Ethical Realism

May 24, 2011

Ethics and Rationalization

Filed under: ethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 5:28 am
Tags: , ,

We want to know how to be reasonable when thinking about morality, and “moral philosophy” is the specialization in doing exactly that. This requires that we know the difference between being reasonable and unreasonable. Sometimes people think like sophists—pretenders of wisdom—rather than philosophers and make use of poor reasoning without a serious attempt to be reasonable. “Sophistry” or “rationalization” is poor reasoning people use as if it were good reasoning when they are being negligent during the reasoning process. This is often unintentional because good reasoning requires training, careful thought, and research and few people have mastered their abilities of rationality. We can study moral rationalizations in an attempt to illustrate the difference between good reasoning and rationalization. I will discuss the importance of moral rationalizations, various rationalization techniques, and give illustrations of rationalizations in the business world. This discussion is based on “Business Ethics and Moral Motivation: A Criminological Perspective” (PDF) by Joseph Heath.

The importance of moral rationalization

Joseph Heath argues that criminology has found that one of the most common causes of immoral and illegal acts in the workplace are rationalizations rather than deviant psychology, a “lack of virtue” (such as greediness), or a lack of philosophical knowledge. He describes these rationalizations as “acts of neutralization”—thoughts and reasoning used to downplay the severity of the immoral acts or even excuse it despite the fact that people tend to know the difference between right and wrong in other contexts. A woman might think stealing is wrong, and borrowing money without permission is wrong, but when she stole money from the business she works for, she was just borrowing it and would pay it back later.

However, I would like to note that Heath seems to exaggerate the importance of rationalizations at the expense of moral philosophy. Heath argues that a business ethics class should concentrate on rationalizations, the harm done by immoral acts, and the tendency of large organizations (bureaucracies) to promote rationalizations; and he sees little reason to teach students the “right” values or philosophical theories:

If one takes this perspective seriously, then there is no particular reason for business ethics courses to focus on moral dilemmas, or to teach fundamental [moral] perspectives (Kantian, utilitarian, etc.) Students do not commit crimes because they lack expertise in the application of the categorical imperative or the felicific calculus [utilitarianism]. They are more likely to commit crimes because they have talked themselves into believing some type of excuse for their actions, and they have found a social environment is which this sort of excuse is accepted or encouraged. Thus a more useful intervention, in an ethics course, would be to attack the techniques of neutralization that students are likely to encounter, and may be tempted to employ, when they go on to their future careers. As we have seen, white collar criminals are typically conflicted about their own actions. They know what morality and the law require of them. The problem is that they have convinced themselves that no one is really injured by their actions, or that they had no choice in the matter, or that it’s permissible because everyone else is doing it, etc. Typically, the arguments they have used to convince themselves are sufficiently fragile that they can only be sustained in a supportive environment, among peers who are also inclined to view these claims as legitimate. One way to tackle this problem, ‘‘preemptively’’ so to speak, is to demonstrate the inadequacy of these rationalizations, e.g., by tracing out the harm caused by embezzlement, or expense account abuse; by articulating the logic of government regulation and the basis for its legitimacy; by explaining the concept of market failure and why unconstrained competition sometimes produces inferior results; and by exploring the tendency toward dissipation of responsibility in bureaucracies.

I agree with Heath that rationalization (acts of neutralization), the harm done by immoral behavior, and the tendency of bureaucracies to disperse responsibility should all be taught in a business ethics course. However, I disagree that teaching the right values or philosophical theories are therefore unimportant for at least two reasons:

First, there is no major difference between rationalization and “ordinary thought.” Everyday thinking is plagued by rationalization—self-deception, the confirmation bias, anecdotal evidence, the tendency to exaggerate harms to oneself and marginalize harms done to others, and fallacious reasoning. The difference between rationalization and good reasoning isn’t black and white, and learning how to avoid rationalization isn’t enough to be a reasonable person. There’s a continuum of better and worse forms of reasoning, and moral philosophy attempts to understand morality and help us think morally in the most reasonable way possible. One of the best ways to stop rationalizing is to learn to think philosophically.

