The Slippery Slope of Rationalization

Q: Dr. Hurd, What causes people to choose to perform an action that they know (consciously and subconsciously) to be morally wrong? I’m thinking, for example, of those who know, through the use of reason, that theft is a violation of the rights of another yet continue to steal (through shoplifting, Internet piracy, or just down to the little things like a fellow employee’s lunch)?

A: In a nutshell: Rationalization. Rationalization essentially means ‘rigging the conclusion.’ It’s a process whereby a person uses reason to obliterate reason—pretending to be ‘reasonable’ in the process.

Rationalization is a mechanism that might sound like reason but merely amounts to a phony imitation. ‘My wife has her many hobbies,’ says the man who plans to have a secret love affair, ‘so why can’t I have just one hobby on the side?’ Superficially, such a statement sounds logical because of the way he phrases it. But he leaves out critical data. First of all, what are his wife’s hobbies? If they are sewing and tennis, for example, how does he defend the fact that they are in the same category as sex? And what about the fact that he must hide his ‘hobby’ in order to get away with it, while his wife does not have to do so? What will happen to his sense of independence and basic self-esteem? And what about the obligation to his wife (given their legal and moral contract)? Shouldn’t he be honest about the affair so that she can decide for herself how she wishes to handle it? In such a situation, the man deliberately ignores key factors that would lead him to a different conclusion. His rationalization prevents him from looking at those obvious factors, thus ‘rigging’ his conclusion. Were he to engage in honest introspection, he would have to confront them and abandon his rationalization altogether.

Another example of rationalization: ‘I can steal money from my boss’ safe. He has plenty of money. Besides, he doesn’t know how hard I work when he’s not here.’ It sounds logical enough to the rationalizer (who really wants that money). But once again, an honest and thorough process of introspection would serve as an antidote to rationalization and expose the obviously flawed conclusion. In this situation, the following factors merit consideration:

(1) If it’s OK for someone to steal based upon need, then it has to be OK for a criminal to steal someone’s television set because he is poor and disadvantaged. Yet if the police refuse to pursue the criminal who stole a television because of such a principle, the owner of the TV would naturally consider this an outrageous injustice. How can this contradiction be justified?

(2) The boss, in this case, owns the business in which the employee works. It is his private property, just like the employee’s house and car are his or her private property. How much money the boss or employee makes is irrelevant to the issue of private, legal property rights. If the employee believes the boss is unfair, he can request a raise. He can take a new job, or hope to get his boss’s attention by politely threatening to do so. Perhaps the employee could even start his own business. The point is that it makes no sense to view his boss’s success as a violation of anyone’s rights. Only a rationalization—a pseudo-logic based on emotional convenience rather than hard facts—could bring the employee to evade either of these crucial points.

Rationalization and reason are fundamentally different. Rationalization cannot stand up to the rigorous questioning of honest introspection—except through the creation of more rationalizations and evasions. The dead end of any rationalization is, ‘Well, I just know it’s true because I feel it,’ or, ‘It’s true because I say so.’ Reason, on the other hand, can withstand such criticism.

Reason, then, includes a process of introspection; an honest and thorough examination of the relationship between one’s feelings and all of the facts one can access. Rationalizers make no attempt to introspect about their emotions. In fact, rationalization makes a person feel good about not introspecting in the first place. By its very nature, rationalization enables the evasion or denial of the need to introspect about pretty much anything.

In seeking to solve an emotional or life problem, the essential question is not whether one is being ‘too rational.’ The essential question is whether or not one’s thoughts correspond to the facts. And only human reason, which includes a process of thorough and honest introspection, can lead to the truth.

The rationalizer doesn’t merely dodge facts and logic. He subverts them by pretending to be paying attention to them, when in fact he’s evading them. That’s how an ‘otherwise reasonable’ person manages to avoid facts while disguising this evasion as intelligent and sensible. This makes the rationalizer just as bad or worse than the open liar or thief, who at least makes no bones about his perceived ‘right’ to what’s not his.

The rationalizer is a phony on top of it.