The Case of Self-Deception: Why Do We Rationalize Immoral Behaviour?

The way that human beings rationalize their own immoral behaviour to themselves is a never-ending source of fascination. We all make commitments to ourselves and to others in view of the type of people we want to be. These commitments change over time, and we find ways to explain to ourselves how we meet or fail to meet them, or why we have revised them. In other words, we are constantly reconciling our behaviour with our own moral maxims or principles (which we are free to modify).

As it is the time of year of New Year's resolutions, typical commitments like eating healthy, abstaining from flirting, cheating or watching pornography, and refraining from drinking alcohol or doing drugs are examples of what I will call "moral maxims," to which we can decide to commit (or not). Let's say I commit to eating healthy in the the upcoming year. While it sounds simple, living up to this maxim is going to require more than a general consideration of what healthy foods are and the type of body and life I desire to have. Most notably, it is going to necessitate that I negotiate with myself in situations when other priorities or reasons allow me to justify, for example, eating chocolate cake. Partaking in family birthday party and eating a piece of my grandmother's homemade cake with people I love likely supersedes a general commitment I made in the past regarding my eating habits. I can also rationalize the exceptional nature of such a situation. But what happens when there are too many exceptional situations? I justify eating cake when I feel sad, I feel happy, it's a birthday party, it's Christmas, my friend made it, it is offered to me by a family member....and so I end up eating cake every day. But I'm still committed to eating healthily, aren't I?

These dilemmas confront us all of the time. The very idea of negotiating with myself and presenting myself with reasons that I will either accept or reject seems to imply the presupposition that this "I" or "self" is multiple (or at least that there is more layers to this self than that which is simply present at the forefront of consciousness). Furthermore, practically contributing to this idea that the unified self is fractured or plural is that I frequently make decisions and act without extensively deliberating about my choices. Drives, habits, dispositions, desires, laziness, inebriation, and compulsion may contribute to the phenomenon that I eat a whole bag of chips or drink a full case of beer without really considering whether this is in line with my moral self (which I believe to be at least minimally consistent and coherent) or who might be affected by my actions. I am also likely to overlook the moment that my "rationalized nibbling in a social setting" or casual, social drinking passed over into excess. This is partially due to some combination of the "unconscious" elements I just listed, but also seems related to a progressive justification of my compulsive actions while they are happening. Rather than thinking about the consequences of my actions for myself and others (for example, a bellyache or hangover in the morning), I start to tell myself that one more chip and one more drink will do no harm. I take pity on myself, thinking that I never have fun and am always working, so what's the big deal if I indulge this one time? I rationalize that I don't have anything important to do in the morning (while I might outstanding work to be completed over the course of the day), so indulge I do, despite the moral maxims I posited for myself as part of my New Year's resolution (or worse yet, regardless of the promises I made to loved ones concerned about my behaviour).

In short, we often act against our own moral maxims -- i.e., in ways contrary to the principles of the type of people we will to be -- and this is at least in part due to selfishly succumbing to the pull of largely unconscious habits and instincts ("This activity is fun and I want to keep doing it!"), and to our ability to rationalize or justify a large range of actions to ourselves ("the consequences really aren't that bad and I'm going to do what I want despite everyone else"). To be clear, acting against one's moral maxims is selfish, because our commitments to ourselves are often also commitments to others (in particular, to the people we love and who love us in return). It seems to me that to trust someone, you have to be able to believe in some consistency of their moral character.

