The Way to Unethical Behavior is Paved with Rationalizations

In making tough decisions, don’t be distracted by rationalizations. Here are some of the most common:

If It’s Necessary It’s Ethical
This rationalization is based on the false assumption that necessity breeds propriety. This type of reasoning often leads to ends-justify-the-means reasoning and treating tasks or goals as moral imperatives.

The False Necessity Trap
As Nietsche put it, “necessity is an interpretation, not a fact.” We tend to fall into the “false necessity trap” because we overestimate the cost of doing the right thing and underestimate the cost of failing to do so.

If It’s Legal and Permissible, It’s Proper
This substitutes legal requirements (which establish minimal standards of behavior) for personal moral judgment. This alternative does not embrace the full range of ethical obligations, especially for those involved in upholding the public trust. Ethical people often choose to do less than what is maximally allowable and more than what is minimally acceptable.

I Was Just Doing It for You
This is the primary justification for committing “little white lies” or withholding important information in personal or professional relationships, such as performance reviews. This rationalization pits the values of honesty and respect against the value of caring. An individual deserves the truth because he has a moral right to make decisions about his or her own life based on accurate information. This rationalization overestimates other people’s desire to be “protected” form the truth, when in fact most people would rather have unpleasant information than be deluded into believing falsehoods. Consider the perspective of people lied to: if they discovered the lie, would they thank you for being considerate or feel betrayed, patronized, or manipulated?

I’m Just Fighting Fire With Fire
This is based on the false assumption that deceit, lying, promise-breaking, etc. are justified if they are the same sort of behavior engaged in by those with whom you are dealing.

It Doesn’t Hurt Anyone
Used to excuse misconduct, this rationalization is based on the false assumption that one can violate ethical principles so long as there is no clear and immediate harm to others. It treats ethical obligations simply as factors to be considered in decision making rather than as ground rules. Problem areas: Asking for or giving special favors to family, friends, or public officials, disclosing non-public information to benefit others, using one’s position for personal advantages.

Everyone’s Doing It
This is a false, “safety in numbers” rationale fed by the tendency to uncritically adopt cultural, organizational, or occupational behavior systems as if they were ethical norms just because they are norms.

It’s Okay If I Don’t Gain Personally
This justifies improper conduct done for others or for institutional purposes on the false assumption that personal gain is the only test of impropriety. A related, but more narrow excuse, is that only behavior resulting in improper financial gain warrants ethical criticism.

I’ve Got It Coming
People who feel they are overworked or underpaid rationalize that minor “perks” or acceptance of favors, discounts, or gratuities are nothing more than fair compensation for services rendered. This is also used to excuse abuse of sick time, insurance claims, overtime, personal phone calls, photocopying, etc.

I Can Still Be Objective
This is a particularly dangerous rationalization, for if one truly loses objectivity, one has also lost the ability to perceive this handicap. It is fairly easy to underestimate the subtle ways in which gratitude, friendship, anticipation of future favors and the like affect judgment. Ask yourself. Does the person providing you with the benefit believe that it will in no way affect your judgment? Would the benefit still be provided if you were in no position to help the provider in any way?

From: Making Ethical Decisions, 1995 Ed.