Moral disengagement is a term from social psychology for the process of convincing the self that ethical standards do not apply to oneself in a particular context, by separating moral reactions from inhumane conduct by disabling the mechanism of self-condemnation. Bureaucratic detachment, for example by government employees entrusted with stewardship of civic duties commonly relate without regard to social niceties (ie. "Department of Motor Vehicles") is an example of moral disengagement.
Generally, moral standards are adopted to serve as guides and deterrents for conduct. Once internalized control has developed, people regulate their actions by the standards they apply to themselves. They do things that give them self-satisfaction and a sense of self-worth and refrain from behaving in ways that violate their moral standards. Self-sanctions keep conduct in line with these internal standards. However, moral standards only function as fixed internal regulators of conduct when self-regulatory mechanisms have been activated, and there are many psychological processes to prevent this activation. These processes are forms of moral disengagement of which there are four categories: reconstructing immoral conduct, displacing or diffusing responsibility, misrepresenting injurious consequences, and dehumanizing the victim.
One method of disengagement is portraying inhumane behavior as though it has a moral purpose in order to make it socially acceptable. For example, torture, in order to obtain information necessary to protect the nation’s citizens, may be seen as acceptable. Voltaire is quoted as saying, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”.
Another disengagement technique is advantageous comparison. Moral judgments of conduct can be influenced by structuring what the conduct is compared against. In social comparison the “morality” of acts depends more on the ideological allegiances of the labelers than on the acts themselves.
Displacing or diffusing responsibility
Another dissociative practice, known as displacement of responsibility, operates by distorting the relationship between actions and the effects they cause. People behave in ways they would normally oppose if a legitimate authority accepts responsibility for the consequences of that behavior. Under conditions of displaced responsibility, people view their actions as the dictates of authorities rather than their own actions.
Additionally, there is the practice of diffusion of responsibility. This is when the services of many people, where each performs a task that seems harmless in itself, can enable people to behave inhumanely collectively, because no single person feels responsible. An example of this is in executions where multiple persons have distinct roles in the execution process so no individual is responsible.
A similar technique is collective action. Any harm done by a group can be blamed on the other members so people act more harshly when responsibility is collective than when individualized. For example, a juror sentencing a person to death can blame the “jury” rather than him or herself as a juror.
Disregarding or misrepresenting injurious consequences
Another method of disengagement is through disregard or misrepresentation of the consequences of action. When someone pursues an activity harmful to others for personal gain they generally either minimize the harm they have caused or attempt to avoid facing it. Instead, they will recall prior information given to them about the potential benefits of the behavior. People are especially prone to minimize harmful effects when they act alone. It is relatively easy to hurt others when the detrimental results of one's conduct are ignored.
A final disengagement practice, dehumanization, is applied to the targets of violent acts and depends on how the perpetrator views the people toward whom the harmful behavior is directed. Once dehumanized, divested of human qualities, people are no longer viewed as persons with feelings, hopes, and concerns but as subhuman objects which do not evoke feelings of empathy from the perpetrator and can be subjected to horrendous treatment.
Moral disengagement and entertainment
Arthur Raney (2004) expanded affective disposition theory by including moral disengagement processes. He argued that people spend more time evaluating television characters according to their own dispositions toward those characters rather than through true moral reasoning. This is due to the fact people are cognitive misers. Actually using moral reasoning could induce cognitive dissonance, which people typically find ways to avoid. Therefore, disposition is an evaluative schema – and a shorter route to character evaluation that results in consonance. Moral disengagement allows us to enjoy fictional entertainment scenarios that we would otherwise find morally reprehensible in real-life.
- Fiske, Susan T. (2004). Social beings : core motives in social psychology. Hoboken, NJ: J. Wiley. ISBN 0471654221.
- Bandura, Albert (1 July 1999). "Moral Disengagement in the Perpetration of Inhumanities" (PDF). Personality and Social Psychology Review 3 (3): 193–209. doi:10.1207/s15327957pspr0303_3. PMID 15661671. Retrieved 12 October 2007.
- Bandura, Albert (1990). "Mechanisms of moral disengagement". In Reich, Walter. Origins of terrorism : psychologies, ideologies, theologies, states of mind (PDF) (Reprinted. ed.). Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. pp. 161–191. ISBN 0521385636. Retrieved 12 October 2007.
- Bandura, Albert. "Moral disengagement in state executions". In Cutler, B.L. Encyclopedia of Psychology and Law (PDF). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Retrieved 12 October 2007.
- "How people do bad things: turning off moral controls". Stanford News Service. Stanford University. 3 December 1991. Retrieved 12 October 2007.
- Raney, Arthur A (1 November 2004). "Expanding Disposition Theory: Reconsidering Character Liking, Moral Evaluations, and Enjoyment". Communication Theory 14 (4): 348–369. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2885.2004.tb00319.x.
- The Institute for Social Psychohistory. Promotes research into and advocates for studies of moral disengagement as manifested historically.