Santa Clarita Signal • Ethically Speaking • For March 11 weekender, 2017
Rationalizing Ethics Away
David W. Hegg
We all do it. We lie, cheat, steal, demean, and cause pain in others. We do things we know are wrong, and contrary to our own ethical standards. When we do so, it is because we have believed a lie. And most often the lie is one we’ve told ourselves. It’s called “rationalizing”, and as we become more and more savvy regarding getting ahead in our broken world, we become experts as believing our own lies if we think doing so will make life a little better.
We learn to rationalize early in life. Remember this one? “He started it!” We’ve all used it to escape being caught in the wrong only to find out retaliation is most often just as unethical as provocation.
As we pass by puberty we begin choosing a worldview, and often we choose the one whose ethics most fit our desired way of living. In a secular worldview, a primary conviction is about pain. Above all, one should never hurt someone else. This includes both physical and emotional dimensions, and provides the grounds for a ubiquitous rationalization we find useful too often today. Here it is: “It’s not hurting anyone.” And if no one gets hurt, it must be okay.
This rationalization can be used to make us feel good about any number of bad things. From the guy who pours out his used motor oil in the back corner of his yard, and picks lemons from a neighbor’s tree, to the woman who buys a new dress for the party and takes it back the next day, our misguided ideas that certain wrongs have no societal consequences are enormously wrong. This rationalization is built on the presumption that one wrong has no bearing on a neighborhood, on a city, on a people. But, pollution is wrong, stealing is wrong, and knowingly abusing a retailer’s good will is wrong. Simply put, wrong is wrong, no matter the extent of its consequences.
Here are a few more we’ve all used or heard. Every one’s doing it. No one will care. No one will ever know. At the core of these rationalizations is the belief unethical behavior only affects others. But the truth is, regardless of how others may be affected by our behavior, wrongdoing speaks to what kind of people we are. Too often our actions are shaped, not by a passionate dedication to personal integrity, but by whether we’ll get caught.
The truth is, unethical action does erode our own character, especially when, as we contemplate doing what we know is wrong, we tell ourselves the worst rationalization of all. I deserve it.
I deserve it. When we believe this lie we’re entering the danger zone. I deserve it. When we use this one it means - down deep - we know we’re about to cross a line. We’re entering territory we know is risky and downright dangerous. But since we deserve it, we convince ourselves the good will outweigh the bad, and the pleasure outweigh the pain inevitably attached to deceit, dissipation, wantonness, and an abandonment of restraint.
Too many times I’ve sat across from a husband, a wife, a single man or woman, even a teen, and listened as they described a slow but deep slide into a monumental crisis of their own making.
How did it happen? They started early learning to rationalize away their sinful, immoral, and often illegal behavior. They seared their consciences with little indiscretions made acceptable through rationalization. And as their consciences became less and less able to curb negative passions, they were freed from the bonds of ethical standards to feel good about acting badly. Tragically, they came at last to see the severe effects of their choices and actions painted on the canvas of those they loved dearly, even as they had to admit a radical erosion of their own souls.
Someone has said reputation is what people think you are, while character is what God knows you are. Character has also been defined as who you are when no one is looking. My advice is to care most about what God thinks of you. Set your mind to do what pleases him, and you’ll find you won’t need to keep a catalog of rationalizations handy as you walk the path of a life well-lived.