cynical politicians, thence to be repeated, whereas most of the other rationalizations are the result of fuzzy logic on the part of those using them.

    This, by the way, is the essence of the meme, as originally defined.

    Thus, I think you should remove these from the Rationalization List and start a NEW list focusing on diabolical political manipulation.

    Maybe we should have a contest to determine what the name of such a list should be. As a start, I’d nominate one of the smartest, funniest punk-band names I ever heard: Propaghandi.

    • I’d need some more elaboration on this. I’m not yet persuaded. Political talking points are rationalizations—does monopoly by one sector change the essence of the phrase? I’ve had “you’re better than that” used on ME, here, more than once. What it really means is “I disagree with you and I usually don’t, so you’re causing me dissonance. Stop it.” But that’s not what they are willing to admit. “Lies we tell ourselves”—that’s a rationalization. No?

      What these two have in common is that they are fake reasons that bypass substantive arguments, maybe because there aren’t any. How is “Everybody does it” different? That’s a political talking point too, true? Other countries ban guns. Other countries have national health care. Other countries have eliminated capital punishment. Other countries ban hate speech. Other countries accept the need for climate change measures. Come to think of it, #1 on the list is the biggest talking point of all. And it also is used as a substitute for valid arguments.

      So why are 56 and 55 any different?

      • Because they are current political talking points, NOT inherent rationalizations. They can be USED as rationalizations, and (God save us) some day, they may have become so ingrained in the culture that they will be.

        For now, however, they represent little more than very clever speech writing. I’ll give “for the children” a bit of an edge as a potential rationalization, in that it’s been used long enough that it’s approaching a level of conditional acceptance.

        But I don’t think it’s there yet. Garbage like this takes at least a generation to inculcate itself. Meantime, “We’re better than this” still has loose toner dust on it.

          • Maybe the test is whether the phrase is adopted by a well funded group that adds a “.org” at the end of it, such as “” “Move on” was pure political claptrap, authentic American gibberish. I think both of these rationalizations are more ingrained and dangerous than Arthur is willing to admit. If we see a “we’” or “” funded by George Soros spring up, they probably need to be placed in a different category.

  4. I remember when, as a child, I wanted to do something particularly stupid ( usually because my friends were doing so) my mother would counter with “You’re smarter than this!”. Can’t help but feel that our entire culture would be better off if THAT rationalization were in common usage.

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