Everybody Does It – Part 2: Relative Judgement

In Jack Marshall’s list of 24 unethical rationalizations for bad behavior, the number one rationalization — the king of all rationalizations — is “Everybody Does It.” Although I agree in principle, I find it interesting to explore the nuances and exceptions. In Part 1 I discussed cultural norms, and how sometimes ethical behavior is defined by what everybody does.

This time around, I’d like to talk about a much broader exception to the rule which occurs when you’re applying the ethical analysis not to yourself but to other people in a group.

Suppose it’s right before an election, and you read a credible news story claiming that one of the candidates for office used his official position to do small favors for friends. That probably counts against him in terms of gaining your vote. But supposed that the next day you read another credible story claiming that all the other candidates for that office also did small favors for friends. That kind of negates the information you had about the first candidate.

It’s not that “everybody does it” makes it better. It’s that your knowledge of one particular person’s bad behavior isn’t helpful if you know all the other people are engaged in the same bad behavior. When you’re making decisions about the relative merits of other people, the absolutism of rejecting “everybody does it” won’t help you. It would be irrational to hold one person more responsible than others for the exact same bad behavior.

Marshall himself uses this form of “everybody does it” in defending Mitt Romney over stories about his bad behavior when is was a very young man:

The Washington Post’s despicable exposition of ancient recollections of Mitt Romney’s mean-spirited and boorish conduct while being enrolled in that well-known cauldron of mean-spirited and boorish conduct–prep school–has caused me serial episodes of shock. […]

Guys in school assault each other, batter each other, punch each other, and do horrible things to each other that would get them arrested if they did it to a stranger on the street. That doesn’t make them “criminal,” and it doesn’t make them sociopaths. It’s called “growing up.” […] Why does Rick assume that Mitt Romney is different? Why doesn’t he see that it is unfair to assume that he is?

Obviously, if there are nuances to bad behavior, you can (and should) make judgements on those nuances. If all of your candidates are 35-year-old men who had sex with 16-year-old girls, it probably makes a difference if the relationship was a drunken hookup at a party, a teacher and his student, a client and a prostitute, or a father and his daughter.

But if the situations are identical (or at least somewhat comparable), then it doesn’t matter how reprehensible the conduct, nor how high the stakes, as long as you have to choose among a fixed group of people and there’s no way to postpone the decision or add other candidates. If it comes to light on election eve that all our presidential candidates are child molesters, then you’re going to have to hold your nose in the voting booth and choose which child molester you want to be President.

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