Published: Nov. 18, 2014

“People cheat on their taxes, on their spouses, in sports and cards. They commit petty theft and other immoral acts when nobody is looking. People lie to friends and family, and justify these as harmless, ‘white’ lies,” states a recent Huffington Post article, “Breaking the Rules – And Feeling Good About It.”

The article points out that we typically only hear about egregious breaches of ethical behavior, but it’s the smaller moral lapses that add up.

A Warning

"When we rationalize our white lies, we are unconsciously lying to ourselves. Rationalization provides us with a warning, often ignored. Yet, failing to heed these warnings creates a damaging disconnect between our values and actions. This disconnect is perhaps more troublesome than the ultimate severity or circumstances surrounding the misdeed,” comments Liz Stapp, an instructor of CESR’s Business Applications of Social Responsibility course.

It appears people don’t lie and cheat simply because they can get away with it. At some point their conscience kicks in and they feel some aversion to behaving unethically. So it seems people want it both ways: to gain something through their dishonesty, but also to maintain their perception of themselves as ethically moral.

So how do people rationalize their everyday white lies?

Scientists have discovered a few ways. If someone feels their ethical breach benefits themselves as well as others, their guilt decreases - a phenomenon called “altruistic cheating.” Another mode of rationalization is called “moral licensing,” when a person’s selfless, generous acts give them permission to act immorally later on.

Don Oest, a CESR Instructor of The World of Business, has observed students trying to vindicate themselves by explaining that their unethical act hasn’t harmed others:

“I believe that people either consciously or sub-consciously rationalize that telling ‘white’ lies is okay because they don’t believe it is really harming a third-party. When I have asked students if they cheated on an exam and they admit to it, they strongly believe they are not doing anything unethical because they haven’t harmed the student they cheated from, even though they are benefitting from that other student’s hard work.”

Atonement for Unethical Behavior

A third rationalization pointed out by the article, is when a person “atones” to preserve their sense of moral integrity after they’ve acted unethically. Atonement can come in the form of a partial confession or referencing another person’s immoral behavior to justify their own.

Lorna Christoff, instructor of Leadership Challenges: Exercises in Moral Courage, concludes, “People often find rationalization easier when they can remain ignorant of the negative consequences, even when that ignorance is purposefully manufactured or fostered by themselves.” 

Learning More

Leadership Challenges: Exercises in Moral Courage is a highly-rated CESR class that examines ethical dilemmas in business. Executives share their personal stories about critical business dilemmas they have faced throughout their careers. Contact the CESR office for more information.