Teaching Note: “Rationalizations”

Keywords: decision-making; workplace; leadership; moral psychology; deviance;


This scenario is about a junior employee put in an awkward position by a supervisor who encourages them to invent numbers in order to complete a report on time. Regardless of whether the employee agrees to do so, they end up being faced with rationalizations — either the opportunity to engage in rationalization to help themselves feel better, or the opportunity to respond to a rationalization in order to defend their own integrity. This case is an exploration of a common problem faced by early career employees. It is also an opportunity to discuss a point drawn from the literature on wrongdoing, which is that very often “good people do bad things” because they are able to make use of rationalizations.

Possible Questions for Discussion:

  • How common do you think rationalizations and excuse-making are in the average workplace?
  • How do you think an individual might feel after offering a rationalization for something that they are pretty sure is against the rules?
  • If someone tried to get you to do something you thought was wrong, and told that “Everybody does it,” what would YOU say in response?
  • If someone told you they did something you thought was wrong, and told that “It’s not my fault, because I was ordered to do it,” what would YOU say in response?
  • When you hear someone offering those kinds of rationalizations, what do you tend to think about that person, their values, or their situation?


Ethics and Rationalization (from the Ethical Realism blog)
Rationalizations (video from Ethics Unwrapped)
Twelve Common Rationalizations and Excuses to Avoid (from the Josephson Institute)