It might be true that philosophy taken in the abstract isn’t helpful, but philosophy isn’t entirely abstract. Philosophy has application to everyday life and to fully learn philosophy requires us to think philosophically—to learn to think in the most reasonable way possible. There are reasons to think that moral theories are true despite the fact that we can’t yet prove that one in particular is true, and we are more likely to do the right thing when we know why it’s right. For example, it’s wrong to kick people because it tends to hurt them, and we understand that it’s usually wrong to hurt people. Knowing why it’s wrong helps us learn not to do it. Many small children don’t yet understand why kicking is wrong and we shouldn’t be surprised when these children kick people as a result.

Second, even if rationalization is the most common cause of immoral behavior in the business world, that doesn’t mean it’s the only cause. The fact that people know a lot about right and wrong certainly does not imply that they know everything about right and wrong. There are difficult decisions to be made and philosophy can help us make these decisions. For example, many people don’t think there’s anything wrong with hurting nonhuman animals, but it could be that hurting animals is wrong unless we have an overriding reason to do so. This has serious implications in the business world ranging from farming to pollution. Many people at one point thought the slave trade was moral, but we now know it was egregiously immoral. People in the future could find out that how we treat animals now is often also egregiously immoral.

Rationalization techniques in the workplace

Heath argues that we should expect rationalizations in the workplace because it’s an environment that often impairs our ability to reason objectively, and he offers the following examples of rationalization techniques and discusses how the workplace often encourages poor reasoning:

1. Denial of responsibility – Whenever someone is guilty of doing something immoral (or illegal) in a business, it’s often unclear who exactly (if anyone in particular) is responsible. This encourages people to “pass the buck” to someone else and there is often no one willing to accept responsibility for immoral behavior. “Due to the organizational hierarchy of the firm, individuals can always try to pass the blame up to their superiors. These superiors can, in turn, try to pass the blame back down, by insisting that their subordinates acted independently” (605). Heath also lets us know that ethical codes are often used to help management and executives to blame those lower down. “By imposing upon each employee the obligation to resist any ‘unethical’ orders, they in turn make it more difficult for these employees to shift the blame up” (ibid.).

We need people to take responsibility for their own behavior and stop passing the buck to others. A corporate culture could emphasize the importance of personal responsibility and have a process to help employees dispute the immoral decisions made by management, and it is possible for people to learn to take personal responsibility and stop rationalizing even when they find themselves in a corporate environment that encourages rationalizations.

Additionally, the adversarial nature of competition between businesses encourages workers to deny responsibility because it can give people the impression that they have no choice but to break the law. Many people already have a tendency to exaggerate moral importance of harms they can experience and simultaneously marginalize the importance of harms others experience. Many people rationalize that immoral behavior is justified whenever necessary to maximize profit for a corporation’s investors; and many companies use the language of life and death in the workplace that can sometimes lead to rationalizations that could be appropriate in real life and death situations, but not the actual situation of the company. “For example, Geis quotes one defendant in the heavy electrical antitrust case excusing his actions in the following terms: ‘I thought that we were more or less working on a survival basis in order to try to make enough to keep our plant and our employees’” (605).

The competitive nature of corporations also often gives employees the impression that their professional life rests on their willingness to do immoral things, such as bribe officials, in order to make more profit for the firm (606). This can help employees rationalize their immoral acts because doing illegal acts is seen as (a) normal (i.e. everyone does it), (b) inevitable (i.e. if you don’t do it someone else will), and (c) necessary to keep one’s job. Heath explains that many people take inevitable immoral acts to exempt responsibility because they can’t cause something to happen if it would happen no matter what they do (ibid.). Of course, one could be a whistle blower and alert to public to stop immoral acts if necessary rather than join in.

2. Denial of injury – Heath argues that “In general, people have more permissive attitudes toward crime when the victim is unknown… Most white collar criminals never meet or interact with those who are harmed by their actions (and in many cases they wouldn’t even know how to find their victims should they choose to). This makes it more plausible to claim that no injury has occurred” (606). It’s not always clear who gets harmed by our decisions or to what extent they get harmed, and the consequences of our decisions are often difficult to know about without scientific research. For example, “Geis quotes a Westinghouse executive, for instance, acknowledging that price-fixing arrangements were illegal, but denying that they were criminal: ‘I assumed that criminal action meant damaging someone, and we did not do that’” (ibid.). In this case it was assumed that price fixing didn’t hurt anyone simply because they didn’t know the people who got hurt personally and perhaps spent very little time thinking about how price fixing could hurt people. Who does price fixing hurt? When prices are kept higher than it would be otherwise, then the customers can lose more money than they should have to.

