Written and Narrated by
Robert Prentice, J.D.
Business, Government & Society Department
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin
“Moral Intent is the third step in being your best self. Most people wish to think of themselves as good people, but they also desire the benefits that can come with acting unethically. Therefore, substantial empirical evidence indicates that most people on most days lie a little and cheat a little. As psychologist Dan Ariely points out, we tend to lie and cheat, but only up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals. The human ability to rationalize is perhaps the single most important factor that enables good people to give themselves license to do bad things.
Therefore, one of the best things we can do to preserve our moral intent is to monitor our own rationalizations. Professors Anand, Ashforth and Joshi studied the most common rationalizations and placed them into six categories.
The first category is denial of responsibility, for we are consciously doing something unethical, but choosing to do it anyway because we can shift the responsibility to someone else, which substantially mitigates our feelings of guilt. So if you find yourself saying, “I know this is wrong, but my boss has ordered me to do it.” A little alarm should go off in your head warning you that you are about to go off the ethical rails.
The second category is denial of injury, where we consciously choose do something wrong because the supposedly slight harm involved makes it not seem so bad. So, if you find yourself saying, “I know this is wrong, but shareholders have diversified portfolios, so no one will really be hurt by a small lie or a little earnings management,” that alarm bell should again sound.
The third category is denial of victim where we choose to do something wrong because some fault we attribute to the victim makes it seem to us that the victim deserves the harm.
The fourth category is social weighting, where we consciously choose to do something wrong, but by weighing our bad actions against those of people who do even worse things, we can make ourselves appear almost heroic… at least in our own eyes. So, if you find yourself saying: “I know this is wrong, but my competitors do stuff that is way worse,” then you should realize you are about to make a big mistake.
The fifth category is the appeal to higher loyalties, where we consciously do something wrong, but justify doing it just this one time by elevating loyalty to our firm or our family to a preeminent position. So, if you find yourself saying: “I know this is wrong, but I don’t want to undermine my boss.” Or, “I know this is wrong, but I’ve got a family to feed,” it is time to rethink.
Sixth and last in Anand and colleagues’ categorization is the metaphor of the ledger. Here we do something that we know is wrong, but conclude that it is justified in this case, perhaps because of our perceived mistreatment at the hands of our victim.
This does not exhaust the categories of rationalizations, of course. But if you will practice monitoring your own rationalizations and talk out your difficult decisions with a trusted confidant who can call you on them, you increase your chances of leading an honorable life by preserving your moral intent. You will be less likely to write yourself an ethical “hall pass” if the little alarm bell in your head goes off when you hear yourself rationalizing.”