Do Bad, Feel Good: The Peril of Rationalization

Dinesh D’Souza is a public intellectual with a strong conservative Christian bent. He is also a convicted criminal, an admitted adulterer, and a raging hypocrite. A recent interview printed in the New York Times Magazine on July 5, 2015 illustrates very clearly how, as behavioral ethics teaches, people can do very bad things yet continue to think of themselves as good people.

The human ability to rationalize is a major component of this process. Anand and colleagues have categorized the most common rationalizations that people use, including social weighting, which has two forms. Via social weighting, people moderate the salience of their own wrongdoing by, first, condemning the condemnor. Right after law school I clerked in a federal court that had jurisdiction over three major penitentiaries. I noticed that inmates often admitted to their crimes, but argued that the prosecutors and “the system” were even worse. They envisioned themselves more as victims than wrongdoers. In his interview, D’Souza describes his fellow inmates at the confinement center where he spent nights for eight months as having this same viewpoint. As the interviewer (Ana Marie Cox) pointed out, however, D’Souza seemed to share this rationalization when, though not denying his crime, he alleged that his prosecution was politically motivated.

The second form of social weighting is selective social comparison, where people often admit to wrongdoing, but by pointing out that others did things that were even worse, they moderate their own wrongdoing and perhaps become almost heroic in their own eyes for their restraint. D’Souza exercised this rationalization as well, noting: “If you put my rap sheet alongside the Clinton rap sheet, I think that would be almost a prima facie case that they have gotten away with far more than I have.”

Denial of harm is yet another rationalization identified by Anand and colleagues. D’Souza played that card as well, saying “[m]y crime consisted of giving away too much money. I didn’t benefit from it in any way.” Undermining the integrity of the electoral system by setting up straw parties to make illegal campaign donations may strike D’Souza as a victimless crime, but I would not agree. Nor, I believe, are people’s acts necessarily okay if they do not benefit from them. Attempted (but not successful) bank robbery would be perfectly fine by that criterion.

D’Souza also stated in the interview that while he has no doubt that the majority of inmates in our prisons are guilty, “[s]till, there are also a whole bunch of people who are in prison as a result of plea bargains.” He implies that those inmates, such as himself, who were not convicted by juries but instead pled guilty are not, in fact, guilty. Nice try.

There is nothing in D’Souza’s interview that indicates that he doesn’t continue to think of himself as “good folks.” He is still the hero in his own story.

I’ve been pretty hard on D’Souza here, but I would be as hypocritical as him if I tried to deny that I’ve never used these rationalizations. I have. I have not screwed up as much or as publicly as D’Souza, but I’ve screwed up plenty. Most of us have. I’ve tried to call D’Souza on his rationalizations but it is up to you and me and all of us to monitor our own use of rationalizations day-by-day. When we hear ourselves using them an alarm should go off in our heads because it is usually a sign that we are giving ourselves permission not to live up to our own ethical standards.

It wouldn’t hurt D’Souza, or any of us, to take a peek at our EthicsUnwrapped video “Being Your Best Self: Moral Intent,” that addresses some of these concepts.

 

References

Vikas Anand, et al., Business as Usual: The Acceptance and Perpetuation of Corruption in Organizations, 18 ACADEMY OF MANAGEMENT EXECUTIVE 39 (2004).

Dan Ariely, THE (HONEST) TRUTH ABOUT DISHONESTY (2012).

Ana Marie Cox, Dinesh D’Souza Isn’t the Real Criminal, NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE, July 5, 2015, p. 54.

Francesca Gino, SIDETRACKED (2013).

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One Response to Do Bad, Feel Good: The Peril of Rationalization

  1. Alex Zemkus July 20, 2015 at 5:34 am #

    I find it fascinating the varying rationalizations that we use to justify our actions. We find the supporting evidence that aligns with our thinking and ignore anything that disagrees with that.

    Great article Robert, I enjoyed reading it.

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