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Ethical Decision-Making: Avoiding the “Rationalization” Trap

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By JoAnne Speers
September 1, 2023

Noting that the issue of public officials receiving gifts had been in the news, the June column in this series explored the behavioral science explaining how we as humans respond to gifts, as well as why we might discount those effects on our actions. 

Unfortunately, the issue of public officials receiving gifts is still in the news, which tees up another interesting question. How might those involved have rationalized their actions to tell themselves that accepting the gifts was okay?

Just as it is important to understand our human predilection towards ethical blind spots and cognitive biases, it is important to understand our tendency to rationalize our actions.  

Rationalizations: More Emotional Than Rational

What is a rationalization? One way to understand the dynamic is that rationalization is a form of reverse reasoning. Instead of reasoning forward from certain principles to a conclusion on what the right thing to do is, a rationalization reasons from what one wants to do (or feels one has to do) backward to justify that action. As Biasucci and Prentice note in their behavioral ethics book, rationalizations are ways in which we try to distance ourselves from actions that are at odds with our perceptions of ourselves as good people.

Predictable Kinds of Rationalizations

Ethics scholars have noted that rationalizations tend to fall into predictable categories. One type that seems to arise in public service-related ethical missteps is called “Balancing the Ledger.” It involves a belief (possibly subconscious) that good acts counterbalance bad ones. Viewed this way, we can maintain our perception of ourselves as ethical people if, on balance, our ethically positive actions outweigh our more negative actions.

The way this justification is expressed in the public service context is that public service is a hugely positive entry on this figurative ledger. Public servants tell themselves that they work long hours, do difficult work and could make more money in the private sector. Elected officials also point to the fact that they frequently invest more effort into public service than they are compensated for. And, yes indeed, public service can involve personal and financial sacrifices. 

The problematic thinking occurs when public servants use these sacrifices to justify unethical and sometimes even illegal acts. Some can be relatively minor (but still unethical) like “borrowing” agency office supplies, using agency equipment for personal purposes or cyber-loafing. Others can be more significant, for example, accepting gifts of significant value, using an agency credit card for personal purchases or taking bribes.

The reasoning backward element involves our brain saying “yes I want to accept this gift” and then telling ourselves that it’s okay because of the financial and other sacrifices public service involves. It is important to recognize that relatively minor give-ins to this kind of thinking can lead to bigger ones (the message being not to fall into the trap of incrementalism, where we unconsciously lower our ethical standards over time and start with small deviations that lead to larger ones).

One might wonder whether the gentleman convicted in the Pasadena embezzlement scandal told himself that his good work with his church (where some of the funds may have been directed) justified his diversion of city’s funds. Behavioral ethicists call this moral licensing (giving oneself permission to act unethically), which is a subset of the concept of moral equilibrium (a variation on the concept of looking at ethicality as a ledger with positive and negative entries).

Resisting the Temptation to Rationalize and Helping Others Do the Same

What do we need to do to resist the temptation to rationalize? The first, as with other aspects of behavioral ethics, is to be aware of our human tendencies to reason backward from what we want to do.  

Another is to be alert to what these justifications sound like—particularly when one has something significant to gain or lose. “Balancing the ledger” is one kind of justification. Scholars at the University of Virginia have identified others (adapted a bit to the public sector context) to listen for:

  1. Moral justification (“This is really the right thing to do; this will have net benefits.”)
  2. Euphemistic labeling (“I’m just ‘borrowing’ this.”)
  3. Advantageous comparison (“This is not as bad as X; it’s not like I’m doing X.”)
  4. Displacement of responsibility (“This is above my pay grade.” “I’m just doing my job.”)
  5. Diffusion of responsibility (“It’s a political [or policy] decision.” “This is what the group decided.”)
  6. Downplaying consequences (“No one will care/notice.”)
  7. Attribution of blame (“This is what happens when people don’t vote/engage.”)

PA Times readers can undoubtedly identify other or better examples.

Mary Gentile also notes that understanding the human tendency to rationalize can also be part of how we persuade others to see the flaws in their analysis (what she calls “Giving Voice to Values”). When we hear someone trying to justify something they want to do or feel they must do, we can help them see the disconnect with their values and explore alternatives. For other strategies on speaking up for values-based decision-making, see this article.

Author: JoAnne Speers, MPP and JD, trains and consults on public service ethics as principal of S2 Ethics Strategies (as in “System 2 Thinking”).  She previously served as chief executive of the Institute for Local Government, where she developed and directed its ethics program. JoAnne has also taught ethics as an adjunct professor. Her email is jspeers@strategies4ethics.

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