Some of us are in a conflict; we “…are motivated more by a desire to appear moral than to actually be moral.”(“Six Common Ways People Justify Unethical Behavior” by Juliana Breines, Ph.D. (posted August 31, 2020, Psychology Today). Consequently, we will engage in some questionable or ambiguous ethical tactics or behaviors to “justify” our behavior.
As I teach Mediation Ethics at USC’s Gould School of Law school, this article caught my eye as it discusses the very topic, I discussed with my students several weeks ago: how and why do we engage in unethical behavior.
The author notes six self-serving justifications: grey areas, altruism, highlighting moral credentials, symbolic cleansing, partially coming clean; and demonizing others.
The first- viewing our behavior as a grey area- occurs when we are confronted with a morally ambiguous situation rather than one that is clearly black and white. One example is the inconsistent advice or guidelines we are getting about wearing masks during this pandemic. While certain health specialists say we should do so, certain public officials say we should not or even go so far as to forbid it. So, what should we do? Wear them? Not wear them? Our behavior in an ethical sense is morally justified either way we go. (Id. at 1.)
The second is premised on a belief that our behavior will benefit others; that is, we do it “for the greater good”. The example given by the author is the “Varsity Blues” scandal. Many of the parents used money to provide their children with the best possible educational advantages. (Id. at 2.)
A third self-serving justification is “highlighting moral credentials”: “… people are often less likely to behave in alignment with their moral values when they have just demonstrated their morality in another way…”) (Id., emphasis original). Thus, if we have just behaved morally by doing a really good deed, we give ourselves permission to “cheat” a little on the next deed since we just did a really good deed. For example, in one study, participants… were more likely to cheat and steal in a computer game involving a monetary reward after they had purchased an environmentally friendly product compared to a conventional one.” (Id. at 2; emphasis original.)
A fourth self-serving justification is symbolic cleansing; after a person transgresses, she may engage literally or figuratively in a cleansing behavior such as washing her hands as though washing away her sins. (Id. at 2.) One study found that the participants in choosing a gift, were more likely to select a cleansing wipe rather than a pencil after engaging in unethical behavior. (Id.) Using the cleansing wipe led the participants to feel less guilt, shame regret and embarrassment! (Id.)
Then, there is the tactic of “partially coming clean” in which a person admits only some of the unethical behavior but not all of it. The person will “partially confess” to the behavior that she believes will be discovered anyway, keeping to herself, perhaps the more egregious but less discoverable unethical conduct. However, research shows that people will still feel badly even after a partial confession. (Id)
Finally, there is the tactic of “demonizing those who have done worse.”. These folks will judge quite harshly those who have engaged in the same offense. One example is a college admissions official who was extremely harsh on applicants who exaggerated their credentials only to be found out that she, too, had exaggerated her own credentials. (Id.at 3.)
Research indicates that this ethical distancing seems to occur first, when the person recognizes that the behavior is immoral; and second when the person believes that her own unethical behavior is not likely to be exposed so that she will not appear hypocritical. (Id. at 3.)
Someone once said to me that “ethics is what we do when no one is looking”. When no one IS looking, will we engage in these ethically ambiguous tactics or decline from engaging in these and others self-serving justifications? Only our inner selves know the answer to that question.