Tavris and Aronson on Justification

We’ve posted at length on Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), […]

Will McDavid / 10.29.14

We’ve posted at length on Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), a book which brilliantly details the far-reaching consequences of self-justification and cuts toward the heart of the human condition.

Perpetrators are motivated to reduce their moral culpability; victims are motivated to maximize their moral blamelessness. Depending on which side of the wall we are on, we systematically distort our memories and account of the event to produce the maximum consonance between what happened and how we see ourselves… The relatively small number of people who cannot or will not reduce dissonance this way pay a large psychological price in guilt, anguish, anxiety, nightmares, and sleepless nights. The pain of living with horrors they have committed, but cannot morally accept, would be searing, which is why most people will reach for any justification available to assuage the dissonance.

The unendurability of such a price generally leads people to rationalize one way or another to conform events to a pre-existing picture we have of ourselves. Such dissonance can be eased by delusion, “moral acceptance” – basically, anything goes – but the Christian message enters into that dissonance, formulates it. “I do not do what I want to do, but I do the very thing I hate”; “simul iustus et peccator, saint and sinner at once”. Christians are so often described as self-righteous not least because our religion’s self-helpy, aspirational form may encourage us to distort things still-more to maximize consonance between “what happened” and our newly-inflated picture of ourselves, between the ideal of linear sanctification and the empirical evidence of recidivism. The only message which can speak effectively to the all-pervasive problem of justification is the assurance that what happened has been forgiven and is now of no consequence, and how we see ourselves was delusory to begin with.