[The following is a guest post by Vera Bradova, whom some readers will recognize from recent discussions. I will respond in the comments section below.]
Moral philosophers have spent lifetimes developing and defending systems of moral justification. Should we justify by reference to higher authority, social mores, or the greatest good of the greatest number? Yet no one, not one person I have been able to find, has questioned or analyzed within the context of ethical theory the concept of justification itself, or its validity. Ethics dictionaries and encyclopedias ignore it virtually completely. Everyone asks how to justify. No one asks whether to justify.
My contention is that moral justification does not work. It does not give people tools for ethical decision-making. On the contrary; it facilitates moral irresponsibility and so undermines the entire moral enterprise.
Moral justification is, simply put, a process whereby a person who is evaluating a morally questionable act attempts to make it seem right. This person looks for a way to shine a favorable light on such an act in order to maintain a clear conscience. In other words, it is a kind of alchemy whereby unsavory actions are transformed by persuasive argumentation into something acceptable, if not outright positive. Lead into gold, evil into good! As they say, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But this nifty trick has fooled people for hundreds of years, and the philosophers keep on riding the same worn rail, oblivious to any problems with this fundamental assumption.
The first problem with justification is that it favors the cunning. People are amazingly good at justifying their questionable actions, particularly to themselves. For clever people good at analysis or manipulation, such a stratagem is child's play. If justification favors the clever and the glib, it should give philosophers pause. Secondly, moral justification is, up close, a search for rationalizations. The only difference is the greater sophistication of the justificatory arguments. Is this what we want to encourage people to do when they are morally uneasy? Do we want them to spend time looking for loopholes and ways to whitewash or to sweep under the rug that which their conscience tells them is not quite right?
Moral justification is a way to get oneself off the hook, morally speaking. As has been so well described by Albert Bandura in his paper Moral Disengagement in the Perpetration of Inhumanities, it is a ploy used to silence moral qualms. (He says: "Cognitive restructuring of harmful conduct through moral justification, sanitizing language, and exonerating comparisons is the most powerful set of psychological mechanisms for disengaging moral control.") It is one of the key strategies followed by people who later commit atrocities in the service of some noble goal. And it is a process followed by any of us on a daily basis as we commit the little lies, cruelties, and injustices of our everyday existence. A kid lies to mom? Well, he really did it to spare her the worry. People steeped in the culture of justification are not likely to say to themselves, I'm a bloody liar, she deserves better, I've got to make this right. The habit of moral justification encourages people to say to themselves instead, I really did it for her own good, and that makes my lie just fine.
Bandura says: "People do not ordinarily engage in harmful conduct until they have justified to themselves the morality of their actions. In this process of moral justification, detrimental conduct is made personally and socially acceptable by portraying it as serving socially worthy or moral purposes. People then can act on a moral imperative and preserve their view of themselves as a moral agent while inflicting harm on others." As an antidote he recommends better social safeguards. But he stops short of examining the role of moral justification in formal ethics.
With moral justification as a given, it is no wonder that these days, conservative people who care about firm principles and who were raised with precepts such as "two wrongs don't make a right" and "ends don't justify means" are defending president Bush's lies as "technicalities" and "mere stretching of the truth," and in any case as deception well justified by the removal of a nasty dictator. No one is immune from the morally corrosive influence of justificatory habits.
Bandura's work has been received favorably, and there are efforts underfoot to model different behavior to bullies and other violent people. But as long as we use moral justification ourselves, why shouldn't the bully? And if moral justification is a bad idea in one context, shouldn't we examine its role in moral guidance overall?