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Definitions

justify

Source: Wiktionary

To provide an acceptable explanation for.

rationalize

Source: Wiktionary

To justify an immoral act, or illogical behaviour.


Questions

Given the selected definitions of these verbs (I believe this is acceptable as Wiktionary, like AHD: rationalize 2a, lists them first among relevant senses/sub-senses), what is an example situation in which using one verb is more appropriate than using the other?

I find myself needing a verb like these two, then finding it overly difficult to determine which one is best.

Does "rationalize" have a more dramatic connotation?

  • If, per chance, you wanted to explain "how you went wrong" ( "I lost control of the car because I was texting while driving. I know it is wrong and it is no excuse, but I made the terrible choice because I was expecting contact from the hospital about my mothers condition. I know I should have pulled over and the mistake I made was tragic" ) Neither justifies or rationalizes the behavior while describing the worry as an excuse in some peoples ears but they'd make no claim that what they did was right or necessary. "confess" or "describe the events and circumstances" – Tom22 Apr 4 '18 at 3:13
  • You comment: 'I find myself needing a verb like these two, then finding it overly difficult to determine which one is best.' might mean that neither is correct . – Tom22 Apr 4 '18 at 3:16
  • I don't think this is an answer, but one other distinction could be that we tend to use 'justify' for actions and 'rationalize' more often for feelings, impulses, and desires, albeit not exclusively. This is perhaps also related to the fact that someone who rationalizes believes what he is saying, while someone who justifies not necessarily so. – Chuckk Hubbard Apr 6 '18 at 5:47
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When you rationalize your (bad or irrational) behavior, you basically invent an explanation for it to make it look not as bad.

When you justify your behavior, you give a valid reason why you did what you did.

For example, a shopper can rationalize needlessly purchasing an expensive car by saying it's an 'investment'.

By contrast, if a government purchases an expensive vehicle for an ambassador, it's justified. After all, an ambassador represents a country and can't move around in a junker.

Simply put, it's the difference between finding a self-satisfying excuse and giving a good reason.

  • 4
    Indeed, if you are standing before a judge in a court of law, you want to justify your action, not rationalize it! – NES Nov 7 '15 at 23:30
  • It's not such a necessary distinction, for example you can rationalise your actions to others and justify your actions to yourself. – Zebrafish Apr 2 '18 at 6:16
  • I think this is a good definition of how the words are understood, and yes, for whatever reason, people react quite negatively to people who try to explain why they did something they should not have done. The assumption seems to be "finding a justification" ... however "post-mortem" analysis is a hugely succesful way of preventing making the same mistakes again and finding ways to reduce human error. Sometimes suggestions that would reduce error are lashed out as "blaming the victim" too .. in a small subset of rationalizations. – Tom22 Apr 3 '18 at 0:28
  • You can still use "justify" when the attempt is futile. "They only did that to justify taking away our overtime." – Chuckk Hubbard Apr 6 '18 at 5:44
3

Justify comes into English via old French which got it from Latin. This word is a classic example of the French legal influence on English. When you justify something you make it in accordance with the law, ethics, or morals. Rationalize came into use in 1795. It comes from rational. When you rationalize something you make it in accordance with reason and logic.

As we have seen, in the world, rational and justifiable are two different things: "Hitler was able to rationalize his actions to the German people, but could not justify them to the world."

There is some overlap between the two words, as many things which are rational are part of our legal systems. Many things which are not rational are part of our legal systems. Rational and irrational are of course points of view. Many people say the belief in U.F.Os. is irrational. Currently, though you can see that legal matters are being challenged by same-sex marriage. At one time, it was rational that men marry women. Now, we do not see what people call the logic behind that, and it is becoming more difficult to justify discrimination. People who are religious find justification in their faith for their actions, and can rationalize their actions by saying that their god told them that their actions are correct.

You can see this distinction in the phrases legal justification or justifiable homicide. Notice that in order to to justify homicide, it needs to be in accordance with the logic of the law. If the logic of the law were that Monday Murders are O.K., a lawyer could say that his client, who had killed someone on Monday, was innocent because it was a justifiable homicide. We don't live in that world.

