7 Justifications People Use for Unethical or Illegal Acts

Why do good people do bad things?

Posted Mar 14, 2019

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Source: Unsplash

Do you know anyone who doesn't report their cash income on their taxes, pilfers office supplies from their workplace, or has done an assignment for their child to help them get a higher grade?

When people do these types of unethical or illegal behaviors, there are a number of psychological factors that go into it. Let's break them down.

Thinking Distortions That Contribute to Unethical and Illegal Behavior

1. The person thinks: "I got away with it once or twice, so it's OK to keep doing it."

When someone does a behavior that's unethical or illegal and doesn't get caught, that tends to make it more likely they'll do it again. Sometimes people reason that not getting found out means that what they did wasn't a big deal. They might think that whatever they did was so small it doesn't count. 

If the person took advantage of a loophole or a lack of oversight, they might think, "If the loophole was a big deal, it would've been closed already. More effort would've been put into preventing or catching it." Occasionally people stumble onto a loophole accidentally, but then choose to exploit it, even when doing so is illegal or unethical.

2. "Other people are doing things far worse than I am."

There's a saying: "If you lie with dogs, you'll get fleas." If unethical or illegal behavior is commonplace in the circles someone moves in, it's more likely they'll see it as normal. There will always be someone who is behaving more outrageously than they are whose example they can use to rationalize their own behavior as not so bad.

3. FOMO — Fear of Missing Out

If you see other people succeeding through unethical behavior, then envy can lead to co-opting those behaviors.

4. "I make up for my bad deeds with my good deeds." 

If someone does good work in other aspects of their life, they can rationalize that their behavior balances out and is still a net positive. For instance, if they do charity work or help their church. The person might be cheating, stealing, or defrauding a little bit in one domain (e.g., cheating on their taxes), but they think it pales in comparison to their good deeds and prosocial behavior.

5. The ends justify the means.

If someone has good intentions behind their unethical behavior, they might think it's OK. For instance, they're stealing to support their charity organization or help their child.

6. "I've gotten a raw deal in one area, so it's OK if I take advantage in another area to make up for it."

Let's say that someone is facing a big bill for something they see as not their fault. Or they see some situation they've faced as unjust. Perhaps they've gotten a raw deal from a company they've worked for, or from a company or contractor they employed. Perhaps they got unlucky in the financial crisis and lost their home. If people believe they've gotten the short end of the stick in one area, they might think it's only fair that they make up for it by getting an unfair advantage in another domain or at a later time.

Fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: Fizkes/Shutterstock

7. The person's moral line keeps shifting.

When people do unethical or illegal behavior, their moral line often shifts due to that behavior pattern. For instance, they "borrow" 1-2 stamps from their workplace, then take 5-6, then steal a sheet of 100 stamps.

Wrapping Up

Some people who do unethical or illegal things are antisocial by nature.* They may not have frank Antisocial Personality Disorder, but may have some tendencies in this direction. However oftentimes people slide into unethical or illegal behavior through the cognitive justifications and behavior patterns I've outlined.

*Note that antisocial is not the same as asocial. The meaning of antisocial is quite different than an introvert and refers to rule breaking and low moral conscience. People tend to colloquially say antisocial when they mean asocial.