Reasons for Inconsistencies and Contradictions in Ethical Reasoning and Behavior

There are many reasons for apparent inconsistencies and contradictions in ethical reasoning and behavior, including the following:

1. Courage. The problem may be more a matter of following through on what one knows to be right when it is unpleasant or costly or demands sacrifice.

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2. Multiple roles. We may adjust our behavior and reasoning to conform to different roles with different but associated standards, and when incompatible claims (such as public interest and family loyalty) clash, the choice of an appropriate primary role may lead to behavior that would otherwise be unacceptable.

3. Camouflage. Motivation is a tough call, and the underlying reason may not be clear, even to the decision maker.

4. Rhetoric. An appeal to noncontroversial, vague values (such as justice or honesty) is quite different from an explanation of ethical reasoning. For example, what values are tapped by arguing that “the most important thing about government is democratic process”? Moreover, this statement obscures the mode of reasoning.

5. Confusion. Public interest has been defined as the majority (sum of individual interests) and the shared (overarching interest). Representation can mean being a delegate or a trustee. Conceptual ambiguity may lead to misunderstanding and mixed signals.

6. Excuse, not explanation. Offering an excuse (reason one should be held blameless) in- stead of an explanation (reason for a choice) is a common source of confusion.

7. Consensus. Agreement is intuitively satisfying, and there is a temptation to claim all ethical ground in order to satisfy everyone. This may communicate unsound reasoning or political expediency.

8. Hard but different choices. Not all ethical problems are the same. If the dilemma is real and values or standards do conflict, then choices may reflect different assessments of, for example, the stakes or values involved. Immediate life-and-death is- sues are often treated differently, or at least more carefully, than others.

9. Error. Reasoning may be faulty or partial. Intention may be undermined by factual error or omission.

10. Selectivity. If every decision warranted and received thorough analysis, we would be immobilized. Pressures on time and attention mean that many decisions and actions are prompted by common sense or conscience rather than reflection or de- liberation; sometimes we choose to downplay the wrong issue and fail to see a choice’s serious ethical implications.

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