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.