The Pest’s Justification or “He/She/They can take care of themselves,” the latest addition to the apparently bottomless pit of self-deception known in these parts as the Ethics Alarms Rationalizations List, is a distant cousin of Rationalization 2A, Sicilian Ethics, which holds that wrongdoing toward a party isn’t wrong when the abused party has aggrieved the abuser. 2A boils down to “He deserves it.” #65 boils down to “There’s no need to be ethical to someone more powerful than me.”
The newest addition takes its name from periodic playground accounts in the news, where a larger child is endlessly tormented by a smaller one who assumes that he is immune from harsh judgment by virtue of being perceived as relatively harmless compared to his target. These stories often end badly, with the larger child finally deciding that he can take no more, clobbering his tormenter, and being called a bully for doing so. Spousal abuse where women beat up their larger husbands are especially ugly extensions of this rationalization. It can take the form of bullying.
In public discourse, we often criticize public figures for “punching down,” which means attacking individuals of lesser status power and resources. Presidents should not attack citizens from the podium or social media, for example. The disparity in power makes the act irresponsible and an abuse of position. That does not mean, however, that “punching up” is automatically virtuous. Like any other conduct, “punching up” is ethical when it comports with standards or ethical behavior—when it is fair, just, proportionate, and civil. Journalists and pundits are often the worst devotees of #65. They know they are immune to serious consequences for irresponsible, biased, unfair and insulting journalism, because of Constitutional protections, so they “punch up” with abandon. What is usually abandoned is respect and fairness.
The mere fact that an abuser is less powerful than the abused, however, is not an ethics green light for unrestrained mistreatment. Abuse is abuse. “He can take care of himself” is not a justification. Indeed, that rationalization usually is the mark of a coward, for what he is really saying is “I am safe from any consequences of my viciousness, because any response against me will be seen as “punching down.” As in the playground cases, this is frequently an unwise assumption. Gnats get squashed, and deserve to be. The victim of a wielder of the Pest’s Rationalization can not ethically resort to Sicilian Ethics, but if he does, the sounds of applause will be audible, and sympathy greatly muted.