Another example is that pollution can make some people sick or even cause fatal illness, but not everyone who encounters pollution has the same reaction. There’s often no obvious harm caused by pollution to be seen by people who make the decisions to pollute more rather than less. We get sick and we tend to assume it’s because of a virus or germ, but we rarely realize when we get sick because of pollution.

Additionally, sometimes people rationalize that harming people is justified, such as stealing from a large corporation, because the harm done is spread out to many people (ibid.). If I hacked into a bank and stole a penny from millions of people, I could make for myself a sizable amount of money without causing anyone significant harm. At the same time this crime is clearly unfair and could quickly because significantly harmful if many people started to do it. In fact, many employees steal from the corporations they work for and this is one of the leading causes of corporate bankruptcy. The harmless actions of many people end up being very harmful.

Finally, some people rationalize that business transactions require consent, so there are no unwilling victims. This is a way to blame the victim. “[I]t is relatively easy for people to convince themselves that shareholders who are exploited by management could have invested their money elsewhere, consumers who purchase inferior goods ignored the ‘buyer beware’ rule, workers who are injured ‘knew the risks when they took the job,’ and so on” (ibid.). Why is this faulty reasoning? Consider whether we should agree with the “buyer beware” idea or not. In actuality, people are often scammed but we rely on companies to be honest with us. When a doctor scams you into getting a surgical procedure you don’t need when she wants to make a few extra bucks, I think it’s clear why “buyer beware” isn’t a good excuse to scam people. We often pay companies or professionals for goods and services, and we are often unqualified to assess the quality or necessity of the goods or service. We depend on the expert opinions of others to live our lives.

3. Denial of the victim – Those who harm others often argue that the others “started it” or deserve punishment. For example, some workers could steal from the company they work for because they feel underpaid (607). “Among less skilled workers, people often confuse the fact that their role is invaluable to the organization with the belief that they are essential to the organization. Thus they feel undercompensated, ignoring the fact that it is the ease with which they can be replaced that determines their wage rate, not the value that they contribute to the firm on a day-to-day basis” (ibid.). In some cases employees are underpaid or abused by their employers and legal action should be taken, but one immoral act doesn’t usually warrant revenge (vigilantism) except perhaps in the most egregious cases when the law and nonviolent protest is incapable of bringing about justice.

4. Condemnation of the condemners – Sometimes people say that the law is unjust. This could be right in some cases, but it seems absurd to think the law is always unjust. We have to be careful when we decide the law is unjust, and there are ideological commitments that often encourage people to be dismissive of the law and the role of the government, such as a commitment to laissez-faire economics that states that we should have a “free market” with no government regulation:

[C]orporate criminals will often contest the very legitimacy of regulation, by suggesting that the government, when it imposes constraints upon the marketplace, is actually beholden to “special interests,” while the corporation represents the broader interests of the public. Since the latter is taken to be a larger constituency than the former, the suggestion is that the corporation enjoys stronger democratic legitimacy than the government. Another common strategy is to pick out one overzealous or odd regulation and use it as grounds for dismissing the need for all regulation. (ibid.)

We might need to make it clear to people why regulation is important and how the free market often leads to immoral behavior. Regulation almost always exists precisely because of the abuse done in the past, and the “democratic” idea of the free market could be based on the unreasonable expectation that consumers will know how buy the best products and services from the most ethical companies when they often have no way to reasonably assess the quality of products and services they buy.

In extreme cases “white collar crime” is dismissed as a socialist fiction even though many white collar crimes harm capitalists, such as when businesses lie about their profits to sell more stock. “For example, when Robert Lane interviewed a group of business executives in the early 1950s, asking them how to reduce the level of corporate crime, the most common recommendation was to ‘stop the drift to socialism and the restriction of freedom’” (608). It might be true that the law restricts freedom, but we generally ought not have the freedom to hurt people.