Briefly stated, both the ideas of an unconscious or subconscious disposition and a self to whom I can justify my actions entail a rejection of the privileged position of a unified, self-conscious self that has all the possible sources of knowledge, awareness of my actions and reflective engagement at its fingertips at all times. Although this claim may seem to catapult us into the hands of psychoanalysis and post-modernism (the domains of the "shattered I"), Saint Augustine of Hippo dealt with this theme in relation to sin and Christian conversion in his Confessions (AD 400). The spirit of the age, of this post and of my (modest) readership means I will refrain from writing here all that I would like about the relevance of Augustine's treatment of the will and decision-making to the topic, but his passionate presentation of the challenge of the relation of the rational mind to willing and acting is nevertheless worth noting. Augustine presents the following central dilemma: the mind commands to the will what to will, yet the rational objects of this will and my actions often do not line up. Consequently, I act in ways counter to that which I rationally demanded of myself. Here, he notes, it seems as if one has two different wills -- one will which wills selfish, sinful crap, and another which wills rationally and consistently (in Augustine's context, to serve God). But to make consequential decisions for one's own life, such as converting to a religion or a different way of life, Augustine argues that the condition is having one single will. Therefore, instead of saying there are two wills, he frames this "struggle of the will" in terms of the conflict between being the person one wants to be on the one hand, and selfishly indulging in impulsive behaviour for one's own amusement or pleasure, despite one's goals and promises (for Augustine: sinning), on the other. In other words, the issue here is a dissociated or fractured self. Augustine's language at this point in the Confessions is striking -- he describes himself as torn apart, dissociated from himself and as a drowsy sleeper trying to get up. Even in the moment of his conversion to Christianity, Augustine's own rational faculties, willing and certainty are not enough to push him into a life-changing decision. Instead he constantly "postpones" his conversion, and relies on a specific occurrence of arguably irrational events which indeed appear delusional to the modern reader to convert.

I hope I didn't lose you there. The point is that thinkers have been talking about our moral failures and our inability to be who we want to be in reference to a fractured self for years and years. And while this reality seems to force us to expose what is contradictory, incoherent and dissociated in ourselves, it is not for that that we ought to give up on morality (and even the self) altogether.

So, the post-modernist asks, why not? Why not break free of the shackles of religious, self-discipling morality, of the privileged position of modern self-consciousness, and instead embrace a life of flow and flux? Wouldn't it be more enjoyable to eat and drink what we want when we want, love who we want and how we want, masturbate when we want to what we want, and do whatever drugs we want when we want?

My short answer to her is: because, responsibility. And even more controversially, because the concept of responsibility entails admitting that we are different from others animals. I guess this is me coming out as speciesist.

That said, although I don't have the space in this post to adequately discuss how upholding one's own moral maxims need not be a religious endeavour, and that emphasizing self-discipline and excessive restraint is harmful and can be politically misused, I do want to make note of the necessity to scrutinize social and cultural conventions along with a history of exploitation in considering how we formulate and exercise morality. These conventions, along with the legitimization of the oppression of others, allow us to justify our lifestyles that have quite literally been built on the backs of others. These factors mean the maxims of the privileged people "of the West" lean towards self-indulgence, individualism and turning a blind to the suffering of the poor and oppressed. For example, why is my New Year's resolution to eat healthily rather than to stop buying products that are produced in abhorrent conditions abroad?

Indeed, post-modernists like Anna Tsing offer pertinent analyses of how colonialism, the domestication of humans through the mass development of cereal agriculture, the production of wealth through plantations and global capitalism in general have engendered a certain type of individualist, anti-nomadic Western subject obsessed with domination, indulgence and monogamy. These obsessions are oppressive to others and to ourselves. However, I have long been worried about how such post-modern/post-structuralist theories -- which emphasize the "human-as-animal" and the "obliteration of the subject" -- efface moral responsibility. And in the context of repeatedly witnessing questionable conduct of academics at the university, this concern has extended to the manner by which such theories actually provide a framework of justification for moral irresponsibility or moral relativism.

On multiple occasions, I have seen highly educated people (myself included) use  "avant-garde" theories to justify being shitty to others. Far from living in ivory towers, we've at times mobilized these theories to live in the gutters (with whoever else is willing to ignore phone calls from loved ones and also live there).

