I feel like I have been rationalizing my bad behavior lately. Whether it’s going out drinking during the week because I think I’ve earned it or eating junk food because I don’t have time to cook. It feels like I am making more excuses the older I get. Sometimes I take several pieces of fruit when I leave the café so that I don’t have to come back in the morning for breakfast and use an extra swipe. Isn’t that okay since some people eat more than I do anyways? What about cheating? Sometimes I have felt like a professor was unfair in giving me a certain grade on a paper that I spent a lot of time on. I have been tempted to have a friend (who spends little time but always does better than me) to write the next one for me. I guess what I’m trying to say is how do I know if I’m rationalizing my behavior and going too far?
Rationalizing bad behavior is generally not a healthy habit but it is normal. We all do it. You bring up a few different issues here though. Somethings are just wrong or illegal. If you do something like stealing or cheating, not only can those have pretty significant negative consequences, but they are also wrong; legally, morally and spiritually. Most people who engage in these types of behaviors have less happy existences. Other things are likely just not good for you. You may not be put in jail if someone found out, but it can still have negative consequences, physically or socially.
Something to keep in mind when deciding if your rationalizing is getting out of hand is to consider whether you do a certain something more than once because you didn’t get caught the first time or because it didn’t seem to bother anyone. Some things may be wrong but not harmful to anyone, but they soon become habits. When I was in college, for example, my friends and I thought it was funny to order beer at a certain bar and take the mugs home. We ended up with a nice set and rationalized it by saying that we bought the beer and “the bartender didn’t tell us that we couldn’t keep the mug.” We knew what we were doing and our lack of guilt was a sign that rationalizing had gone too far. Looking back, maybe I should have asked myself the question, “What would my mother say if she knew I did this?” Or even better, “What would Jesus do?”
Another thing to consider is your hierarchy of needs. There is a hierarchy of needs that exists, and if you are living beneath your own means in this situation it might make sense to rationalize underhanded tactics that move you up in the hierarchy to where you want to be. As a college student you are farther along in the hierarchy than a refugee in a war-torn country, for example. That being said, maybe you are struggling financially, which is not uncommon as an undergraduate in this day and age. Grabbing some extra fruit from the cafeteria to alleviate spending what little money you do have is a very benign rationalization of a behavior that could be regarded as theft by an incredulously knit-picky person. And I think this is where we find that the line starts to begin, when you rationalize benign and harmless behavior there does not seem to be anything wrong. More than likely if there was an abundance of perishable fruit, what wasn’t taken and eaten would be thrown out and hopefully composted. But when behavior moves from benign in a material sense (a banana costs like 30 cents at Qwik Star) to questionable in a social sense (maybe you start asking people for money or straight-up just start stealing small amounts of money because you continue this rationalization of your financial status), I believe you have gone too far in your logical self-regulation.
Your conscience very much should play a role in the rationalization of your behavior. This question is tricky because every person has their own codes of ethics and ideals of morality. Clearly it’s wrong to rob a gas station. But when we look at the hierarchy of needs, we see that it’s possible for any given person to feel the need to move themselves from a lesser standard to a higher standard, and through erroneous reasoning perhaps create the motivation to go commit a serious crime in order to preserve the basic needs for themselves or their family. Food, shelter and clothing are important: you’re human after all. However, your peace of mind should also be extremely important. If you feel as though you have gone too far in the rationalization of your behavior, trust your intuition and take steps to change your behavior so that you are less reproachable to yourself.
To sum up my thoughts, behave like a decent person, develop a strong moral conscience and trust your gut.
Trish with some assistance from Trent Hessing