Fred, my topic scout, sent me this and suggested that it was the apotheosis of Rationalization #22, Comparative Virtue or “It’s not the worst thing.”
Boy, was he right.
In last night’s episode of the Tucker Carlson show—right-wingers are actually impressed with Tucker’s skills at taking down lame liberal fanatics, which is sad in so many ways—featured the Fox News conservative dilettante agreeing with guest James Rosen, who was making the fatuous and ethically offensive point that people shouldn’t get so upset about what Trump does because the Civil War and the Cold War were worse.
This argument is the Mother of All Terrible Rationalizations, and especially bad because it spoils a good point, which is that absent historical perspective, it’s not easy to know what a real crisis is. Arguing that people shouldn’t object to something, however, because something else was worse is the mark of desperation as well as intellectual deficiency. Explain why the alleged crisis isn’t one (as in the Comey firing); explain why the assumed harm is exaggerated, or being hyped, or the product of bias and emotion. But to say, as Rosen, a “conservative historian,” which only means he isn’t an aggressive leftist like almost all of his colleagues, did,
“During Watergate, the term ‘crisis’ was thrown around as well and there were people at that time who were old enough to remember when there were legless Civil War veterans still in the streets of Washington.”
And I’m sure conservative historians were reminding those Civil War casualties while their legs were being sawed off without anesthesia that the Civil War wasn’t nearly as horrible as the Black Death. “Ah, I feel much better now,” they smiled. “Just call me ‘Stumpy!’
Here, for the sake of reference, is the description of #22 on the Ethics Alarms Rationalizations List:
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.
Incidentally, one of the most prominent peddlers of #22 is Donald Trump, as when he argues that waterboarding is nowhere near as bad as what terrorists do to their prisoners. Please don’t listen to him when he does this. See what that kind of thinking has done to James Rosen and Tucker Carlson?
It’s not only bias that makes us stupid. Presidents can make you stupid too.