OBSTACLES TO ETHICAL DECISION MAKING
We judge ourselves by our best intentions, our noblest acts and our most virtuous habits. But others tend to
judge us by our last worst act. So in making tough decisions, don’t be distracted by rationalizations. Here are
some of the most common ones:
If it is Necessary, It is Ethical
This rationalization rests on the false assumption that necessity breeds propriety. The approach often leads to
ends justify the means reasoning and treating non-ethical tasks or goals as moral imperatives.
The False Necessity Trap
As Nietzsche put it, “Necessity is an interpretation, 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 is Legal and Permissible, It is Proper
This substitutes legal requirements (which establish minimal standards of behavior) for personal moral
judgment. This alternative does not embrace the full range of ethical obligations, especially for individuals
involved in upholding the public trust. Ethical people often choose to do less than the maximally allowable, and more than the minimally acceptable.
It is Just Part of the Job
Conscientious people who want to do their jobs well often fail to adequately consider the morality of their
professional behavior. They tend to compartmentalize ethics into two domains: private and occupational.
Fundamentally decent people thereby feel justified doing things at work that they know to be wrong in other
contexts. They forget that everyone’s first job is to be a good person.
It is All for a Good Cause
People are especially vulnerable to rationalizations when they seek to advance a noble aim. “It’s all for a good
cause” 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 is a primary justification for committing “little white lies” or withholding important information in
personal or professional relationships, such as performance reviews. This rationalization pits the values of
honesty and respect against the value of caring. An individual deserves the truth because he has a moral right to
make decisions about his own life based on accurate information. This rationalization overestimates other
people’s desire to be “protected” from the truth, when in fact most people would rather know unpleasant
information than believe soothing falsehoods. Consider the perspective of people lied to: If they discovered the
lie, would they thank you for being thoughtful or would they feel betrayed, patronized or manipulated?
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. Remember: when you fight fire with fire, you end up
with the ashes of your own integrity.
It Doesn’t Hurt Anyone
Used to excuse misconduct, this rationalization falsely holds that one can violate ethical principles so long as
there is no clear and immediate harm to others. It treats ethical obligations simply as factors to be considered in
decision-making, rather than as ground rules. Problem areas: asking for or giving special favors to family,
friends or public officials; disclosing nonpublic information to benefit others; using one’s position for personal