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Issue of Ethics: Summer 2007

We like to believe that we should be judged by our best intentions, good motives and noble aspirations but in reality we are all too often judged by our actions and by the consequences of our actions.


September 22, 2009
By cidalia paiva PHD

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We like to believe that we should be judged by our best intentions, good motives and noble aspirations but in reality we are all too often judged by our actions and by the consequences of our actions.

Michael, a registered massage therapist, intends to build a prosperous massage therapy clinic and wants to do so as quickly as possible. He is offered the opportunity to receive $20,000 of free promotion if he agrees to advertise his services in conjunction with a promotional event being hosted by a lingerie retailer.

Michael eagerly accepts the opportunity but, to his dismay, discovers that instead of helping to promote his services, his association with the lingerie company actually accomplishes the opposite. In fact, some of Michael’s clients express discomfort at being treated by a massage therapist who is associated with a lingerie company. Clearly, Michael did not foresee this outcome and he certainly did not intend it.

For Michael, the connection with the lingerie retailer was simply a business opportunity he believed was in his best interest to pursue. After all, Michael had reasoned, how could he afford to pass up the advertising dollars he needs to get ahead?

What Michael did and what many of us sometimes do is we make bad ethical decisions for what we rationalize are good reasons. Although we know and Michael would have known, had he thoughtfully worked through his decision, his association and the association of registered massage therapy with the lingerie industry is not appropriate or ethically speaking ‘right’ or ‘good.’

However, we perhaps, like Michael, rationalize that despite the consequences, our intentions were good and what really counts in the end are our intentions.

We participate in these kinds of rationalizations time and time again because we believe that we are well-intentioned and because we never look at our rationalizations for what they sometimes are; excuses that give us permission to do what we want to do, even though deep down we know it is not right or good.

In this article we will explore some of these common rationalizations and address the question; why do we let them get in the way of our making ethical decisions?

When we are driven by necessity, instead of ethics, we often end up making bad choices.
Rationalization 1: Perhaps one of the most common rationalizations typically used to make bad ethical decisions is the claim that we ‘must do’ a certain thing because we ‘need to do it’ and furthermore, because we ‘need to do it’ it ‘must be okay.’

Michael believed that he needed the advertising money the lingerie company was offering him to increase his client base and in turn increase the prosperity of his clinic.

Michael likely had some misgivings about the fact that the advertising money would be coming from a lingerie retailer and was all too aware of massage therapy’s struggle to gain and retain professional credibility by separating itself from the sex trade industry which the lingerie industry is associated with. However, he convinced himself that he needed the money and that because he needed the money he should go ahead. After all, the money was going to be used for a good cause so, ‘the end justifies the means’.

All too frequently, though, the end does not justify the means. Why then do we choose to believe that it does? Because we often overstate the cost of doing the right thing and we underestimate the cost of failing to do so. The cost of doing the right thing for Michael would have been the loss of advertising dollars which he thought he could not secure in a different way and was unwilling to put in the effort to try to do so.

Accepting the lingerie company’s money was the easy and convenient solution. But Michael also underestimated the cost of failing to do the right thing. Things like; the loss of clients, the damage to his professional reputation and to that of the profession. When we are driven by necessity, instead of ethics, we often end up making bad choices.

Rationalization 2: Another rationalization that we typically utilize to defend bad ethical decisions is the perennial and ageless excuse if it’s ‘not illegal’ to do this or that, then it ‘must be okay.’ We forget that for health care professionals, invested in protecting the public interest, law represents only a minimum of behaviour and does not include the full range of ethical obligations we owe to our clients and society.

Yes, it wasn’t illegal for Michael, as a massage therapist, to allow his clinic to be associated with a lingerie retailer. However, our Code of Ethics clearly compels us to use good judgment and refrain from such advertising and any other advertising or promotion which reflects badly on the profession. We all need to remember that as health care professionals we are accountable to much more than the law, we are accountable to a higher ethical plane, which we call professional ethics.

Rationalization 3: Sometimes we make bad ethical decisions because we tell ourselves that making these decisions is ‘just part of our jobs.’

It’s not who we really are and what we really believe in and we may even feel quite uncomfortable with what we are doing. But we rationalize that as massage therapists we are also business people.

Michael may very well have felt uncomfortable with his association with the lingerie retailer and, if he didn’t believe he needed the money, he might have said no. But he rationalized that there are really two different Michaels – Michael, the therapist and Michael, the businessman. Michael, the therapist was uncomfortable but Michael, the businessman washed over this discomfort to get the money he needed. However the truth is, that there is really only one Michael; a person of integrity who is a professional health care provider.

Michael forgot – as we all sometimes do – that we are all, first and foremost, health care professionals and our over-riding duty is to do the right thing for our clients and for our profession.

Rationalization 4:
Other times we feel at liberty to make bad ethical decisions because we rationalize that ‘no one will ever know’ or that ‘no one will
be hurt’ by our actions so they can’t really be very wrong or bad. The obvious difficulty here, apart from the fact that we are treating ethical obligations as though they are not really important, is that it is often very hard to predict how our actions are going to affect others. Let’s say for example that the angry husband of one of the lingerie models shows up in the middle of a massage treatment insisting that Michael was having an affair with his wife and  physically attacks Michael and another therapist. Unlikely, perhaps, but nevertheless possible.

cidalia-head-shot 
cidalia paiva, PHD


 

Rationalization 5: Finally, we have the classic rationalization many of us used when we were children and perhaps still do as adults when we think we can get away with it because ‘everybody’s doing it’ or ‘anybody would do the same’ given a similar situation. We might further rationalize, why should we be held by a higher ethical standard than everybody else or why does our high ethical standards have to be so limiting for us? Michael may very well have believed that any of his colleagues, given the opportunity, would have jumped at this chance. But making poor decisions ‘just because everyone else would’ does not make these decisions right or good at least certainly not for massage therapists as regulated health care professionals.


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