Rationalization #22, Comparative Virtue or “It’s not the worst thing,” is my personal candidate for the worst rationalization of them all. It is so objectively so devoid of common sense, and so desperate in its relativism, that I am amazed at how often allegedly intelligent people employ it. Ethics Alarms is always on the lookout for a perfect #22, and this summer has brought a bumper crop. Donald Trump, master of rationalizations, had one in June, just four days after Madeleine Albright scored one, saying about Hillary Clinton’s e-mail scandal,
“…nobody is going to die as a result of anything that happened on emails”
Albright also could well have been wrong about that, as we now know, and only moral luck prevented one of Hillary’s carelessly handled e-mails from falling into hands that might have engineered harm for a U.S. agent abroad. Clearly, however, partisans trying to minimize Clinton’s absolute incompetence, recklessness and dishonesty regarding her private server and its illicit use are drawn to Rationalization #22, because today’s example is also an unethical attempt to excuse Hillary’s conduct by putting it in “perspective”—and what a perspective!
First let’s again review the rationalization…
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.
(It is also the mark of someone corrupted by the Clintons. #22 got a workout, you may recall, when Bill Clinton’s lies, cover-up and obstruction of justice regarding the intern he transformed into a Presidential sex toy got him impeached.)
Now here is the perfect #22, a headline on an editorial at MassLive, a Massachusetts news and politics website, Can it get better than this?