Everyone is ethical in their own eyes.
Rationalizations are the most potent enemy to integrity. They work like an anesthetic to our consciences allowing us to avoid the pain of guilt when we don’t live up to our values. We want to think well of ourselves so much that we develop strategies to convince ourselves that we are better than we actually are.
Rationalizations are fabricated (hence, false) justifications we make to ourselves and others when we want to do or have done something we know we shouldn’t. We go to all the trouble to make up these stories because we care what others think of us and, more important, we want to think well of ourselves.
It helps to understand the difference between a rationalization and a rational decision. In a rational decision we apply reason and our values to a situation prior to deciding what is the smart and right thing to do. Rationalizations work very differently. We rationalize because we have already decided what we want to do or have already done it and we need a plausible story to tell ourselves and others to conceal our moral compromise. Thus, when we rationalize we are essentially reasoning backwards – starting with the conclusion and inventing reasons that would lead to it.
Here is a compendium of the most common rationalizations and excuses I call the dirty dozen:
1. It’s for your own good (white lies) – Remember to look at the lie from the perspective of the person lied to. Upon discovering the lie would it undermine trust; would the person feel betrayed or thank you for caring?
2. Everybody does it (we’ve always done it this way) – Ethics is about the way things ought to be not about the way things are.
3. Who am I to judge – If you never render moral judgment there is no moral difference between Mother Teresa and Adolph Hitler. You must judge when the conduct violates a fundamental core ethical value but judge cautiously and without self-righteousness.
4. You’re a bigger one (doctrine of relative filth: I’m not so bad so long as others are worse) – Sorry, your moral obligations are a matter of personal integrity and character. There is no dispensation simply because others may be worse. If you lie to a liar, you’re still a liar. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
5. It’s not my job – Yes it is; all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. If not you, who?
6. Nobody is hurt – Who are you kidding? The people who play by the rules are always hurt and disadvantaged by those who don’t. Besides, you are always hurt when you sacrifice your integrity and character.
7. It’s too important; it’s necessary – If the stakes are that high than your character is truly being tested. If you can’t be trusted to do the right thing when it will cost more than you want to pay, you can’t really be trusted at all. Besides look out for the false necessity trap. It is hardly ever really necessary or a question of real survival – “what if” you couldn’t do what you want to do. Necessity is not a fact, it is an interpretation.
8. It‘s not important – Then why in the world would you give up your claim to character and virtue? If the stakes are small, pay the freight and keep your integrity. Remember kids see whatever you do. So do subordinates and colleagues. Do you want your character judged by petty acts of dishonesty, maliciousness or irresponsibility?
9. The end justifies the means – Maybe, but that’s what they all say. Is it really best in the long run? If everyone did it would it be a good thing? Have you thought about all the stakeholders? Will the means change the ends or change you in a way that harms your reputation. Is it clearly necessary? Are you really doing it for a moral end or are you simply cloaking self-interest in a moral excuse.
10. I’m only human (I’m not perfect / I’m basically honest / I hardly ever lie / Just this once) – So how many times do you get to lie before you are a liar? Try as you might, you won’t be a saint but that doesn’t give you any free swings. You are accountable for every choice you make. Remember we tend to judge ourselves by our best intentions and most virtuous acts but we will be judged by our last worst act.
11. It’s a stupid rule – Maybe, but a lot of people think that about rules that cost them time or money or don’t let them do what they want. Are you willing to let everyone decide for themselves what rules to follow and what rules to break? (your children, your employees, the police, politicians, manufactures of food products)?
12. Ethics is a luxury I can’t afford right now – It doesn’t ever get any easier. The ethical problems change but they get bigger not smaller as the stakes get higher. If you don’t demand the best from yourself now you never will. Being ethical is a matter of habit and conditioning, its not a light switch you can turn on and off at your convenience.