Let me try to be clear (without creating a straw-man). The terms post-modernism, post-structuralism and neostructuralism describe a series of positions that are vehemently critical of modern subjectivity (particularly in its post-Enlightenment iteration) and its related concepts: absolute freedom of the individual, rational morality (i.e. applying reason to decide how we should live), the unified subject, and the protrusion of the human from nature based on her capacity to reason. This is why they are post-modern and post-structural.

Considering the flagrant problems of Eurocentrism in many theories representative of modernism, structuralism and the Enlightenment, along with how they have been perniciously and systematically used to justify oppression, social inequality, colonialism, I do believe post-modernism and post-structuralism present welcome -- maybe even necessary -- critical tools. Post-modernism and post-structuralism beg us to ask: what is so dangerous about saying we are all enclosed, individual rational subjects who can use their capacity to reason in order to positively self-determine in and through societal structures? Doesn't that sound close to our widely-accepted, modern definition of liberalism Thinkers broadly categorized as post-modernist powerfully demonstrate that this thesis, along with the discourse of equality under which it is so often guised, is a myth. "Rational subjects" are embedded in material conditions which can often impede this exercise of freedom and thought. Furthermore, not all subjects are rational -- think of the neuro-divergent, the mentally challenged, or even the notoriously moody human being in a haze of love anger. Moreover, the image of the end-goal of freedom and self-determined action has been defined by a small group who has retained power over others throughout history.

But on the other side, to use this justification to dismiss our commitment to making rational, moral decisions in a world with others is to will to live in a world devoid of moral responsibility and accountability. If I do not strive to be more than an often irrational and inconsistent animal, then the moral commitments I have made to myself and others hold no weight. Embracing unbridled unpredictability and experimentation (in Deleuzian terms, following "lines of flight" to "deterritorialize"and break reified social relations and conventions) precludes the possibility of being trusted by others and making promises that I will uphold in the face of seductive temptations.

Accordingly, Manfred Frank (in What is Neostructuralism?) explains -- in a hermeneutical context -- that on the one hand, our meanings and conscious intentions are formed in language and social, cultural and economic orders (the post-structuralist/post-modernist position). On the other hand, Frank at the same time exposes our commitment to "modern humanism," which "links the dignity of human beings with their use of freedom, and which cannot tolerate that one morally applaud the factual threatening of human subjectivity by the totalitarianism of systems of rules and social codes" (7-8). It seems that one of the major forces against ignoring the poor, the sick and the vulnerable, and which supports the active prosecuting of those responsible for the Holocaust, prompts us to take responsibility for climate change, and grounds the love of one other person to whom we maintain some sort of commitment, is a form transcendental humanism that affirms the difference between humans and other animals. This position, whose chief proponent is Immanuel Kant, tends to suggests that the human can transcend the sum total of material conditions via his or her capacity to reason. It is a problematic stance for the reasons stated above (i.e., the myth of the rational subject, its emphasis on individualism), but it nonetheless remains powerful counterforce to post-modernist justifications for behaviour which disregard or demote our moral maxims and commitments to others.

Kant's philosophy allows us to productively discuss how rationalizing behaviour counter to the moral maxims or principles we have set for ourselves is self-deceptive. Kant is unambiguous in his assertion of the human over and above other animals. As our own Joël Madore of Memorial University (and with whom I was lucky enough to take a graduate course) put it, "An animal, with its instinct, is already all it can be. A human being, however, can discipline himself and forge his moral character through the use of his own reason, and thereby transcend mere animality" (10). Animals, not humans, follow instincts; humans, on the other hand, can rationally decide what to do in line with the maxims we set for ourselves.

