Ethics Fallacies, Myths, Distortions and Rationalizations

Discussions about ethical issues, not to mention attempts to encourage ethical behavior, are constantly derailed by the invocation of common misstatements of ethical principles. Some of these are honest misconceptions, some are intentional distortions, some are self-serving rationalizations, and some, upon examination, simply make no sense at all.

Some common ones are listed here. It is not a complete list, and additions are welcome. All of us can benefit from reviewing them from time to time, so that we may detect them in the arguments of others, and be aware of what we are doing when we use them ourselves.

1. The Golden Rationalization, or “Everybody does it”

This rationalization has been used to excuse ethical misconduct since the beginning of civilization. It is based on the flawed assumption that the ethical nature of an act is somehow improved by the number of people who do it, and if “everybody does it,” then it is implicitly all right for you to do it as well: cheat on tests, commit adultery, lie under oath, use illegal drugs, persecute Jews, lynch blacks. Of course, people who use this “reasoning” usually don’t believe that what they are doing is right because “everybody does it.” They usually are arguing that they shouldn’t be singled out for condemnation if “everybody else” isn’t.

Since most people will admit that principles of right and wrong are not determined by polls, those who try to use this fallacy are really admitting misconduct. The simple answer to them is that even assuming they are correct, when more people engage in an action that is admittedly unethical, more harm results. An individual is still responsible for his or her part of the harm.

If someone really is making the argument that an action is no longer unethical because so many people do it, then that person is either in dire need of ethical instruction, or an idiot.

2. The Gore Misdirection “If it isn’t illegal, it’s ethical.”

Former Vice-President Al Gore earned himself a place in the Ethics Distortion Hall of Fame with his defense of the immortal Buddhist temple fundraising visit, in which he noted that because “no controlling legal authority” had declared his visit illegal, it was therefore not an ethical violation.

Ethics is far broader than law, which is a system of behavior enforced by the state with penalties for violations. Ethics is good conduct as determined by the values and customs of society. Professions promulgate codes of ethics precisely because the law cannot proscribe all inappropriate or harmful behavior. As Mr. Gore must know, much that is unethical is not illegal. Lying. Betrayal. Nepotism. Many other kinds of behavior as well, but that is just the factual error in the Gore Delusion.

The greater problem with it is that it omits the concept of ethics at all [see “Ethics vs. Compliance”]. Ethical conduct is self-motivated, based on the individual’s values and the internalized desire to do the right thing. Al Gore’s construct assumes that people only behave ethically if there is a tangible, state-enforced penalty for not doing so, and that not incurring a penalty (that is, not breaking the law) is, by definition, ethical.

Nonsense, of course. We will acknowledge that Mr. Gore undoubtedly does not believe this, and that he was put in the difficult position of having to offer a televised defense of questionable ethical behavior that in a highly charged political context. Still, it is wrong to intentionally muddle the ethical consciousness of the public.

Closely related to the Gore Misdirection is……

3. The Compliance Dodge.

Simply put, compliance with rules, including laws, isn’t the same as ethics. Compliance depends on an individual’s desire to avoid punishment. Ethical conduct arises from an individual’s genuine desire to do the right thing. The most unethical person in the world will comply if the punishment is stiff enough. But if he can do something unethical without breaking the rules, watch out!

No set of rules will apply in all situations, and one who is determined to look for loopholes in a set of laws, or rules, or in an ethics code, so that he or she can do something self-serving, dishonest, or dastardly, is likely to find a way. This is one reason why the ubiquitous corporate ethics programs that emphasize “compliance” are largely ineffective. By emphasizing compliance over ethics, such programs encourage the quest for loopholes. Remember that when Enron’s board realized that one of its financial maneuvers violated its Code of Ethics, it made compliance possible by changing the Code.

