This video introduces the concept of rationalizations in the context of the story of former lobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff. During the Bush Administration, Abramoff was the most influential lobbyist in Washington, D.C. He was also at the center of one of the most significant political scandals since Watergate.
Rationalizations are the excuses we give ourselves for not living up to our own ethical standards. If there is one overarching finding in behavioral ethics research in the past decade, it is that people tend to simultaneously think of themselves as good people and yet lie a little and cheat a little almost every day. Indeed, most white-collar criminals, at the time they are committing their crimes, do not think they are doing anything wrong. Even after being convicted in a court of law, some still have difficulty admitting to themselves that they screwed up.
Rationalizations are one of the major facilitators of unethical behavior because they allow us to act unethically, but still tell ourselves that what we are doing is okay. As Luban pointed out: “In situation after situation, literally hundreds of experiments reveal that when our conduct clashes with our prior beliefs, our beliefs swing into conformity with our conduct, without our noticing that this is going on.” For example, we may realize that insider trading is wrong. But if we are given an opportunity to engage in insider trading, make a lot of money, and probably not get caught, all of a sudden we will probably view insider trading as not as bad as we had previously thought it was. And we won’t even notice our “everybody does it” rationalization.
Usually what happens, points our De Waal, is that we see something we really want (lots of money, for example), our mind intuitively decides that it is okay for us to do what we have to do to get that money (engage in insider trading, for example), and then the cognitive part of our brain kicks in to rationalize the (un)ethical conclusion we have already reached.
To learn about the six categories of rationalizations described by Anand, Ashforth, and Joshi in their article identifying the most common rationalizations used in business, watch Being Your Best Self, Part 3: Moral Intent. The six categories of rationalizations are:
- Denial of responsibility (“I know I shouldn’t do this, but my boss is making me, so it’s not really my fault.”)
- Denial of injury (“I know that I shouldn’t do this, but who’s really being hurt?”)
- Denial of victim (“I know that I shouldn’t do this, but this guy is so stupid that he deserves to get ripped off.”
- Social weighing (“I know that I shouldn’t do this, but my competitors are doing even worse stuff.”)
- Appeal to higher loyalty (“I know that I shouldn’t do this, but I have a family to feed.”)
- Metaphor of the ledger (“I know that I shouldn’t do this, but I give a lot of money to charity.”)
For more details and examples of rationalizations, watch GVV Pillar 7: Reasons & Rationalizations. To understand how cognitive biases may affect our behavior in ways similar to rationalization, watch Moral Equilibrium and Self-serving Bias. To learn more about the process of making ethical decisions, watch Being Your Best Self, Part 2: Moral Decision Making and Systematic Moral Analysis.
The kinds of decision-making errors that are the subject of Jack & Rationalizations and the other five shorts in this video case are the focus of a field of study known as behavioral ethics, which draws upon psychology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and related disciplines to determine how and why people make the ethical and unethical decisions that they do.
This video draws from footage shot at The University of Texas at Austin when Abramoff visited campus to talk about his life and corrupt lobbying in Washington, D.C. It is part of a video case that includes a 25-minute documentary, In It to Win: The Jack Abramoff Story, six short videos that focus on specific behavioral ethics biases illustrated by Abramoff’s story, and a written case study. The documentary exposes personal and systemic ethical concerns in government and illustrates how well intentioned people can make serious ethical errors—and even commit crimes.
To learn more about Abramoff’s own rationalizations and the scandal that ended his lobbying career, read the case study on this page. For a case study on rationalizations and systematic moral analysis, read “Pardoning Nixon,” which examines how Ford made the controversial decision to issue Nixon a full pardon after Nixon resigned from the presidency. For an example of rationalizations and moral reasoning, read “Retracting Research: The Case of Chandok v. Klessig,” in which a researcher makes the difficult decision to retract an article published in a peer-reviewed journal after the results of the original research cannot be reproduced.
Terms related to this short video and defined in our ethics glossary include: behavioral ethics, fundamental attribution error, moral emotions, moral equilibrium, moral reasoning, rationalizations, self-serving bias, and utilitarianism.