I knew this was going to happen. Even as the Ethics Alarms Rationalizations list approached 70 self-serving lies in all, the cracks and crevices between them were being explored, mined and exploited. All three of today’s new additions turned up in a single, ill-begotten comment to a recent pots, and while I immediately recognized them as rationalizations, I also failed to find an exact fit for any of them on the list. It is by such a process that all rules and laws inevitably expand into near uselessness, because humans are so adept at finding loopholes.
I’m going to have to be vigilant lest the rationalizations become so thinly sliced that the list is too burdensome to be useful: some of the current entries have been criticized as redundant already. Nonetheless, I believe the three being unveiled now cover rationalization territory worth mapping. Here they are:
Rationalization 8A. The Dead Horse-Beater’s Dodge, or “This can’t make things any worse”
Rationalization 8, The Trivial Trap or “No harm no foul!”, relies on #3. Consequentialism, or “It Worked Out for the Best” for its dubious logic, but is less demanding. #3 posits that unethical conduct that ends up having beneficial or desirable results has been purged of its unethical nature. #8 argues for an even more lenient standard, holding that as long as the unethical conduct—usually a lie—has no negative effects, it can’t be wrong. The Dead Horse-Beater’s Dodge, carries things even further with the theory that as long as a situation can’t be made worse by wrongful conduct, the conduct itself can’t be wrongful. The most famous invocation of #8A of recent vintage is Hillary Clinton’s exasperated question during the Benghazi hearings, “At this point, what difference does it make?” Her argument: a lack of candor now about the fatal events in Benghazi can’t bring back the dead, so why harp on it?
In ethics, wrongful conduct is usually identifiable by its nature and intent. “This can’t make things any worse” is an assumption that individuals seldom can make with guaranteed accuracy, and it usually presumes consent from the supposedly bottom-lying individual or organization that the unethical act is done to. Get the informed consent, 8A devotees, and then we’ll talk.
No, looters, the fact that a business is a smoldering wreck does not make stealing even damaged merchandise from it “okay.” No, pulling the plug on a comatose patient without his previous consent or that of someone he has authorize to give it is still wrong, both legally and ethically. In most cases, the presumption that conduct unethical in its form and substance will not “make things any worse” is something about which the rationalizing wrong-doer can’t possibly be certain. That’s what makes it a rationalization: it is a lie we tell to ourselves.
Rationalization 50A. Narcissist Ethics , or “I don’t care”
Rationalization 50 is The Apathy Defense, or “Nobody Cares.” The theory there is that as long as “nobody “is bothered by the unethical conduct, it’s ethical. Of course, the flaw in that argument is that there is always someone who properly objects to unethical conduct, so the rationalization fails for the same reason as #1, “Everybody does it”…it often isn’t true.
Rationalization 50A solves that technical problem by asserting the validity of completely subjective ethics: as long as the self-satisfied, egomaniacal individual doesn’t care about the ethical standards and values being breached or the predictable results of the conduct breaching them, it doesn’t matter who cares. His or her own assessment is enough. If it’s not unethical to him, it’s not unethical. Neat!
This places 50A in close proximity to #14, Self-validating Virtue. The difference is that in that rationalization, the unethical actor is convinced that since he or she is inherently virtuous, anything they do must therefore also be virtuous. 50A re-defines ethical conduct as only involving “things I care about,” no matter who is involved.
Finally, the latest caboose on the Ethics Alarms Rationalization train...
Rationalization 61. The Doomsday License
This is one of the most pernicious rationalizations of all, right down there with #22, “It’s not the worst thing.” Movies and TV shows have been based on the premise that once you know the world is going to end (or lesser extinctions), the usual rules of right and wrong are suspended. The argument is that since ethics are based on the best interests of society and its residents, once society and the residents are doomed within a short time span, it is silly to persist in following the limitations imposed by ethical values. Movies and TV shows also have been responsible enough to base plots on cautionary tales where individuals wrongly assume that the end is at hand, only to be faced with the awful consequences of their conduct when they mistakenly believed ethical conduct was futile.
Ethical analysis can be profoundly affected by changed circumstances and exigencies, but nothing suspends the duty to be ethical, or at least to try. No, you don’t rape the sexy teen next door because you are both about to be plunged into the sun. No, you don’t stalk and kill the former employer who fired you unjustly because the zombie apocalypse is at hand. Our duty is to act to ensure that the final days, hours and minutes of everyone we share existence with are as endurable, free and painless as possible, not merely to indulge ourselves at their expense because their discomfort will be limited. Those who reason otherwise were never really ethical at all. They simply were unwilling to face the consequences of all the unethical acts they wanted to do.