Imagine two young men who are identical in terms of attitudes, abilities, and psychological health. They are reasonably honest and have the same middling attitude toward, say, cheating: They think it is not a good thing to do, but there are worse crimes in the world. Now they are both in the midst of taking an exam that will determine whether they will get into graduate school. They each draw a blank on a crucial essay question. Failure looms . . . at which point each one gets an easy opportunity to cheat, by reading another student’s answers. The two young men struggle with the temptation. After a long moment of anguish, one yields and the other resists. Their decisions are a hair’s breadth apart; it could easily have gone the other way for each of them. Each gains something important, but at a cost: One gives up integrity for a good grade, the other gives up a good grade to preserve his integrity.
Now the question is: How do they feel about cheating a week later? Each student has had ample time to justify the course of action he took. The one who is yielded to temptation will decide that cheating is not so great a crime. He will say to himself: Hey, everyone cheats, it’s no big deal. And I really needed to do this for my future career.” But the one who resisted the temptation will decided that cheating is far more immoral than he originally thought: In fact, people who cheat are disgraceful. In fact, people who cheat should be permanently expelled from school. We have to make an example of them.”
By the time the students are through with their increasingly intense level of self-justication, two things have happened: One, they are now very far from one another; and two, they have internalized their beliefs and are convinced that they have always felt that way. It is as if they had started o at the top of a pyramid, a millimeter apart; but by the time they have finished justifying their individual actions, they have slid to the bottom and now stand at opposite corners of its base. The one who didn’t cheat considers the other to be totally immoral, and the one who cheated thinks the other is hopelessly puritanical. This process illustrates how people who have been sorely tempted, battled temptation, and almost given in to it but resisted at the eleventh hour come to dislike, even despise, those who did not succeed in the same effort. The metaphor of the pyramid applies to most important decisions involving moral choices or life options. When the person at the top of the pyramid is uncertain, when there are benefits and costs of both choices, then he or she will feel a particular urgency to justify the choice made. But by the time the person is at the bottom of the pyramid, ambivalence will have morphed into certainty, and he or she will be miles away from anyone who took a different route.
Often, standing at the top of the pyramid, we are faced not with a black-and-white, go/ no-go decision, but with a gray choice whose consequences are shrouded. The first steps along the path are morally ambiguous, and the right decision is not always clear. We make an early, apparently inconsequential decision, and then we justify it to reduce the ambiguity of the choice. This starts a process of entrapment|action, justification, further action that increases our intensity and commitment, and may end up taking us far from our original intentions or principles.
— Mistakes Were Made . . . (but not by me)