Bill Cosby gestures as he approaches members of the media gathered outside his home in Elkins Park, Pa., following his release from prison Wednesday, June 30, 2021, after Pennsylvania's highest court overturned his sex assault conviction. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

We all can engage in rational thinking and know the difference between right and wrong.  Most often, we learn this primarily through our senses, a higher level of conscience, and from the values that our parents teach us.  Other factors that help us differentiate between ethical and unethical behaviors is our commitment to examine ourselves, how connected we are in religious beliefs, and having friends with high morals.

Disgraced former actor Bill Cosby and other high-profile cases such as R. Kelly demonstrate how far a person will go to justify importer behaviors.

In 2004, Andrea Constand made allegations from mid-January to mid-February that Cosby sexually assaulted her at his home in Pennsylvania.   Months later, Constand filed a police report asking for a criminal investigation regarding Cosby’s behaviors.    

Constand also filed a civil lawsuit against Cosby, and in the documentation, 13 other women said they were sexually assaulted by the comedian. 

During a deposition, Cosby said his sexual encounter with Constand was consensual and that the only drug he gave her was Benadryl.  However, at another time during the deposition, he admitted that he gave the drug Quaaludes to women to have sex with them.  More than 50 women came forward and said Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted them.

Unethical Behavior Is Justified
’ Photograph: Matt Slocum/AP

On May 24, 2016, Cosby was told by Montgomery County Magisterial District Court Judge Elizabeth McHugh that he would stand trial for sexually assaulting Constand.

On June 17, 2017, the case ended in a mistrial after the jury of the seven-men and five-woman were unable to reach a unanimous decision on the three counts of felony aggravated indecent that Cosby had been tried on.  

Cosby’s case was retried on the exact charges. And although he denied all allegations, on April 9, 2018, the prosecution dropped a bomb saying that Cosby, now 83, had paid Constand $3.38 million in exchange for her silence about allegedly drugging and sexually assaulting her.

However, on April 26, 2018, Cosby was convicted by a jury for allegedly drugging and sexually assaulting her and he was given a sentence of 3 to 10 years in state prison. 

But last month, Cosby was released from prison after his conviction was overturned by Pennsylvania’s highest court; it was determined that Cosby should have never been prosecuted since he reached a deal with former Montgomery County prosecutor Bruce Castor; Castor told Cosby he would not criminally prosecute him if he gave a deposition in a civil case that Constand brought against him. Unethical Behavior Is Justified

We are prone to mistakes but learning from them is what really matters, however, in cases like Cosby and singer R. Kelly (who is set to go to trial next month on charges that he sexually molested underage girls), their corrupt ways highlight the problem when someone rationalizes their unethical behaviors.

It’s surprising how people justify their actions even when they are clearly demonstrating concerning behaviors.   Some think that they are infallible and incapable of doing wrong because, to them, their “high moral standards” are based on faulty thinking.Unethical Behavior Is Justified

Unethical Behavior Is Justified


R. Kelly photo by ANTONIO PEREZ/GETTY IMAGES.

In their book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, social psychologists Carol Tavis and Elliot Aronson examine how the brain is wired for self-justification and how this creates “blind spots” which results in our inability to see our own prejudices, biases and hypocrisies.  

 “Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously. Even irrefutable evidence is rarely enough to pierce the mental armor of self-justification,” writes Tavis. Unethical Behavior Is Justified

“From most of our experiences, we have dealt with someone who is self-serving, and they truly believe that their immoral behaviors can be rationalized. No wonder research shows that common unethical behaviors such as cheating, lying, and stealing occur frequency than we think.” 

The fact is, everyone has or does engage in unethical conduct at some point in their lives.  But the defining outcome is whether the person takes accountability and develops concrete actions to address them.

So, let’s look at three common ways people justify unethical actions.

Using past behaviors as an excuse

Some people justify unethical behaviors based on their belief that any good deeds they have done in the past will make up for whatever unethical behavior that they might engage in the future.  From this way of thinking, those individuals see this as a green light to indulge in unethical behaviors regardless of the consequences.

Believing that such action(s) would benefit others

This is one of the common justifications people use to engage in pathological ways of thinking.   Many individuals will convince themselves to carry out evil gestures when they see it as beneficial to their family, friends, lovers, and for sure themselves despite knowing it’s morally wrong.

Comparing actions

This is a widespread tactic for people who engage in unethical behaviors and who want to find ways to justify their evil deeds.  After all, what better way for them to carry out shady actions by rationalizing how worse another person’s wrongdoing is?

“Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously. Even irrefutable evidence is rarely enough to pierce the mental armor of self-justification,” says Travis.  

She adds, “We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.” 

So, what’s the best way to address unethical behavior? Well, Travis says, “We need a few trusted naysayers in our lives, critics who are willing to puncture our protective bubble of self-justifications and yank us back to reality if we veer too far off. This is especially important for people in positions of power.”

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