Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Michael Josephson: Character Counts: Do bad people think they’re good?

  When she was 6, my daughter Carissa asked, “Do dumb people think they’re smart?” Answering her own question, she added, “They probably do because they’re dumb.”

  This made me think: “Do bad people think they’re good?” I wouldn’t be surprised if most do. In fact, I think all of us are ethical in our own eyes. The human tendency to rationalize, to justify our conduct in our own minds, provides a powerful anesthetic to our conscience. Think of all the athletes, politicians, religious leaders, and business executives who’ve been caught in wrongdoing who feel more like victims than villains.
Self-interest has a powerful tendency to disable our objectivity and befuddle our commitment to live up to moral principles.

  The higher the stakes, the more likely it is that we’ll persuade ourselves that what we want to do, or what we’ve already done, is justified. When our financial or physical security is at stake, even the best of us are vulnerable to reason-crippling self-delusion that allows us to defend our positions with self-righteous ferocity – as if the mere intensity of our convictions makes them more valid.

  One way to fortify our integrity is to be on the lookout for our tendency to rationalize and to remember that we don’t have a moral right to get what we want. Necessity isn’t a fact; it’s an interpretation.

  Living an ethical life isn’t easy. It requires us to do the right thing even when it costs more than we want to pay.

  Perhaps the best antidote to rationalization sickness is to rigorously and faithfully follow the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

  About the author: Michael Josephson is the founder of the Josephson Institute, a non-for-profit organization which develops and delivers services and materials to increase ethical commitment, competence, and practice in all segments of society.

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