We start out the new year with the interesting theme of intention. Intention is an awareness of purpose that guides our words and actions. The arabic word for intention is “seed” because it is the starting place for all our thoughts and actions. And yet it’s not as simple as that. I grew up hearing that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” That “the smallest deed is greater than the largest intention.” Clearly intention alone is not always enough.
In reading about what it means to be a people of intention, I was intrigued by one primary challenge to implementing our good intentions. Rationalization is the tool we all use to get around our best intentions. The reason why we have this propensity towards rationalization is because, as we all know, humans are far from rational. One definition of rationalization is, “A process of not perceiving reality but of attempting to make reality fit one’s emotions.” It is not so much intention as emotion (as the word implies) that drives or “moves us.” This is why even people with the best intentions can make poor rational choices.
Behavioral ethics sheds some light on why people act as they do. First of all it cannot be overemphasized that we as humans have a strong innate desire to view ourselves as competent and upstanding so when we fail ourselves in some way we tend, consciously or not, to explain it away. Research shows that most people will lie and cheat – just not to the extent that we can’t keep believing that we are good people. It is helpful to name some of the obvious forms of rationalization to give them a face that we can recognize. Behavioral ethics teach that some of the forms of rationalization are; denial of responsibility, denial of victim, social weighing, appeal to higher loyalties and the metaphor of ledger.
Let’s take a brief look at each of these. Denial of responsibility is pretty straight forward. If you can shrug your obligation onto someone else and convince yourself that it isn’t your place, it is easy to let yourself off the hook. Denial of victim is the mentality that “yeah I might have told a lie but nobody was really hurt by it.” Social weighing has to do with “this is not a good thing but others have done much worse so I don’t have to feel too bad about it.” Appeal to higher loyalties is the robing- of- the- rich- to- feed- the- poor mentality. And finally the metaphor of ledger is when we justify our unethical actions by pointing to the unfairness of the situation. “If my job would just pay me what I’m worth I wouldn’t have to cheat on my time card.”
Moral muteness is when we witness unethical behavior and choose not to say anything. In an interesting study researchers put fur coats, expensive cameras, and T.V.s into cars. They then broke into these cars in populated areas and in an obvious manner pretending to steal the goods. It was estimated that over three thousand people witnessed these “crimes” but only 9 people reported the thefts. Five of the reporters were policemen.
Along the same ,at a safety awareness class I attended with my daughter last week we watched a video of an experiment where a man abducted a small girl. She would yell “this is not my daddy” and kick and scream while numerous people looked the other way and passed by. Finally, two whole hours into this experiment, two African American men ran over to help this little girl. The mom who was watching from a trailer cried when she thanked these two saviors and expressed her incredulity at how so many people could make this “not their problem.”
There is a challenge here. If we want to be who we say we are and live out our good intentions we can’t ignore the human propensity to rationalize. I am convinced that If we practice monitoring our own rationalizations we are less likely to write ourselves an ethical pass. Here’s to the new year and a clean slate on which to write!
Janen Wright, Director of Faith Formation