Skip to main content
Log in

Rationalizing our Way into Moral Progress

  • Published:
Ethical Theory and Moral Practice Aims and scope Submit manuscript


Research suggests that the explicit reasoning we offer to ourselves and to others is often rationalization, that we act instead on instincts, inclinations, stereotypes, emotions, neurobiology, habits, reactions, evolutionary pressures, unexamined principles, or justifications other than the ones we think we’re acting on, then we tell a post hoc story to justify our actions. This is troubling for views of moral progress according to which moral progress proceeds from our engagement with our own and others’ reasons. I consider an account of rationalization, based on Robert Audi’s, to make clear that rationalization, unlike simple lying, can be sincere. Because it can be sincere, and because we also have a desire to be consistent with ourselves, I argue that rationalization sets us up for becoming better people over time, and that a similar case can be made to explain how moral progress among groups of people can proceed via rationalization.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. The material in this section draws heavily on my account of rationalization, which I develop elsewhere (Summers, J.S. (forthcoming). Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc: Some Benefits of Rationalization. Philosophical Exploration). For alternative philosophical accounts of rationalization, see (D’Cruz 2015; Greenspan 2015; Schwitzgebel, E, Ellis, J (manuscript) Rationalization in Moral and Philosophical Thought)

  2. I am assuming, for simplicity, that motives are relevant to the evaluation of an action. Even if one doubts this as a general principle, there are many cases in which the justification on which one acted determines what action is performed, e.g., whether my applause is appreciative or mocking may not differ physically, though they are morally quite distinct.

  3. Failing to think about justifications, even rationalized ones, may bring further negative effects (Summers, J.S. (forthcoming). Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc: Some Benefits of Rationalization. Philosophical Explorations).


  • Audi R (1985) Rationalization and Rationality. Synthese 65(2):159–184

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Campbell R, Kumar V (2012) Moral Reasoning on the Ground. Ethics 122(2):273–312

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cushman F, Greene J (2011) The philosopher in the theater. In: Mikulincer M, Shaver PR (eds) The Social psychology of morality: Exploring the causes of good and evil. APA Press, Washington, DC, pp. 33–50

    Google Scholar 

  • D’Cruz J (2015) Rationalization as performative pretense. Philos Psychol 28(7):980–1000

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Danziger S, Levav J, Avnaim-Pesso L (2011) Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proc Natl Acad Sci 108(17):6889–6892

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Doleac JL, Stein LCD (2013) The Visible Hand: Race and Online Market Outcomes. Econ J 123(572):F469–F492

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gazzaniga MS (2011) Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. Harper Collins, New York

  • Greene JD (2007) The secret joke of Kant’s soul. In: Sinnott-Armstrong W (ed) Volume 3: The Neuroscience of Morality: Emotion, Brain Disorders, and Development. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 35–80

    Google Scholar 

  • Greenspan P (2015) Confabulating the Truth: In Defense of “Defensive” Moral Reasoning. J Ethics 19(2):105-123

  • Haidt J (2001) The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychol Rev 108(4):814–834

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Korsgaard C (1996) The sources of normativity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Libet, B. (1999). Do We have free will? J Conscious Stud 6(8–9):47–57.

  • Nisbett RE, Wilson TD (1977) Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychol Rev 84:231–259

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schnall S, Haidt J, Clore GL, Jordan AH (2008) Disgust as Embodied Moral Judgment. Personal Soc Psychol Bull 34(8):1096–1109

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schroeder T (2010) Irrational Action and Addiction. In: Ross D, Kincaid H, Spurrett D, Collins P (eds) What is Addiction? MIT Press, Cambridge, pp. 391–407

    Google Scholar 

  • Summers JS, Sinnott-Armstrong W (2015) Scrupulous Judgments. In: Timmons M (ed) Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, Volume 5. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 129–150

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Wegner D, Wheatley T (1999) Apparent mental causation: Sources of the experience of will. Am Psychol 54(7):480–492

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jesse S. Summers.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Summers, J.S. Rationalizing our Way into Moral Progress. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 20, 93–104 (2017).

Download citation

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: