Rationalizations are invented explanations that hide or deny true motivations, causes, or actions. They are the excuses people give themselves for not living up to their own ethical standards.

For example, most of us think of ourselves as honest people, yet studies show that most of us often lie a little or cheat a little. In order to maintain our self-image as good people, we unconsciously invent rationalizations to convince ourselves that what we did was not wrong, not really harmful, not our fault, and so on.

According to Vikas Anand and his colleagues, common rationalizations include: “I know I shouldn’t have done that, but my boss made me so I didn’t have any choice.”  Or, “Others have done worse.”  Or, “That guy deserved to get ripped off.”  Or, “If I hadn’t done it, someone else would have.”

Generally, rationalizations are most effective when they are not recognized as rationalizations. They are dangerous because people are very creative rationalizers and, indeed,, often come to believe their own excuses. As psychologist Joshua Greene notes, “rationalization is the great enemy of moral progress.”

Ultimately, rationalizations dull our sense of responsibility for our wrongful actions. So, if we wish to truly be ethical people, we must carefully and consistently monitor our own rationalizations.