Part of the richness of Kant's moral theory lies in the acknowledgment of how flawed our exercise of reason and morality are. As Augustine demonstrated, our will often does not conform with what we rationally set out for ourselves. We fail, time and time again. But this does not mean we abandon the project of developing a moral character and acting in line with the laws or maxims we rationally decided we would follow. We can still aim to live morally instead of succumbing to self-involved, hedonistic, immediately indulgent behaviour, which is so often disguised in the language of experimentation, free love, foraging, lines of flight, nomadism, individual freedom etc.. While Kant's moral theory, in my mind, is inadequate for telling us why we should follow through with our moral commitments even if they seem to make us unhappy (personally, I would here make an argument in favour of the consistency of our moral character as presenting certain obligations to the people whom we love and with whom we interact), he does provide us with the tools to admit and explain that humans have a tendency to self-decieve when it comes to breaking the moral commitments they have made to themselves (this claim is discussed extensively by Madore in his book Difficult Freedom and Radical Evil in Kant, and is related to Kant's claim that we in fact have a propensity to evil). On this note, evil for Kant is privileging one's own selfish instincts or inclinations over one's moral maxims (or, in his terminology, duty).

Madore uses the term alienation to discuss self-deception in a Kant. In rationalizing behaviours that are not in line with the moral maxims we set for ourselves, we alienate ourselves from our obligations, which are part of the composition of our character. Furthermore, these obligations are not only to myself but also to the people of the moral communities of which I am a part (my family, my partner, my friends, my coworkers, etc.). In becoming alienated from my conscious, moral self, I override my deep commitments of the past and come up with new, transitory maxims on the spot (to which I can temporarily bind myself). Self-deception remains selfish, for, I would argue, we would not be willing to extend this type of moral ambiguity and openness to dishonest justifications of moral transgressions to the others that we love. In Kant's terms, self-deceptive behaviour can't be universalized. 

To return to our opening theme of the split-self, deceiving oneself, or justifying immoral behaviour to oneself, requires an acknowledgment that one is not a neatly, unified subject. At minimum, affirming this theory implies that we have an unconscious disposition (or "ground" in Schellingian language), which is not always in line with the conscious, acting agent. Madore explains this split in Kant as the distinction between the intelligible and sensible selves, or the thinking and acting subjects. Augustine can be helpfully reintroduced here, as his Confessions offers the tools to demonstrate that the way we condition and change our moral dispositions is not entirely conscious and is more tightly bound to our habits than we would care to realize. But it is not for that that we should give up on changing this disposition, on committing to a rejection of selfish egoism, and renounce the attempt to actively live in a world in which humans can behave morally and responsibly to one another in communities and in love -- a world in which people can advocate for others and disavow self-interest.

There is admittedly a point of tension here between the connection of consciously and rationally establishing and following moral maxims, and the unconscious elements of our disposition in terms of how far we can take the Kantian analysis of self-deception. However, Madore, in a Kantian context, makes a strong claim concerning how, in a state of alienation, we justify immoral behaviour, which brings us back to the dangers of selfishly misusing post-modernist theories. In discussing how self-deception is voluntary alienation from our freedom and from ourselves, in which we impute blame to causes external to ourselves, he writes:

"Refrains of the accused echo its lament: social determinism is at the source of my criminality; a hereditary sickness explains -- exclusively -- my drug addiction. If I have been violent towards my partner, it is because my upbringing conditioned me towards it. Everything, but me!" (88)

Now we have come full circle: in using post-modernist or post-structuralist frameworks, which shatter the subject and appeal exclusively to social-materil forces, to disavow or ignore the moral maxims one previously set for oneself (along with any sort of consistency in one's moral character) and one's commitments to others, the self creeps back in in the most pernicious of ways: in an ironic rejection of itself in view of justifying egoistic behaviour. Paradoxically, in cases of self-deception, selfishness contributes to a formal rejection of the existence of the self, yet the self continues to practically be served by the self-deceptive behaviour. Adding to this irony is the fact that without the ability to present coherent reasons to oneself, anti-rationalist theoretical frameworks would lose their sense and relevance in cases of self-deception.

In short: the post-modernist's conscious abandonment of the self in the midst of justifying immoral actions which hurt others seems to require a lot more rationality and selfhood than he would care to admit.