Because there is some overlap in meaning and people's understandings of the word, I would need some context in order to give any suggestions as to which word is better. I do not want you to think that justify is only used for legal matters, because people justify their actions all the time by appealing to logic (a "legal" body most can agree on) or their own set of moral codes.This overlap in meaning is what makes the world such an interesting place, and one reason why there are so many attorneys.

You may find the following quotations to be helpful:

"Those who lack the courage will always find a philosophy to justify it."—Albert Camus.

"You can no more bridle passions with logic than you can justify them in the law courts. Passions are facts and not dogmas."—Alexander Herzen

I do not have a source, however I do remember reading from older usage books that considered rationalize to be so-called improper English which should be avoided. However, this Google Ngram shows that occurrences of rationalize date back to 1835. I mention this because in looking for quotes for rationalize, I noticed that speakers from earlier generations used rational in places where a modern speaker might use rationalize. Case in point:

"I have never been able to conceive of how any rational being could promote happiness to himself from the exercise of power over others."—Thomas Jefferson.

There is no way I would rewrite Jefferson, but I will say that had the word rationalize been in common usage, he might have chosen it to express this idea. At least, I think of the word rationalizing when I see this quote. Perhaps others see it differently. I can see others using justify.

As a final thought, Justify can also be used in terms of defending your actions in front of an authority. This authority doesn't have to be a ruling body—it can be your boss, meter maid, English teacher, or your spouse.

  • +1 for linking justify with justice and rationalise with reason. – Lawrence Nov 8 '15 at 5:57
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    @Lawrence - Except that it's an etymological fallacy. To justify is to offer (presumably) valid evidence. To rationalize is to offer counterfeit evidence. – Hot Licks Nov 8 '15 at 7:02
  • @HotLicks In the OP's definitions, rationalise is contradictory. If an action (in context) is immoral, there is no acceptable explanation for it - otherwise the action is moral. More generally, however, justification is always with respect to some legal / moral / etc code, hence the link with justice. With rationalise, the thinking goes along the lines of because xyz, therefore [action is ok]. The evidence may be real or counterfeit, but we only use rationalise when a conclusion is reached after going through some (often erroneous) system of thought, hence the link to reason. – Lawrence Nov 8 '15 at 7:31
  • @HotLicks Note that linking rationalise with reason isn't saying that a rationalised action is reasonable in the ordinary sense of the word. – Lawrence Nov 8 '15 at 7:33
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    @michael_timofeev - Well, you can always rationalize a fractional number (except in cases where you can't, of course). And MW provides the definition "to apply the principles of scientific management to (as an industry or its operations) for a desired result (as increased efficiency)", though of course that concept is often used to rationalize layoffs, so that the CEO can get a bigger bonus. – Hot Licks Nov 8 '15 at 8:15
3

These definitions of rationalize from Merriam-Webster are relevant:

Transitive verb:

1b : to attribute (one's actions) to rational and creditable motives without analysis of true and especially unconscious motives ; broadly : to create an excuse or more attractive explanation for

Intransitive verb:

: to provide plausible but untrue reasons for conduct

from MacMillian:

1 to try to find a reasonable explanation for behavior that does not seem reasonable or appropriate

from Cambridge English Dictionary:

to ​try to ​find ​reasons to ​explain ​your ​behaviour, ​decisions, etc.

Of these, only the Cambridge lacks the clear implication that the act or behavior being rationalized is (at least apparently) inappropriate (though it hints at the implication by using "try").

Justify, on the other hand carries no such implication. For instance, the company bookkeeper might ask me to justify some expenses on my expense account, by providing receipts, explaining the reason for travel, etc. There is no implication in such a request that the expenses are not valid.

