Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

The Mechanisms of Rationalization Gittin 35 Psychology of the Daf Yomi

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the issue of trust in a widow who cares for her husband’s children and whether she can be relied upon to take an oath about receiving payment from her husband’s kesuba. There is a concern that she may rationalize her entitlement to funds beyond what she deserves and even resort to false swearing. Rashi explains that she genuinely believes she is not stealing but rather taking additional compensation that she feels entitled to.

This defense mechanism is known as rationalization and is a prevalent aspect of human behavior. Evolutionary psychologists have recognized the deep survival function of rationalization. It is a mechanism that operates largely unconsciously and influences most of our daily decisions, which are often made in a split second based on intuition and instinct. However, analyzing the factors that contributed to our decision-making and fabricating justifications for those decisions can help us understand and improve our future choices. The downside of rationalization is its pervasive nature, as it allows people to rationalize nearly any kind of sin or immoral activity.

According to researcher Jo-Ann Tsang (Review of General Psychology the Educational Publishing Foundation 2002, Vol. 6, No. 1, 25–50 Moral Rationalization and the Integration of Situational Factors and Psychological Processes in Immoral Behavior, Jo-Ann Tsang Southern Methodist University):

Moral rationalization is the individual’s ability to reinterpret their immoral actions as morally acceptable. This arises from a conflict of motivations and a need to perceive oneself as moral. Moral rationalization is a normal and widespread psychological phenomenon that can occur in small unethical acts like tax evasion as well as in large atrocities such as the Holocaust. When moral rationalization interacts with specific situational factors, extreme evil can result.

Tsang also notes the paradoxical relationship between rationalization and moral standards. Rationalization of immoral behavior begins with individuals valuing moral standards highly. If people did not care about upholding moral standards, there would be no need to rationalize immoral actions into moral ones. Morality emerges from the social nature of human beings and the conflicts that arise from competing goals. Thus, moral principles governing interactions develop within societies. Given the high value placed on moral standards, individuals often rationalize their actions to align them with those standards.

She also highlights the psychological mechanism by which situations or cultures emphasizing obedience can lead to a suspension of moral principles without requiring rationalization. In such cases, individuals focus on their duty to obey rather than considering the moral implications of their actions. The responsibility to address moral issues rests with the person in authority.

Tsang discusses the existence of different types of moral goals tied to regulatory focus theory. A promotion focus is associated with individuals striving for positive outcomes and accomplishments, while a prevention focus relates to avoiding negative outcomes and focusing on safety, duty, and responsibility. Individuals with a promotion focus are motivated to approach moral matches, aiming to be moral. On the other hand, individuals with a prevention focus aim to avoid moral mismatches by refraining from breaking prohibitive standards. Since there are more behaviors that can be classified as not being immoral, it is easier to fulfill the goal of not being immoral, making rationalization more likely in prevention-focused individuals.

This is similar to the Jewish idea of love of God versus fear of God, or whether one focuses on סור מר turn away from evil, or עשה טוב perform good (Tehilim 34:15)

She then outlines common mechanisms of rationalization, including reconstruing conduct by justifying immoral actions as serving a valued social or moral purpose. This can be achieved through moral justification, euphemistic language, or advantageous comparisons that minimize the severity of the immoral behavior. Another method is obscuring personal agency, where individuals distance themselves from their immoral actions to alleviate discomfort or guilt. Displacement of responsibility and diffusion of responsibility are examples of this. Individuals may also disregard or distort the consequences of their actions to preserve their moral self-concept, employing selective inattention or cognitive avoidance of the harm caused. Perpetrators may engage in blaming and dehumanizing victims to rationalize their actions, stripping victims of their human qualities and making it easier to justify immoral treatment. Shifting blame onto victims or external circumstances is another way perpetrators absolve themselves of responsibility.

These methods of moral rationalization alter individuals perceptions of their behavior, making it appear consistent with moral standards. Understanding these psychological mechanisms can shed light on why people engage in immoral actions while maintaining a positive self-image. It provides insight into our own tendencies for internal self-deception and allows us to be more honest with ourselves.

By recognizing the presence of rationalization and its various manifestations, we can strive for greater self-awareness and moral accountability. Being aware of our own potential for rationalization allows us to critically examine our actions and motivations, ensuring that they align with our moral principles. It also helps us develop empathy and understanding towards others who may engage in similar rationalization processes.

Ultimately, the recognition that evil can be rationalized highlights the importance of moral education and character development. By nurturing a strong moral compass and cultivating virtues such as honesty, empathy, and integrity, individuals are better equipped to navigate ethical dilemmas and resist the temptations of rationalization. Emphasizing the consequences of our actions and the impact they have on others can also serve as a deterrent to engaging in immoral behavior.

In conclusion, the phenomenon of rationalization plays a significant role in human behavior, allowing individuals to reinterpret immoral actions as morally acceptable. Understanding its underlying mechanisms can help us recognize and address our own tendencies towards rationalization, promoting greater moral accountability and ethical decision-making. 

About the Author
Rabbi, Psychotherapist with 30 years experience specializing in high conflict couples and families.
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