Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is in some respect the perfect surrogate for Hillary Clinton, another former female Secretary of State. She has not been the deftest of supporters, however. The last time she made the news and Ethics Alarms with the statement that women who didn’t support Hillary Clinton would burn. “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” she said, making a pure and shameless group identification argument for Clinton’s candidacy.
Now, however, she has outdone herself, warming the cockles of Ethics Alarms’ heart by giving us a perfect Number 22 on the Ethics Alarms rationalization list [ The last perfect #22 honored here was this, in 2014]. I had conceded the Rationalization Championship in this campaign to Donald Trump and his supporters, as they avoid ethics entirely most of the time and default to rationalizations as a matter of reflex . Do they know rationalizations are neon markers of unethical reasoning? No, they don’t. The Donald’s favorites appear to be…
- The Golden Rationalization, or “Everybody does it,”
- Consequentialism, or “It Worked Out for the Best”
- Marion Barry’s Misdirection “If it isn’t illegal, it’s ethical.”
- The “Tit for Tat” Excuse
- The King’s Pass
- The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause”
- Self-validating Virtue
- Ethical Vigilantism
- The Perfection Diversion: “Nobody’s Perfect!” or “Everybody makes mistakes!”
- Ethics Accounting (“I’ve earned this”/ “I made up for that”)
- The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”
- Woody’s Excuse: “The heart wants what the heart wants”
- The Victim’s Distortion
- The Revolutionary’s Excuse: “These are not ordinary times.”
- The Prospective Repeal: “It’s a bad law/stupid rule,” and
- The Management Shrug: “Don’t sweat the small stuff!”
- Popeye’s Excuse, or “I am what I am!”
But it’s early yet: Trump is capable of hitting the entire list of rationalizations, all 68 of them (including the sub-rationalizations) given the opportunity. Not that Hillary…and Bill, of course…are pikers in the unethical rationalization department; far from it. Indeed, the core of Bill successful defense against the impeachment charges in the court of public opinion was the Golden Rationalization, “Everybody Does It”–lies, you know. About sex.
The problem is that “everybody” isn’t the President of the United States, the President isn’t supposed to act like “everybody,” and not only doesn’t “everybody” lie under oath—about sex or anything else–it’s still a felony.
But that’s rationalizations for you. They work wonders with the ignorant, the corrupt, and the none-too bright.
Which brings us back to Madeleine Albright and her perfect #22.
#22 is the worst rationalization of them all. Here is the full description:
22. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”
If “Everybody does it” is the Golden Rationalization, this is the bottom of the barrel. Yet amazingly, this excuse is popular in high places: witness the “Abu Ghraib was bad, but our soldiers would never cut off Nick Berg’s head” argument that was common during the height of the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal. It is true that for most ethical misconduct, there are indeed “worse things.” Lying to your boss in order to goof off at the golf course isn’t as bad as stealing a ham, and stealing a ham is nothing compared selling military secrets to North Korea. So what? We judge human conduct against ideals of good behavior that we aspire to, not by the bad behavior of others. One’s objective is to be the best human being that we can be, not to just avoid being the worst rotter anyone has ever met.
Behavior has to be assessed on its own terms, not according to some imaginary comparative scale. The fact that someone’s act is more or less ethical than yours has no effect on the ethical nature of your conduct. “There are worse things” is not an argument; it’s the desperate cry of someone who has run out of rationalizations.
On CNN’s “New Day Friday, Albright was asked by Chris Cuomo about Hillary’s deepening e-mail scandal. She began with one rationalization, #20. The “Just one mistake!” Fantasy, saying, “She has said she made a mistake…” True, Clinton says she made “a mistake” as her tactic to wriggle out of the inevitable conclusions to be drawn that what she did was deliberate, calculated, an intentional circumvention of law, continued her whole term as Secretary of State, and that she has been trying successive lies hoping one of the works. When you attempt something unethical over many years and finally get caught, that’s not a mistake. That’s an intentional act that didn’t work.
Hey, but #20 is kid stuff, literally. Kids start using it before they hit puberty; I can’t give Albright any special props for that. It was the second part of her sentence answering Cuomo that deserves applause and awe:
…nobody is going to die as a result of anything that happened on emails”