5. Appeal to higher loyalties – Many people excuse their immoral acts because they are done to help people they are loyal to—such as their family, corporation, or friends. Loyalty to businesses isn’t always shocking because some businesses work very hard at cultivating loyalty. This is important for some corporations that benefit from keeping the same employees for several years. “Considerable effort on the part of management is aimed toward cultivation of these loyalties, from dramatic initiation rituals for new employees, on-site recreational and sports facilities, personal counseling services, to the ubiquitous ‘team building’ seminars and weekend retreats” (ibid.). This loyalty can become a source for rationalization when people decide that it excuses their immoral acts. “For example, it is quite plausible to suppose that neither Kenneth Lay nor Jeffrey Skilling were motivated by any personal pecuniary incentive when they misled investors about Enron’s financial condition. They did it for the sake of Enron – an organization that they both continued to insist was a ‘‘great company’’ even after its collapse” (ibid.).

Evidence of widespread loyalty to the point of rationalization can be found in a 1983 study of retired Fortune 500 managers by Marshall Clinard that “showed a widespread condemnation of whistleblowing, on the grounds that it conflicted with the ‘loyalty’ owed by employees to the firm. Many believed that (with certain exceptions, such as safety violations) individuals who were unwilling to participate in illegal activities should simply quit their jobs and keep quiet, rather than ‘go to the government’” (ibid.). In other words the retired employees thought loyalty to a corrupt company was more important than the law or morality at large.

6. Everyone else is doing it – In the business world the corrupt business practices conducted by other companies, such as bribery, often creates an unfair advantage for one company and against the competition (608-609). One corrupt company can therefore create an incentive to every competing business to start conducting the same corrupt business. This makes it plausible enough to encourage people to rationalize that they can do something immoral for the sake of profit and fairness. Heath notes that many managers don’t see “everyone is doing it” as a good excuse for immoral conduct because there are better ways to deal with immoral competitive practices, such as giving the competition bad press (610).

7. Claim to entitlement – Heath tells us that some rationalizations are to the effect that we can realize that an action is illegal, but we might decide that the law should be broken out of some duty or that the law itself is illegitimate for violating certain rights we are entitled to (609). I could imagine someone who sells alcohol during prohibition might think the law is unjust and decide to go ahead and keep selling alcohol, but I am actually sympathetic to those who opposed prohibition.

One reason that the laws are often seen to be illegitimate in violation of our rights is laissez-faire ideology—the view that the government should do little to no regulation of businesses, and the view against government interference in the market in general (ibid.).

Many people will also defend their decision to break the law by talking about all the good the company does in terms of the services, satisfied customers, etc. (ibid.)


One way to understand ethics is to take a look at bad moral reasoning, and one of the leading causes of immoral business practice is “rationalization” (poor moral reasoning). We have examined rationalization so that we can know how to avoid engaging in it ourselves. However, examining rationalizations isn’t the only way to learn how to reason well about morality. For one thing we can learn more about what good moral reasoning consists in.

Heath argues that criminology suggests that rationalizations should be taught instead of philosophical moral theories, but criminology doesn’t tell us all the moral differences between people. Everyone reasons about morality to varying degrees and in various ways, so we shouldn’t just assume “normal” people are all equally virtuous or reasoning. It might be enlightening to study the characteristics of our moral heroes in addition to our criminals.

Update (6/12/13): I added the final type of rationalization to the list (claim to entitlement).


  1. I enjoyed reading this piece as it made perfect sense to me. i agree with you on how many people today tend to “pass the buck” and do immoral acts because “everyone else is doing it”. I am a graduate student and found this piece as i was researching the difference between reasoning and rationalizing.Thank You, it did make the terms a lot clearer for me.

    Comment by Angela Austin — August 31, 2011 @ 2:01 pm | Reply

  2. is there suppose to be “Entitlement” ? You missed out 5 ?

    Comment by Tristan Chiang — October 18, 2011 @ 8:52 am | Reply

    • Thanks for the pointer. I will make the corrections as soon as I can.

      Comment by JW Gray — October 18, 2011 @ 9:38 am | Reply

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