A hypothetical from Darrell Rowbottom, in conversation: Suppose you are a perfect moral rationalizer. Suppose you know that for any action you want to do, you are clever enough a moral theorist that you could find some plausible-seeming post-hoc justification for it. Would you actually need to come up with the justification? Maybe it's enough just to know in advance that you could come up with one, and not actually do the work?
Think of the savings of time and cognitive effort! Also, since self-serving rationalizations might tend to lead one away from the moral truth, you might be epistemically better off too. With or without an actual filled-in rationalization, you'll be able to feel fine about doing what you want.
Call this Empty Box Rationalization. Why bother to fill the box with an actual rationalization? Simply postulate that a plausible-seeming justification could be found!
Of course, few of us are clever enough moral theorists to take advantage of Empty Box Rationalization without limitation. As skilled as we may happen to be at justifying our actions to ourselves, there will be some actions beyond the pale, which we are incapable of plausibly rationalizing.
However, we might be able to take advantage of Limited Empty Box Rationalization. Limited Empty Box Rationalization differs from full Empty Box Rationalization by confining itself to a range of rationalizable actions. For any action within a certain range, I know that I am clever enough a rationalizer to devise, if I want, some plausible-seeming justification which I would accept upon reflection; and thus I can postulate that such a justification is out there to be found.
Here's an example. Suppose I'm always fifteen minutes late. Every time I show up late, I always manage to find a satisfactory excuse. Sometimes it's traffic. Sometimes it's that I really needed to finish some important task first. Sometimes it's that I got lost. Sometimes it's that I was detained by someone else. I always find some way to let myself off the hook, so that I never feel guilty. Now imagine that today I find myself arriving fifteen minutes late for a meeting with a graduate student. I could, hypothetically, go through the effort of trying to concoct an excuse. But maybe instead of wasting that time, I can just postulate the existence of some plausible excuse or other, so that we can get straight into the meeting without further delay.
(Sure, maybe an actual filled-in excuse from me would serve some kind of function for the other person. I set that aside for these reflections.)
People will differ in their degree of cleverness and thus differ in their working ranges of Limited Empty Box Rationalization. Some will be clever enough reliably to justify 15 minutes of tardiness; others clever enough reliably to justify 30 minutes. Some will be clever enough to justify reneging on wider ranges of commitments, to justify wider ranges of gray-area misconduct, perhaps even to justify, to their own satisfaction, what the rest of us would judge to be plainly morally odious. For one especially skillful example, consider Heidegger on Nazism.
Of course, this isn't fair. If only we were more clever we too could rationalize such actions! Perhaps for any action that I've done or that I'd really like to do, a clever enough moral theorist could, with enough work, come up with some plausible-seeming justification of it that would satisfy me. But then -- maybe that's good enough! If I know that a cleverer version of myself would believe A, then maybe that knowledge itself suffices to justify A, since who am I to disagree with a cleverer version of myself, who could of course get the better of me in argument?
Advanced Empty Box Rationalization begins with that thought. Advanced Empty Box Rationalization widens the range of Limited Empty Box Rationalization beyond the boundaries of one's own actual rationalizing capacities. For some range of actions wider than one's usual range of rationalizable actions, one justifiably accepts that either one could come up with a plausible-seeming justification that one would accept upon reflection, given that one is motivated to do so, or a cleverer version of oneself could devise such a justification. Perhaps as a limiting case one could accept that an infinitely clever version of oneself could hypothetically justify anything in this manner.
Application of these thoughts to current and past scandals in the profession is left as an exercise for the reader.