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Making Ethical Decisions: Obstacles

Learn about some common rationalizations that can cloud our judgment when we are involved in making tough ethical decisions.

  • If it's necessary, it's ethical: This approach often leads to ends-justify-the-means reasoning and treating non-ethical tasks or goals as moral imperatives.
  • The false necessity trap: "Necessity is an interpretation and not a fact." We tend to fall into the "false necessity trap" because we overestimate the cost of doing the right thing and underestimate the cost of failing to do so.
  • If it's legal and permissible, it's proper: This substitutes legal requirements for personal moral judgement. This alternative does not embrace the full range of ethical obligations, especially for those involved in upholding the public trust. Ethical people often choose to do less than what is maximally allowable but more than what is minimally acceptable.
  • It's just part of the job: Conscientious people who want to do their jobs well often compartmentalize ethics into two categories: private and job-related. Fundamentally decent people may often feel justified doing things at work that they know to be wrong in other contexts.
  • It's for a good cause: This is a seductive rationale that loosens interpretations of deception, concealment, conflicts of interest, favoritism, and violations of established rules and procedures.
  • I was just doing it for you: This rationalization pits values of honesty and respect against the value of caring and overetimates other people's desire to be "protected" from the truth. This is the primary justification for committing "little white lies."
  • I'm just fighting fire with fire: This is the false assumption that promise-breaking, lying, and other kinds of misconduct are justified if they are routinely engaged in by those with whom you are dealing. This rationale compromises your own integrity.
  • It doesn't hurt anyone: This rationalization is used to excuse misconduct when violating ethical principles so long as no clear and immediate harm is perceived. It treats ethical obligations as simply factors to be considered in decision-making rather than as ground rules.
  • Everyone's doing it: This is a false "safety in numbers" rationale that often confuses cultural, organizational, or occupational behaviors and customs as ethical norms.
  • It's OK if I don't gain personally: This justifies improper conduct for others or for institutional purposes.
  • I've got it coming: People who feel overworked and/or underpaid rationalize that minor "perks" (acceptance of favors, discounts, gratuities, abuse of sick leave, overtime, personal use of office supplies) are nothing more than fair compensation for services rendered.
  • I can still be objective: This rationalization ignores the fact that a loss of objectivity always prevents perception of the loss of objectivity. It also underestimates the subtle ways in which gratitude, friendship, anticipation of future favors and the like affect judgement.
Source: Josephson Institute of Ethics