The Robin Hood ethos is rationalization at its finest, more mild forms of which are extremely prevalent in society today. Rationalization is characterized by finding justifications for immoral behavior to ease feelings of guilt, shame or anxiety. In the case of Robin Hood, it was considered acceptable that he stole because he was taking from the rich and giving to the poor. This rationale can be a form of self-sabotage when used by individuals as a defense mechanism to justify inappropriate thoughts or behaviors.
A 2002 article by Jo-Ann Tsang of Southern Methodist University defined moral rationalization as “…an individual’s ability to reinterpret his or her immoral actions as, in fact, moral. It arises out of a conflict of motivations and a need to see the self as moral.” Whether implemented on a conscious or subconscious level, this defense mechanism is a way to calm the conscience before, during or after an immoral action has occurred. In most cases, other people’s feelings are at stake and this justification is an attempt to disassociate from the negative effects the individual’s actions have on others.
Rationalization brings up the philosophical notion of moral relativism. This is the idea that morality is relative depending on the circumstances, such as an individual’s need, or a specific standpoint, such as cultural beliefs. Moral relativism holds that no one circumstance or standpoint is more significant than the next. This presents the opportunity for infinite rationalization, as an individual can use pretty much any platform to justify his or her actions. However, there is a difference between something being acceptable in the context of moral relativism and being legal. Many behaviors perceived by the general public as immoral, namely killing, raping and stealing, are illegal in most places regardless of whether the perpetrator can rationalize his or her actions.
The implementation of defense mechanisms, such as rationalization, is an indication that an individual is grappling with cognitive dissonance. When the conscience does not approve of a person’s behavior, rationalization can step in and play the devil’s advocate, finding reasons why the action was necessary or even moral in nature. This habit is an attempt to avoid feelings of guilt and anxiety that often accompany poor decision-making.
If you or a loved one is using harmful defense mechanisms to calm feelings of anxiety, help is available. Sovereign Health Group specializes in treating individuals facing mental health disorders, substance abuse issues and dual diagnosis. Call (866) 819-0427 to speak with a professional today.
Psychology behind defense mechanisms: Using humor to cope (Part 4 of 4)
Written by Courtney Howard, Sovereign Health Group writer