April 1, 2002

The Four Horsemen of Justification

Several readers responded to my failed attempt to steal a duck sign by saying that stealing is wrong. Although these emails didn’t surprise me, my reaction to them did. But before I get to that, here’s a quote from one of the more forceful and articulate emails, written by Jay Perkins:

Presumably the duck sign is there for a reason, maybe so people are alerted to the presence of ducks and don’t run them over? I guess you feel it’s more important to satisfy a juvenile urge than to respect or care about the lives of defenseless animals, whose only protection on that road is said sign.

Besides which, it’s not yours to take. Taking something that doesn’t belong to you is called ‘stealing’, and whether you get caught or not, ‘stealing’ is morally reprehensible, especially for such unnecessary and idiotic reasons as yours appear to be.

From your picture, you don’t look like an eight year old, so you might try not acting/thinking like one. Grow up.

I was at Rachel’s when I read this. I had meant to check if a certain client had written and then jump in the shower, but instead I found myself mesmerized by Jay’s email. I began various responses to him, one after the other, deleting each.

Soon Rachel appeared and asked why I was sitting at her computer in my underwear. I showed her Jay’s email. In short order she voiced the same arguments I had previously deleted, in more or less the same order. And on each point I knew she was wrong. What she was doing, and what I had done earlier, was scrambling for justification of her own self-serving behavior.

The most interesting part was how Rachel’s tactics mirrored my own. Evidently there are exactly four defenses one can use in such situations:

  1. Diminish the wrong
  2. Attack the accuser
  3. Defend your character
  4. Divert responsibility

Of course Jay Perkins was right: stealing is wrong, particularly when one steals for “unnecessary and idiotic reasons.” And it doesn’t matter that one’s accuser is a jerk or that little harm comes from the theft or that one is fundamentally moral. It’s still wrong. When Rachel asked me to help steal the duck sign, I weighed the wrong against my desire to play hero, and I decided to play hero. It was a purely selfish decision. I make such decisions all the time and for no other reason than that I want to.

When pressed to defend my actions, I invariably resort to the four-point approach listed above, which I have just now dubbed the four horsemen of justification.

Of course I’m not just speaking about duck signs. The same arguments used to justify the theft of duck signs are used to justify the destruction of the planet. We do what we want, pretty much, then find reasons to justify it.