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21 Ethical Fallacies: Cognitive Strategies To Justify Unethical Behavior

Kenneth S. Pope, Ph.D., ABPP

Melba Vasquez, Ph.D., ABPP


The following excerpt is adapted from the chapter "Ethics & Critical Thinking" in the book Ethics in Psychotherapy and Counseling: A Practical Guide, Fourth Edition, by Kenneth S. Pope, Ph.D., ABPP, and Melba J. T Vasquez, Ph.D., ABPP (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2011), and is used with permission of the holder of the copyright.

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All of us face the human temptation to duck important ethical responsibilities.

Temptation grows stronger when we're tired, afraid, under pressure, or in conflict.

Common cognitive strategies can fool us by making what we know or suspect is unethical seem perfectly ethical.

The most common ethical fallacies rely on twisted judgment, appealing fallacies, and juggled language. They can spin the most questionable behaviors into ethical ideals.

To restate a major theme of this book: We believe that the overwhelming majority of psychologists are conscientious, caring individuals, committed to ethical behavior.

We also believe that none of us is infallible and that perhaps all of us, at one time or another, have been vulnerable to at least a few of these ethical justifications and might be able extend the list.

Many of the justifications below appeared in previous editions of this book, and some were added when the list appeared in What Therapists Don't Talk About and Why: Understanding Taboos That Hurt Us and Our Clients by Ken Pope, Janet Sonne, & Beverly Greene (American Psychological Association, 2006).

If any of the 21 fallacies seems hard to swallow, it may be one that we personally have not yet had to resort to. Sometime down the road at a moment of terrible need, temptation, exhaustion, carelessness, narcissism, anger, lack of perspective, or confusion, an ethical fallacy that once struck us as ridiculous may suddenly emerge as wise, profound, and practical.

What sorts of cognitive maneuvers can transform unethical behavior into the ethical ideal? Here are a few. We encourage readers to expand the list.

1) It's not unethical as long as a managed care administrator or insurance case reviewer required or suggested it.

2) It's not unethical if the professional association you belong to allows it.

3) It's not unethical if an ethics code never mentions the concept, term, or act.

4) It's not unethical as long as no law was broken.

5) It's not unethical if we can use the passive voice and look ahead. If someone discovers that our c.v. is full of degrees we never earned, positions we never held, and awards we never received, all we need do is nondefensively acknowledge that mistakes were made and it's time to move on.

6) It's not unethical as long as we can name others who do the same thing.

7) It's not unethical as long as we didn't mean to hurt anyone.

8) It's not unethical even if our acts have caused harm as long as the person we harmed had it coming, provoked us, deserved it, was really asking for it, or practically forced us to do it -- or, failing that, has not behaved perfectly, is in some way unlikable, or is acting unreasonably.

9) It's not unethical as long as there is no body of universally accepted, methodologically perfect (i.e., without any flaws, weaknesses, or limitations) studies showing — without any doubt whatsoever — that exactly what we did was the necessary and sufficient proximate cause of harm to the client and that the client would otherwise be free of all physical and psychological problems, difficulties, or challenges. This view was succinctly stated by a member of the Texas pesticide regulatory board charged with protecting Texas citizens against undue risks from pesticides. In discussing Chlordane, a chemical used to kill termites, one member said, "Sure, it's going to kill a lot of people, but they may be dying of something else anyway" ("Perspectives," Newsweek, April 23, 1990, p. 17).

10) It's not unethical if we could not (or did not) anticipate the unintended consequences of our acts.

11) It's not unethical if we acknowledge the importance of judgment, consistency, and context. For example, it may seem as if a therapist who has submitted hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bogus insurance claims for patients he never saw might have behaved "unethically." However, as attorneys and others representing such professionals often point out: It was simply an error in judgment, completely inconsistent with the high ethics manifest in every other part of the persons' life, and insignificant in the context of the unbelievable good that this person does.

12) It's not unethical if we can say any of the following about it (feel free to extend the list):

"What else could I do?"

"Anyone else would've done the same thing."

"It came from the heart."

"I listened to my soul."

"I went with my gut."

"It was the smart thing to do."

"It was just common sense."

"I just knew that's what the client needed."

"Look, I was just stuck between a rock and a hard place."

"I'd do the same thing again if I had it to do over."

"It worked before."

"I'm only human, you know!"

"What's the big deal?

13) It's not unethical if we have written an article, chapter, or book about it.

14) It's not unethical as long as we were under a lot of stress. No fair-minded person would hold us accountable when it is clear that it was the stress we were under—along with all sorts of other powerful factors—that must be held responsible.

15) It's not unethical as long as no one ever complained about it.

16) It's not unethical as long as we know that the people involved in enforcing standards (e.g., licensing boards or administrative law judges) are dishonest, stupid, destructive, and extremist; are unlike us in some significant way; or are conspiring against us.

17) It's not unethical as long as it results in a higher income or more prestige (i.e., is necessary).

18) It's not unethical if we're victims. Claiming tragic victim status is easy: we can always use one of 2 traditional scapegoats: (a) our "anything-goes" society that lacks clear standards and leaves us ethically adrift or, conversely, (b) our coercive, intolerant society that tyrannizes us with "political correctness," dumbs us down, and controls us like children. Imagine, e.g., we are arrested for speeding while drunk, and the person whose car we hit presses vengeful charges against us.. We show ourselves as the real victim by pointing out that some politically-correct, self-serving tyrants have hijacked the legal system and unfairly demonized drunk driving. These powerful people of bad character and evil motivation refuse to acknowledge that most speeding while drunk is not only harmless — actuarial studies show that only a small percentage of the instances of drunk speeding actually result in harm to people or property — but also sometimes unavoidable, profoundly ethical, and a social good, getting drivers to their destinations faster and in better spirits. We stress that any studies seeming to show drunk speeding is harmful are not just unscientific (e.g., none randomly assigns drivers to drunk speeding and non-drunk speeding conditions) but hopelessly biased (e.g., focusing on measures of harm but failing to include measures sensitive to the numerous benefits of drunk speeding).

19) It's not unethical as long as it would be almost impossible to do things another way.

20) It's not unethical as long as there are books, articles, or papers claiming that it is the right thing to do.

21) It's not unethical as long as we can find a consultant who says its OK. Remaining mindfully aware of the ways that each of us as individuals may be vulnerable — particularly at times of stress or fatigue, of great temptation or temporary weakness — to these cognitive strategies may be an important aspect of our ability to respond ethically to difficult, complex, constantly evolving situations, particularly at moments when we are not at our best.

Reminding ourselves of our own unique patterns of vulnerability—particularly when we are tired, stressed, or distressed—to these justifications may help us to keep searching for the most ethical response to the complex, constantly changing challenges of our work.

In addition to this article on ethical fallacies, this section of the web site also provides articles on:

Logical Fallacies in Psychology: 22 Types

7 Fallacies & Pitfalls in Psychological Assessment.

Ethics, Critical Thinking, & Language: Using Words To Deceive


Bobby AAA
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