  • When you are asked to justify your expenses, the asker is very "suspicious" about your expenses. Ohterwise, there is no reason to ask you to justify it. He might be suspecting that you misused the company money and you might have to come up with excuses or lies to cover your behavior. For example, you took the first class instead of business because there was no seat available. Then, it might be an excuse or the truth. It depends. – user140086 Nov 8 '15 at 8:12
  • @Rathony - Quite untrue. In a standard business setup the bookkeeper would do a more thorough accounting for, say, one expense account in ten, at random. "Suspicion" is not (necessarily) a factor. – Hot Licks Nov 8 '15 at 8:18
  • I have never been asked to justify my expenses in my career as there was nothing to justify at all. I just submitted proper receits for big items such as hotel, flight, or whatever and that's it. They don't usually ask you to justify small expenses such as taxi fare or phone bills. – user140086 Nov 8 '15 at 8:22
  • @HotLicks I agree with your answer. In terms of rationalize, I think we are saying the same thing but just from different points of view. I feel that justify for the receipts is acceptable. Perhaps, justify also has a sense of defending against authority, the authority being a legal court. I can see that in days of yore. – michael_timofeev Nov 8 '15 at 8:26
  • In the accounting example, even with the asker's suspicion, if the spender does indeed justify the expenses, all is well on that score. If the spender is said to resort to rationalising the expense, there is an implication that justification of the expenses wasn't possible, and problems might be brewing. – Lawrence Nov 8 '15 at 8:42
1

I don't want to commit the etymological fallacy, but it may help to see the words' origins.

justify
from "just" + facere "to make. Meaning "declare to be innocent or blameless". Of circumstances, "to afford justification,"

rationalise
Latin rationalis "of or belonging to reason, reasonable,"
etymonline.com

According to the etymologies one means to make right, the other means to give reason. But modern usage is much more subtle than that.

"Justify" in general means to provide good reason for something and defend it. It doesn't have to be for you, or someone else, but can also be used to explain a curfew, a decision to cut government education spending, or the taxing of alcohol.

You can justify your decisions, thoughts and actions. You can justify these things also for other people. You can also justify "things", such as permanent daylight savings time.

Rationalise means also to give a good reason. Giving a good reason is closely tied to defending it, which is why they are interchangable in many cases, and the reason why their nuances are subtle.

Rationalise more often means to give a good reason to your own conscience. However remember that these are not exclusive. Confer the following:

"I rationalised the purchase of my new car by recognising my own hard work."
"I justified the purchase of my new car by recognising my own hard work."

Neither of these are wrong, whether you want to defend the purchase in your own psyche or to somebody else. However "justify" has an extra semantic tinge that you are giving good reason and defending something to somebody else.

Bunch of sentences to illustrate:

"The commander justified withholding a counterattack by appeal to excessive civilian deaths."
"The commander rationalised withholding a counterattack by appeal to excessive civilian deaths."

As said before, rationalise more often means to give good reasons to oneself, as opposed to "justify", in which he may have to defend his actions before his troops, or his superiors. But notice, the rule isn't black and white, as shown by the following sentences:

"The commander justified his actions to himself."
"The commander rationalised his actions to himself."

Both acceptable. Conversely...

"The defendant had to justify his running from the police before the jury."
"The defendant had to rationalise his running from the police before the jury."

Again, obviously neither of the above are wrong, but the more appropriate is "justify" because he's defending his actions in front of others. But neither are wrong, as "rationalise" can mean to give good reasons, reasons which he's giving to the jury.

So, basically, if you want an easy distinction, "justify" is giving good reason and defence for one's actions to others, while "rationalise" is to give good reason and defence to one's own conscience."

However the reality isn't quite as clear-cut as that, as I've shown in the sentences where both can be acceptable.

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+50

Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms (1942) offers a detailed and thoughtful discussion of the two words as they were then used. The first interesting thing about the dictionary's handling of the two words is that it divides its coverage of justify into three discrete parts.

