Justification versus Rationalization

June 20, 2006 § 13 Comments

The key difference between a valid justification and an invalid rationalization is that a justification is the sort of thing which actually causes us to act, while a rationalization is a reason we give that putatively morally justifies our act, but it didn’t actually cause us to perform the act (or in another form of rationalization, was not truly sufficient cause for us to perform the act). Rationalizations are not justifications: a rationalization cannot make an otherwise unjust act into a good act.

Say, for example, that we capture three enemy soldiers. These enemy soldiers technically meet a positive law definition of spy, but we know that they in fact aren’t spies, they are just regular soldiers who strayed from their units and were captured. Or, lets suppose they actually are spies, and we are authorized to hang them on the spot. But we wouldn’t do so in general. In general we would transfer them to the POW camp with everyone else. But the other side just hanged a stray soldier of ours; a soldier who was not a spy. They did it just to be cruel, to attack our morale, not because our guy actually was a spy.

Someone who believes in the moral quiddity of rationalizations might think it was acceptable to just up and hang three of theirs in response. The hanging wouldn’t have anything to do with the men themselves: we wouldn’t have hanged them for any crimes they committed, even if they had actually committed crimes, had the other side not just hanged one of ours.

This is clearly a wicked thing to do. And that is what happens when we vivisect justification for our acts, disconnecting what causes us to act from what putatively justifies our act. There is no just cause unless the thing that causes us to act is just.

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§ 13 Responses to Justification versus Rationalization

  • Let me see if I understood that.Justification is what actually motivates our action.Rationalisation is the reason (excuse?) we give for our action.Can you explain what putative means ?Thanks and God Bless

  • zippy says:

    <>Can you explain what putative means ?<>I use it to mean “supposed” or “alleged”, the idea being that it is proposed as something but does not actually fulfill that role.The words I am using have multiple meanings, which is part of the difficulty in being clear. Our language itself has evolved in such a way as to obscure right moral reasoning. An “excuse” could be a legitimate excuse, for example, but when I say “rationalization” I am referring to something that is proposed as a legitimate reason, but in fact it is not a legitimate reason, because it isn’t the reason (or sufficient basket of reasons) which actually caused us to act.A justification (again the way I am using it) is the actual reason (or sufficient basket of reasons) why we act, when that actual reason is in fact just.I realize that a lot of what I am saying is obvious, or should be obvious. But I tend to put up blog posts so I don’t have to repeat myself. I’m sort of a commenter on other blogs first, blogger second, if you will.

  • Patrick says:

    Um, shouldn’t you use a word other than “justifies” in the penultimate sentence- it seems that by it you mean what you used “rationalized” to mean earlier, rather than “justified”.Sorry to nitpick, but if you’re defining a special use of the terms, it’s confusing to take one of them for its ordinary meaning later in the post.Or did you really mean “justifies” there?

  • zippy says:

    Patrick: help me locate the “penultimate sentence” and I’ll tell you if it is what I really meant 🙂

  • Patrick says:

    Penultimate sentence:<>And that is what happens when we vivisect justification for our acts, disconnecting what causes us to act from what putatively justifies our act.<>According to your use of the words:justification := “what causes us to act”rationalization := “what putatively justifies our act”(where := is the mathematical notation for “is defined to be”).My worry about ambiguity is that the word choice of “justifies” in the second definition is problematic: since you’ve just defined ‘justification’ as above, it stands to reason that by ‘justifies our act’ you mean “actually causes us to act”. (Yes, it’s not logically required, but it’s essentially another form of the same word, which would imply that its special use here is to be the same unless otherwise stated.)But that doesn’t sound right, especially if you consider the first paragraph; it doesn’t quite seem you meant to write that “a rationalization is a reason we give that putatively morally <>actually causes us to act<>, but it didn’t actually cause us to perform the act.”Er, do you see my point? Or was that, in fact, what you intended?

  • Patrick says:

    Wait, considering your comment above, that is in fact what you intended: that a rationalization is precisely a putative justification which is not an actual justification.OK, fretting over.

  • zippy says:

    Well, you do have a point: in the last paragraph of my post I am not talking about <>a<> justification, I am talking about vivisecting the <>concept<> “justification”: separating the “cause” part from the “just” part. The bit that is left over when you carve off “cause” and throw it away, leaving a reason that is putatively just even though it isn’t the cause, is a <>rationalization<>. So I think it all makes sense. But you are right that when I used “justification” in the last paragraph I was referring to a concept, not an object.

  • zippy says:

    Your semiformalism may be useful too, modified this way:justification := “that which causes us to perform a just act”rationalization := “a non-causal explanation which putatively justifies our act, an act which we in fact performed for a different reason”If our <>rationalization<> had <>in fact<> been the thing which caused us to act, then the act could have been just. For example if the captured soldier had in fact been a spy, and if that had been in fact what caused us to hang him, then (assuming that it is just to hang spies) it would have been just to hang him. But that doesn’t make hanging him as tit-for-tat, when we would not have otherwise hanged him (<>even if we would in some sense have had a right to do so<>), into a just act. In order for an act to be just (that is, to have just cause) it must be the case that the thing which <>causes<> us to act is the same thing which <>justifies<> our act.

  • TM Lutas says:

    Over at Mark Shea’s blog, Zippy pointed to this thread which seems to be about me. I won’t address the details here except to say that Zippy is very much mischaracterizing my argument which is not about quiddity, nor rationalization, but the reality that Zippy doesn’t understand the laws of war, more specifically why someone may be hung for being out of uniform, the verbal shorthand traditionally used, the importance of reciprocity which allows for informal agreements that civilize warfare, and the necessary consequence of the abrogation of those informal agreements when talking to the other side is so easily characterized as treason. I have repeatedly told Zippy to go get himself informed and recommended that he talk to a good chaplain because they would be intimately involved in the interface between the moral law and the laws of war. It’s their area of specialty. He has not done so (or at least has given no evidence of doing so) and thus is willfully ignorant of this very specialized part of the moral law.When one is ignorant of an area of law, the normal role to play is to sit down and listen or educate yourself to the point where you have a useful opinion. Zippy seems to think that “winging it” is sufficient. It is not.

  • zippy says:

    I am perfectly willing to let others judge for themselves the validity of my arguments against yours, TM, on the moral liciety of hanging POWs on a technicality when the true objective of the hanging has nothing to so with the men themselves but is rather a is tit-for-tat.

  • zippy says:

    And by the way, if you are going to invoke Archbishop O’Brien’s authority you ought to make sure that he explicitly endorses your “hang enemy soldiers as tit for tat” moral theology first.

  • noteapot says:

    I always thought to justify was to explain something we feel to be socially valid.To rationalise was to take something socially unacceptable and justify it.

  • […] and when people reach various conclusions from contradictory premises what they are really doing is rationalizing: presenting a putative justification for something they believe for reasons entirely extrinsic to […]

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