When an organization or society makes compliance…doing the right thing to avoid unpleasant consequences… the focus of its attempt to promote ethical conduct, it undermines the effort by promoting confusion in the not-infrequent circumstances when doing the right thing hurts. The better approach, and the one promoted by Ethics Scoreboard, is to teach and encourage good behavior and ethical virtues for their own sake. When the inevitable loophole opens up in the rules, when the opportunity to gain at someone else’s expense is there and nobody will ever know, it is the ethical, not the compliant, who will do the right thing.

4. The Biblical Rationalizations

“Judge not, lest ye not be judged,” and “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” have been quoted by scoundrels and their allies and supporters for centuries. Neither quotation means what those guilty of ethical misconduct would have us believe, but the number of people who accept the misreading is substantial.

“Judge not, lest ye not be judged” (Matthew 7:1) is frequently cited to support the position that it is inherently wrong to judge the conduct of others. Of course, if this were indeed the intended meaning, it would rank as one of the most anti-ethical sentiments ever put into print, a distinction we would not expect from the Bible. For the very concept of ethics involves the development of customs and practices that evoke approval from one’s group and those in it, and there cannot be any approval without judgement. Judging the actions of others and communicating (and perhaps even codifying) that judgement is the way ethical standards are established and maintained. To use the Biblical text in this manner is to make ethical standards all but impossible.

“Judge not…” stands instead for two tenets of wisdom, both debatable (but not here):

  • Don’t judge people.

    Ethics involves the judgement of behavior, which is everyone’s duty in a society. Judging the whole of a person, however, as wicked, or immoral, or good, is beyond the ability of human beings. Except in very rare cases, we cannot look into a human being’s soul and determine that because he or she has done wrong, that person is a bad person.
  • Be prepared to be judged by the same standards you use to judge others.

    It should also be noted that in several other places the Bible specifically instructs us to “judge.”

“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8: 7,10,11) is frequently used to support the contention that only those who are perfect, that is, saints, are qualified to condemn the behavior of others. This use of the Bible passage illustrated the insidious nature of using famous phrases divorced from their contexts. The quote is from the tale of the adulteress, in which Jesus admonishes a crowd preparing to stone an adulteress, and exhorts her to “go and sin no more.” It is a story about redemption, a caution against hypocrisy, and an extension of the Golden Rule, as Jesus is calling for sympathy and empathy rather than righteous anger.

One must also remember that stoning was a life-threatening ritual in Biblical times. Like many metaphorical passages in the Bible, this metaphor can be carried too far, and has been. There is a big difference between participating in the physical wounding of an individual when one has been guilty of similar failings, and simply disapproving such conduct and calling for appropriate punishment. Interpreting the passage to mean that nobody can ever be punished or admonished for ethical misconduct except by the ethically pure is simply a cynical justification for a universal lack of accountability and responsibility.

5. The “Tit for Tat” Excuse

This is the principle that bad or unethical behavior justifies, and somehow makes ethical, unethical behavior intended to counter it. The logical extension of this fallacy is the abandonment of all ethical standards. Through the ages, we have been perplexed at the fact that people who don’t play by the rules have an apparent advantage over those who do, and “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!” has been the rallying cry of those who see the abandonment of values as the only way to prosper.

The very concept of ethics assumes that winning isn’t the only thing, Vince Lombardi to the contrary, and that we must hold on to ethical standards to preserve the quality of civil existence.

Although maxims and aphorisms cause a lot of confusion in ethical arguments, this one is still valid in its simple logic: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

6. The Trivial Trap Also known as “The Slippery Slope.”

Many argue that if no tangible harm arises from a deception or other unethical act, it cannot be “wrong:” “No harm, no foul.” This is truly an insidious fallacy, because it can lead an individual to disregard the ethical nature of an action, and look only to the results of the action. Before too long, one has embraced “the ends justify the means” as an ethical system, otherwise known as “the terrorism standard.”

Closely related to The Results Obsession is the “white lie” syndrome, which embodies the theory that small ethical transgressions are not ethical transgressions at all.