One part consists of an attempt to distinguish between justify and warrant:

Justify, warrant are here compared as meaning to afford as evidence, a circumstance, a situation, a state of affairs, or the like, good grounds for doing, saying, using, or believing something. Justify implies the provision of grounds so good that they satisfy one's reason and, often, one's conscience, especially if there is a conflict between what seems necessary and what is morally right; as "He says that more men are killed by overwork than the importance of this world justifies" (Kipling); "no consideration on earth justifies a parent in telling lies to his child" (B. Russell). "I remember a very tender-hearted judge being of opinion that closing a hatch to stop a fire and the destruction of a cargo was justified even if it was known that doing so would stifle a man below" (Justice Holmes). ...

A second part considers the meaning of justify in contradistinction to maintain, assert, defend, and vindicate:

Maintain, assert, defend, vindicate, justify come into comparison when they mean to uphold as true, right, just, valid, or worthy of notice or acceptance in the face of opposition or indifference. ... Justify (as here compared) implies that the thing concerned can no longer be opposed or ignored, because it has conclusively been shown to be true, valid, proper, or the like, by irrefutable arguments, or on inescapable grounds, such as its consequence, its successful operation, or the like. "If the Germans are to justify the high claims they make for Lessing as a critic, they must rest them on other grounds than his intellectual originality" (Babbitt). "Fate persists in justifying the harsh generalizations of Puritan morals" (Bennett). "It isn't by the materials you use that your claim to originality will stand justified or condemned; it is solely by the thing you do with them" (Lowes).

And a third part (which most closely concerns the poster's question) addresses justify as a synonym of explain, account for, and rationalize:

Explain, account for, justify, rationalize are synonyms when they mean to give or tell the cause, reason, nature, or significance of something obscure or questionable. ... One justifies oneself or another when one explains certain acts or behavior in an attempt to free oneself or another from blame. It may or may not imply consciousness of guilt or a definite accusation. "Powell...began to justify himself. 'I couldn't stop him,' he whispered shakily. 'He was too quick for me.'" (Conrad). "So far is he from feeling the pangs of conscience that he constantly justifies his act" (G. L. Dickinson). "In her heart she did not at all justify or excuse Cyril" (Bennett). One rationalizes that which is or seems to be contrary to reason when one attempts an explanation that is in accord with scientific principles or with reality as known to the senses; as, to rationalize the Greek myths; to rationalize the Genesis story of creation. In very modern use, rationalize often comes very close to justify without, however, so strong an implication of blame and with the added implication of self-deception and, at times, of hypocrisy "In other countries the plutocracy has often produced men of reflective and analytic habit, eager to rationalize its instincts" (Mencken). "Propaganda...is influential only when it is a rationalization of the...prejudices or interests of those to whom it is addressed" (A. Huxley).

The most striking thing about this last excerpt is its suggestion that rationalize had only recently (as of 1942) begun to be used in a way that created a strong overlap with justify. Still, Webster's takes the view that one more frequently justifies in response to criticism or blame, while one more often rationalizes when one is deluded or hypocritical.

A further development in the sense of rationalize appears in S.I. Hayakawa, Choose the Right Word (1968) in a discussion of the noun form rationalization in comparison with lie, falsehood, fib, prevarication, and untruth:

These words refer to statements or formulations that are misleading or contrary to fact. ... By contrast, rationalization is very specific, indicating a thought process by which one attempts to justify one's actions, either to oneself or to others, by consciously or unconsciously distorting the truth. Although psychologists may view all formulated explanations as rationalizations, the word has become a fad word for ingenious but specious reasoning that puts one's own behavior in the most favorable light possible: The psychiatrist works to get behind the web of rationalizations to the real conflicts and anxieties they conceal; his rationalization that being late for work was a forgivable foible, considering how indispensable he was to the office; Nazis whose rationalization was that they were only following orders.


Conclusion

It appears that use of justify in the sense of "attempt to excuse from blame or to render respectable" has been around for a long time. The implication that it comes in response to criticism or disapproval is very strong, as the Webster's discussion points out; but as a means of making an excuse, it need not rely on an elaborate or rigorous logic.

