As Senator Ted Cruz recognized this week, “Every civilized nation agrees that torture is wrong.” I take it as a given that many of the actions spelled out in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s majority report constitute torture by any reasonable definition. Americans certainly would have defined them as such had they been done to Americans in the pre-9/11 era.

One of the most interesting findings in behavioral ethics research in recent years is that people simultaneously think of themselves as good people even as they do things that good people would not do. As research by Dan Ariely and others indicates, people cheat routinely, but only “up to the point at which they can find excuses and justifications that maintain their belief in their own virtue.” (Haidt). Individuals have an amazing ability to lie a little bit and cheat a little bit almost every day and yet continue to think of themselves as ethical beings.

It seems, as Cara Biasucci, the filmmaker for our Ethics Unwrapped video series, recently pointed out to me, that this overconfidence spills over into the view that many of us have of our country as well as of ourselves. As a commentator on Fox News noted regarding the CIA’s torture program: “The United States of America is awesome. We are awesome. We’ve had this discussion. But we’ve closed the book on [torture] and we’ve stopped doing it. And the reason why they want to have this discussion is not to show how awesome we are. This administration wants to have this discussion to show us how we’re not awesome.”

Joshua Greene has noted that “[r]ationalization is the great enemy of moral progress.” Rationalizations are the method by which we give ourselves permission not to live up to our own moral standards. It appears that they are also the method by which some of us give our country permission not to live up to its ideals. Rationalizations provide the mechanism by which we can simultaneously realize that America has tortured, but still believe that it is “awesome.” Anand, Ashforth, and Joshi have created six major categories of common rationalizations used in the business world (featured in our new video, Being Your Best Self, Part 3: Moral Intent). Many of them have found their way into the recent debate about torture.

#1. Denial of responsibility. This exists when actors perceive that they have no other choice than to participate in wrongful activities.

  • Individuals might say: “I know this is wrong, but my boss ordered me to do it.”
  • Defenders of the CIA might say:
    • “No one ever said, whatever you guys do, please, please don’t overreact.” (Michael Hayden, former CIA director)
    • “The men and women of the CIA did exactly what we [the American people] wanted to have them do.” (Dick Cheney, former Vice President)

#2. Denial of injury. This exists when actors are convinced that no one is really seriously harmed by their actions.

  • Individuals might say: “I know this is wrong, but it could have been worse.”
  • Defenders of the CIA might say: “Torture is one of the things we’ve carefully avoided.” (Dick Cheney, former Vice President)

#3. Denial of victim. This rationalization argues that the victim deserved whatever happened.

  • Individuals might say: “I know this is wrong, but they deserve it.”
  • Defenders of the CIA might say: “At the end of the day, I’m trying to distinguish ourselves from our enemies. They crucify people, they rape women, they sell them into slavery, they will kill people’s children before their eyes.” (Senator Lindsey Graham)

#4. Social weighting. This rationalization is based on one of two practices:

(a) Condemning the condemner.

  • Individuals might say: “I know this is wrong, but they have no right to criticize me.”
  • Defenders of the CIA might say: “The motivation behind this report is “completely political.” ([K.T. McFarland, former Reagan Administration Deputy Director of Defense)

(b) Selective social comparison.

  • Individuals might say: “I know this is wrong, but my competitors are doing stuff that is even worse.”
  • Defenders of the CIA might say: “If everyone on the planet used CIA behavior as their model, the overall treatment of detainees on earth would improve.” (Michael Hayden, former CIA director)]

#5. Appeal to higher loyalties. This rationalization involves the claim that ethical violations helped realize a more important value.

  • Individuals might say: “I know this is wrong, but I have a family to feed.”
  • Defenders of the CIA might say: “The question is what are you prepared to do in order to get the truth about future attacks on the Unites States.” (Dick Cheney, former Vice President)

#6. Metaphor of the ledger. Here, actors rationalize that they are entitled to engage in wrongful behavior because of accrued credits.

  • Individuals might say: “I know it is wrong to pad my expense account, but I am the most important person on my team and I’ve been working overtime.”
  • Defenders of the CIA might say: (in response to fact that a tortured prisoner had died): “Three thousand Americans died on 9/11 because of what these guys did. I have no sympathy for them.” (Dick Cheney, former Vice President)

The intersection of national defense and treatment of detainees raises difficult moral issues. While former Vice President Cheney seemingly has no moral qualms about torture, most Americans do, which is why rationalizations are necessary. Furthermore, I suspect that most people who oppose torture would make an exception for the “ticking time bomb” scenario, and would soften their objections if they believed that torture had produced significant useful intelligence that saved lives of innocents. Unfortunately, Republicans and Democrats who generally agree that America is good and torture is to be avoided if possible, find themselves reaching polar opposite (and self-serving) conclusions on those two crucial factual issues.


Vikas Anad 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).

Francesca Gino, Sidetracked (2013).

Jonathan Haidt, Can You Teach Businessmen to be Ethical?, Washington Post, Jan. 13, 2014.