Both carry the same trap: the practice of ethics is based upon habit, and one who habitually behaves unethically in small ways is nonetheless building the habit of unethical behavior. Incremental escalations in the unethical nature of the acts, if not inevitable, are certainly common. Thus even an unethical act that causes no direct harm to others can harm the actor, by setting him or her on the slippery slope.

7. The King’s Pass

One will often hear unethical behavior excused because the person involved is so important, so accomplished, and has done such great things for so many people that we should look the other way, just this once. This is a terribly dangerous mindset, because celebrities and powerful public figures come to depend on it. Their achievements, in their own minds and those of their supporters and fans, have earned them a more lenient ethical standard. This pass for bad behavior is as insidious as it is pervasive, and should be recognized and rejected when ever it raises its slimy head. Quite separate from the corrupting influence on the individual of The King’s Pass is its ability to corrupt others through…

8. The Dissonance Drag

Cognitive dissonance is an innately human process that can muddle the ethical values of an individual without him or her even realizing that it is happening. The most basic of cognitive dissonance scenarios occurs when a person whom an individual regards highly adopts a behavior that the same individual deplores. The gulf between the individual’s admiration of the person (a positive attitude) and the individual’s objection to the behavior (a negative attitude) must be reconciled. The individual can lower his or her estimation of the person, or develop a rationalization for the conflict (the person was acting uncharacteristically due to illness, stress, or confusion), or reduce the disapproval of the behavior.

This is why misbehavior by leaders and other admired role models is potentially very harmful on a large scale: by creating dissonance, it creates a downward drag on societal norms by validating unethical behavior. Tortured or inexplicable defenses of otherwise clearly wrong behavior in public dialogue are often the product of cognitive dissonance.

9. The Saint’s License

This rationalization has probably caused more death and human suffering than any other. The words “it’s for a good cause” have been used to justify all sorts of lies, scams and mayhem. It is the downfall of the zealot, the true believer, and the passionate advocate that almost any action that supports “the Cause”, whether it be liberty, religion, charity, or curing a plague, is seen as being justified by the inherent rightness of the ultimate goal. Thus Catholic Bishops protected child-molesting priests to protect the Church, and the American Red Cross used deceptive promotions to swell its blood supplies after the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Saint’s License allows charities to strong-arm contributors, and advocacy groups to use lies and innuendo to savage ideological opponents.

A close corollary of the Saint’s License is “Self-validating Virtue,” in which the act is judged by perceived goodness the person doing it, rather than the other way around. This can also be applied by the doer, who reasons, “I am a good and ethical person. I have decided to do this; therefore this must be an ethical thing to do.” Effective, seductive, and dangerous, these rationalizations short-circuit ethical decision-making, and are among the reasons good people do bad things.

10. The Futility Illusion “If I don’t do it, somebody else will.”

It is a famous and time-honored rationalization that sidesteps doing the right thing because the wrong thing is certain to occur anyway. Thus journalists rush to be the first to turn rumors into front page “scoops,” and middle managers go along with corporate shenanigans ordered by their bosses, making the calculation that their refusal will only hurt them without preventing the damage they have been asked to cause. The logic is faulty and self-serving, of course. Sometimes someone else won’t do it. The soldiers asked to fire on their own people when the Iron Curtain governments were crumbling all refused, one after another. Sometimes someone else does it, but the impact of the refusal leads to a good result anyway. When Elliot Richardson was ordered by Richard Nixon to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, he refused and resigned. Cox ended up being fired anyway, but Richardson’s protest helped turn public opinion against the White House. Even if neither of these are the final result, the individual’s determination to do right is always desirable in itself. The Futility Illusion is just a sad alternative to courage.

