Rationalizations for Unethical Behavior in Tech

Everybody Else is Doing It…

As a software engineer, my first instinct is to look at situations logically. If a company purports to value certain ethical principles, then it seems obvious that leaders and employees should avoid actions that violate any of those principles.

However, what I’ve observed over the years is that in the effort to compete and win “at all costs,” many companies — especially when desperate — compromise on ethics. In addition, they usually rationalize this behavior by resorting to fallacies. As a passionate believer in the importance of ethics, I find this unfortunate.

Let’s explore examples of several of the most common of these fallacies. I fear that some will sound very familiar to you. My hope is that you’ll be able to identify them in the future and hold yourself and your coworkers to higher ethical standards.

Scenario: Paying for App Store downloads and reviews

To protect the not-so-innocent, let’s assume that the following incident happened at an imaginary early-stage startup, DesperateBizX.

DesperateBizX is about to release an iPhone app. The marketer has done extensive research and declares in a team meeting that getting positive early reviews is essential to success in the App Store. He therefore recommends to the CEO that the company look into arrangements where you can pay people to download your app and rate it favorably.

The head of software engineering, Jane, isn’t usually encouraged to weigh in on these matters, but she can’t help but point out that this would be misleading to real users and stakeholders, and therefore unethical.

The marketer responds, “Don’t be naïve. This is just what all successful apps do at the beginning. And how dare you call me unethical? I went to [SOME TOP BUSINESS SCHOOL], and I’m a very ethical person.”

Jane assures the marketer that she’s not calling him unethical, but rather the proposed behavior.

“You think this is bad?! You should have seen what we did at OtherDesperateBizY,” replies the marketer.

Then the designer chimes in, “Yeah, Jane, if you think this is wrong then I guess you can’t use Popular App A or Popular App B because they went into the streets and encouraged people to download their app.”

Jane’s not ready to concede: “But that’s not the same thing as paying people to download and write positive reviews.”

The designer, now just wanting to make peace, says, “Come on, Jane, it’s not that big of a deal. Also, just think about how much customers will benefit from our app. If this is what it takes to get them to use it, it’s worth it since we’re ultimately helping them.”

Not enjoying the heated discussion, the CEO ends the meeting. He pulls Jane aside afterward and says, “Jane, your behavior in that meeting was inappropriate. It’s not nice to use the word ‘unethical.’ Also you can relax; we’ll only pay for positive reviews if we really need to.”

Jane smacks her head, goes home, and never comes back.

The End.

Now, let’s unpack each of the fallacies used in this example. There are quite a few for such a short story. All of these — and many more! — are covered in Jack Marshall’s list, which is a great resource to consult.

1. Everybody does it

This is one of the most common rationalizations and one of the easiest ones to spot. In the above example, it’s present in the marketer’s claim, “This is just what all successful apps do at the beginning.”

The error in this argument is the misconception that if a large number of people partake in some activity, it must be ethical. Just look at atrocities committed throughout history to see that this is not the case.

Aside: I run into this argument a lot when I discuss my veganism with non-vegans. It’s as insufficient in that context as it is in business.

2. It’s for a good cause

This rationalization is present in the designer’s emphasis on how much the customers will ultimately benefit from the app.

However, the fact that it’s motivated by a “good cause” does not justify unethical behavior.

3. I’m a good person

Jack Marshall explains the thinking here:

I am a good and ethical person. I have decided to do this; therefore this must be an ethical thing to do, since I would never do anything unethical.

This is present in the marketer’s defense of his background. The mistake here is the belief that someone who engages in mostly ethical behavior is incapable of committing or suggesting unethical behavior.

4. It’s not hurting anyone

This is one of the designer’s justifications: “it’s not that big of a deal.” Jack Marshall calls this “The Trivial Trap.”

The implication is that since it’s minor, it can’t be unethical. However, a “small” ethical violation is still an ethical violation.

5. It could be worse

This is the defense used when the marketer mentions OtherDesperateBizY: “You think this is bad? You should have seen what we did at OtherDesperateBizY.”

However, the fact that some other party has engaged in worse behavior doesn’t make your behavior ethical.

6. Where does it end?

Jack Marshall calls this “The Reverse Slippery Slope.” It’s the technique the designer uses when he says that Jane won’t be able to use other apps. This is an attempt to make the opposition to unethical behavior seem ridiculous by comparing it to opposition of something else that’s clearly acceptable.

In this case, the behavior of other app teams is just asking people in the street to download the app, but not paying for downloads or positive reviews. It’s different and doesn’t seem unethical. The designer makes the comparison anyway with the hope that it will weaken the original argument. It doesn’t.

7. Give us a break

Jack Marshall calls this “The Miscreant’s Mulligan,” and you can find it in the example above when the CEO points out that Jane’s comments weren’t “nice.”

The strategy here is to make the person pointing out the unethical behavior feel guilty. It’s clear that this does not in fact make the behavior ethical.

8. We’re desperate

This is what Jack Marshall calls “The Desperation Dodge.” When the CEO says, “…we’ll only pay for positive reviews if we really need to,” he implies that desperation would justify the otherwise unethical behavior.

I hope it’s obvious that desperation does not give you a free pass to engage in unethical behavior.

What can you do?

There are definitely ethical gray areas that you will encounter in your career. It may not always be easy to make the call. My advice — my plea — is that you think for yourself, discuss these issues openly and respectfully, and that you avoid the illogical justifications above. Hopefully your situation is more salvageable than Jane’s!

At Compassionate Coding, we help companies facilitate difficult conversations like those around ethics. Feel free to reach out about our workshops!

About the Author

April Wensel is a veteran software engineer and technical leader who believes that success built on unethical behavior is just not worth it! She’s the founder of Compassionate Coding, which offers a new approach to software development focused on the humans involved in the process.