The most infuriating comment threads on Ethics Alarms are those in which one or more intelligent readers are desperately tying to dispute the indisputable ethics breach, and finding no substantive ethical argument because there are none, desperately throw one rationalization after another against the metaphorical wall to see if they’ll stick. They don’t of, course.
Occasionally, however, there is a benefit to the exercise: in their furious effort to find an legitimate argument while hunting through the rationalization dumpster, one of the protesters uncovers one that the Ethics Alarms Rationalization List had thus far missed. So it is with one of the most rationalization-choked exchanges ever to break-out on this site, the debate over the cast of “Hamilton” crossing multiple ethics lines, thick red ones, to exploit the opportunity for political grandstanding occasioned by Vice-President Elect Mike Peck engaging in the benign and supportive act of attending their show. (The posts on this episode are here and here.) Not only was a new rationalization revealed—#63, Irrelevant Civility or “But I was nice about it!”—but my thinking about that one revealed that I had also missed another one, distinct but related, #63A, Bluto’s Mistake or “I said I was sorry!”
The total number of rationalizations on the list now stands at 80.
Rationalization 63. Irrelevant Civility or “But I was nice about it!”
This one is easy. Doing unethical things nicely is better than doing them cruelly or while laughing with maniacal glee, but the protest that an unethical act is somehow less unethical because of the manner in which it was performed is delusional, and no excuse at all. The rationalization emerges from the ooze that is #22, “It’s not the worst thing,” the bottom of the rationalization barrel. No, one does not enhance an unethical act by being polite in the process, or handing a victim flowers before kicking him in the groin.
I almost called this the “Frosting on a Turd” Rationalization.
An undeserved firing is just as undeserved if a nice farewell party follows. A betrayal of trust is just as wrong when the betrayer has the manners to reveal it himself, directly and with a sympathetic look on his face. Refusing to help someone dangling over a precipice is just as bad whether the bystander watches as he falls to his death, or sings him a lovely farewell song.
An unethical act completed using gentle words and a smile is seldom materially improved. By all means, mitigating the harm is an ethical obligation, but the core conduct is usually unaltered.
Rationalization 63A. Bluto’s Mistake or “I said I was sorry!”
A sub-category of #63 is #63A. Bluto’s Mistake, named for the classic moment in “Animal House” in which the chaotic Bluto, played by the late, great John Belushi, impulsively smashes to smithereens the guitar being strummed, to the sighs of comely co-eds, by a pompous student folk singer in accompaniment to his off-key crooning. “Sorry!” shrugs Bluto, as he hands the ruined instrument back to its owner.
Saying sorry before, during or after an unethical act is almost always insincere, but even it it isn’t, it doesn’t mitigate the conduct. Usually, the apology is being used to make the unethical party feel better and assuage his or her conscience. It doesn’t help the victim at all. True apologies are both admissions of wrongdoing and a requests for forgiveness. They cannot and do not change the nature of the conduct being apologized for. In too many cases, 63A apologies are meaningless, and are attempts to avoid accountability.