When she was six, my daughter Carissa asked, “Do dumb people think they’re smart?” Answering her own question, she added, “They probably do because they’re dumb.”

This made me think: “Do bad people think they’re good?”

I wouldn’t be surprised if most do. In fact, I think all of us are ethical in our own eyes. The human tendency to rationalize, to justify our conduct in our own minds, provides a powerful anesthetic to our conscience.

Think of all the athletes, politicians, religious leaders, and business executives who’ve been caught in wrongdoing and who feel more like victims than villains.

Self-interest has a powerful tendency to disable our objectivity and befuddle our commitment to live up to moral principles.

The higher the stakes, the more likely it is that we’ll persuade ourselves that what we want to do, or what we’ve already done, is justified. When our financial or physical security is at stake, even the best of us are vulnerable to reason-crippling self-delusion that allows us to defend our positions with self-righteous ferocity – as if the mere intensity of our convictions makes them more valid.

One way to fortify our integrity is to be on the lookout for our tendency to rationalize and to remember that we don’t have a moral right to get what we want. Necessity isn’t a fact; it’s an interpretation.

Living an ethical life isn’t easy. It requires us to do the right thing even when it costs more than we want to pay.

Perhaps the best antidote to rationalization sickness is to rigorously and faithfully follow the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

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Comments 6

  1. Behaviors that we reject as “bad” are often practiced by others who don’t share our views. For example, tyrants believe they have a right to exercise control over others; and drug dealers believe they have a right to sell to a demanding clientele. We have to decide what we believe is true (based on a warrant for our beliefs). Then, we have to demonstrate the courage to act accordingly. That’s a good challenge.

    In the process of trying to be true to our conscience (our beliefs), someone else may think we are “bad.” So, what to do? “Be true to thyself….”

  2. Patrick, what if our views, our beliefs, get watered down into unexamined rationalizations? Then, we are not really true to them, or to our beliefs, if we just cherry pick support for what we have decided to do…

    I think we have to temper our tendency to justify from our own perspective, with an effort to see what we do from another point of view, one NOT in utter agreement with us. The Golden Rule might be one way. Or if we can imagine the most merciful, patient, sympathetic, wise being possible seeing ALL our intent, our motivations, our results, our methods – would that person utterly approve of how we treated our neighbor? (Sometimes I simplify that idea to myself, by asking, would my grandmother be proud of my behavior?)

    Michael, what a helpful phrase “rationalization sickness” is. The illness of convincing ourselves that “good for me” IS good; the deception of self and others that our interests really do align with our deepest values, though in conflict with others’ interests or rights or positions.

    Demonizing the other is the natural follow-through of rationalization sickness, I think. Because it cannot just be disagreement, someone “must” be wrong, and bad.

  3. The golden rule is a nice bit of prose. Better what I call the 11th commandment,
    “Don’t do to others what you would not have done to you”. This is a 24/7 rule for ethical living.

    1. Robert, I prefer to consider the “Golden Rule” a guide rather than a commandment. A commandment makes it a legal term and takes it out of the rational ethics realm. Law can be eaisly manipulated that is perhaps why we have so many lawyers. I agree with your summation of the standard statement but have trouble making it a law. I prefer to think it something we want to do rather than something we must do.

  4. Both the Hebrew and Greek Holy Scriptures (Genesis through Revelation) indicate that we are all bad and that there is “none righteous…no not one.” The one righteous exception is the Messiah in the prophecies of Isaiah. And YES, I do believe that all of us (who do not measure up to God’s standards) are heavily inclined to think we are good, which is why repentance is such a forsaken and unpopular concept.

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