Ethics Unwrapped Blog


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.

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Moral Equilibrium

Moral equilibrium is the idea that most people keep a running mental scoreboard where they compare their self-image as a good person with what they actually do.

When we do something inconsistent with our positive self-image, we naturally feel a deficit on the good side of our scoreboard. Then, we will often actively look for an opportunity to do something good to bring things back into equilibrium. This is called moral compensation.

Conversely, when we have done something honorable, we feel a surplus on the good side of our mental scoreboard. Then, we may then give ourselves permission not to live up to our own ethical standards. This is called moral licensing.

For example, Oral Suer, the hard-working CEO of the Washington D.C.-area United Way, raised more than $1 billion for local charities. Unfortunately, Suer gave himself license to divert substantial sums intended for the charity for his personal use to reward himself for his good deeds.

So, our tendency to maintain moral equilibrium may mean that we will act unethically. Indeed, we must guard against our natural inclination to give ourselves permission to depart from our usual moral standards.

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