In contrast, rationalize is a relative latecomer to the scene and had as its original meaning "attempt to reconcile a nonrational claim with reason or scientific knowledge." In its self-serving sense, rationalize puts considerable store in the presentation of a reasoned (or superficially reasoned) argument in favor of a deed or course of action. Because the persuasiveness of the argument is central to the effort to rationalize, a person offering this type of assertion may be more susceptible to self-delusion or (on the other hand) more guilty of a cynical disregard for truth.

Consistent with these distinctions, asserting that "might makes right" may justify exploitative treatment of the weak by the strong, but it does not rationalize such treatment.

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Several good answers here similarly corroborate: To put simply, justify is to validate (establish) and rationalize is a means to explain (trying to establish).

In common usage they will be interchangeable, but justification is associated more formally with logic while rationalize is associated with human behaviour.

This should be no more complicated.

  • Welcome to ELU, please add sources supporting your answers. – JJ for Transparency and Monica Apr 1 '18 at 0:34
  • Source: me, 32 years of experience as an English speaking human being. – Leopoldini Apr 1 '18 at 0:38
  • Please add sources anyway, other users might not be able to judge your knowledge based solely on your answer. For more information, see this post on Meta, this post on Meta and this post on Meta – JJ for Transparency and Monica Apr 1 '18 at 0:42
  • Thanks, I find that interesting. I'm purely appealing to my experience as an English native speaker and have no sources. I suppose this answer is my mere opinion. As it happens it is consistent with other answers here, and as it is worded uniquely, I ask that it be permitted for illustration value. 32 years experience has some merits. – Leopoldini Apr 1 '18 at 1:07
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With Easter being upon us (Easter Sunday is on April 1 this year), perhaps we do well to consider what the Christian religion has to say about justification.

First, here is how the founder of the Christian religion used the word justify:

Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and were scoffing at Him. And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God (Luke 16:14-15 NASB).

In context, Jesus had just told the story of a man guilty of embezzlement. He was on the verge of being fired (let go, sacked, terminated), so in an effort to save his job he very craftily went to his employer's debtors, and regardless of much they owed his employer, he would allow them to settle their accounts on the spot at a discount. Someone who owed 1000 drachmas was allowed to clear the debt for 800 drachmas. Someone who owed 10,000 drachmas was told to pay 8000, and so on.

Jesus followed up the story (or parable) by a teaching on faithfulness and how a person who tends to be faithful in small things is also faithful in big things. In the teaching, Jesus contrasted "unrighteous wealth" with "true wealth." While not against money, per se, Jesus was aware of how some people mistake the one kind of wealth with the other.

Very wealthy people can begin to think their portfolio--what Jesus called mammon—is the true wealth but giving very little thought to the abiding wealth which Jesus referred to in another place as "treasure in heaven" (see Matthew 6:19-20).

At that point in the teaching, Jesus then turned to the Orthodox Jews of his day, the Pharisees, whom Luke observed were "lovers of money," and Jesus uses the word justify to describe their tendency to provide to their peers and followers a righteous—in their minds—explanation for how they “steward” their money.

Here is where the line between rationalization and justification gets a bit fuzzy. The Pharisees were seeking justification before men. They apparently wanted others to think of them as moral and righteous. Dr. Luke, however, the author of the narrative, points out the Pharisees “were lovers of money”! In other words, while they may have been obsessed with money and may have even profited greatly from religion, they were poverty stricken in God's eyes.

This is where the primary difference between rationalization and justification lay: The human tendency is for people to declare themselves righteous before an audience of many. Better by far, however, is to be declared righteous by an audience of one: God! God's justifying work is of much greater import, for time and for eternity.

As for rationalization, the human tendency is to make excuses for behavior, in an attempt to quell the storm which rages—at least initially—within the conscience. The tendency of continued rationalizations, however, is to deaden the conscience, which not only paves the way for even more rationalizations but also distances people from the One who is the ultimate judge of motives.

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I can only offer that, when you rationalize something, it will seem to make sense; when you justify something, it will seem to be acceptable.

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