11. The Consistency Obsession

Philosopher Emmanuel Kant demanded that ethical principles pass muster as universal, to be applied by all people in all circumstances…the Categorical Imperative. But the fact is that no ethical system or principle is going to work all the time. The point of ethics, and professional ethicists often lose sight of this, is to do the right thing, not to construct the perfect formula for doing the right thing. It is not only acceptable, it is necessary to use a variety of ethical approaches to solve certain problems. In real life, situations come up that just don’t fit neatly into the existing formulas. Recognize that, and you will have an easier time dealing with them.

12. Ethical Vigilantism

When a person who has been denied a raise he was promised surreptitiously charges personal expenses to a company credit card because “the company owes me,” that is Ethical Vigilantism: addressing a real or imagined injustice by employing remedial cheating, lying, or other unethical means. It has its roots in many of the fallacies above: Tit for Tat, the Golden Rationalization, The Trivial Trap, The Saint’s License. Its results are personal corruption, harm to innocent parties, and the forfeiture of the moral high ground. Nobody is “owed” the right to lie, cheat, or injure others.

13. Hamm’s Excuse: “It wasn’t my fault.”

This popular rationalization confuses blame with responsibility. Carried to it worst extreme, Hamm’s Excuse would eliminate all charity and much heroism, since it stands for the proposition that human beings are only responsible for alleviating problems that they were personally responsible for. In fact, the opposite is the case: human beings are responsible for each other, and the ethical obligation to help someone, even at personal cost, arises with the opportunity to do so, not with blame for causing the original problem. When those who have caused injustice or calamity either cannot, will not or do not step up to address the wrongs their actions have caused (as is too often the case), the responsibility passes to whichever of us has the opportunity and the means to make things right, or at least better.

This rationalization is named after American gymnast Paul Hamm, who adamantly refused to voluntarily surrender the Olympic gold metal he admittedly had been awarded because of an official scoring error. His justification for this consisted of repeating that it was the erring officials, not him, who were responsible for the fact that the real winner of the competition was relegated to a bronze medal when he really deserved the gold.

14. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: "There are worse things."

If "Everybody does it" is the Golden Rationalization, this is the bottom of the barrel. Yet amazingly, this excuse is popular in high places: witness the "Abu Ghraib was bad, but our soldiers would never cut off Nick Berg’s head" argument that was common during the height of the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal. It is true that for most ethical misconduct, there are indeed "worse things." Lying to your boss in order to goof off at the golf course isn’t as bad as stealing a ham, and stealing a ham is nothing compared selling military secrets to North Korea. So what? We judge human conduct against ideals of good behavior that we aspire to, not by the bad behavior of others. One’s objective is to be the best human being that we can be, not to just avoid being the worst rotter anyone has ever met.

Behavior has to be assessed on its own terms, not according to some imaginary comparative scale. The fact that someone’s act is more or less ethical than yours has no effect on the ethical nature of your conduct. "There are worse things" is not an argument; it’s the desperate cry of someone who has run out of rationalizations.

15. Woody’s Excuse: “The heart wants what the heart wants”

This was Woody Allen’s famous “explanation” for courting, bedding, and ultimately marrying Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, as Allen was living with Farrow and essentially functioning as his soon-to-be lover’s adoptive father. It is a particularly cynical and logically thread-bare rationalization, relying on popular sentimental concepts of romance rather than any legitimate system of right and wrong. When the heart “wants” something that it is wrong to acquire, this should carry no more justification that when some other body part is involved. The brain may “want” revenge, other people’s money and to be successful at any cost. The stomach and the palate can “want” food, even when it must be stolen. The libido “wants” pleasure and gratification, even if it is adulterous. Ethical people possess consciences, self-control, and the rational ability to deny and resist “wants” that involve betrayal, hurtful conduct, crimes and wrong-doing. Woody’s Excuse boils down to “If you want it badly enough, it is OK to take it,” essentially equating passion and obsession with good. Good movies, maybe, although Woody hasn’t had much luck making those lately either. But this rationalization doesn’t make good people, and good people usually don’t rely on it.



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