Book Review-Moral Disengagement: How Good People Can Do Harm and Live with Themselves – The Mechanisms

If you want to talk about moral behavior, at some point Albert Bandura’s name is going to come up. He’s done a great deal of work trying to understand people. His research in 1961 showed that children imitate the aggressive behavior they see adults doing. However, when Moral Disengagement: How Good People Can Do Harm and Feel Good About Themselves became available, it wasn’t immediately on my reading list – it was on Terri’s. Some of her mentors are quite the fan of Bandura’s work, and she was intrigued.

We both started reading it when she picked it up. Unfortunately, while Bandura is a great scholar and has advanced the field of psychology and morality greatly, he’s hard to understand at times. While I wouldn’t say that he’s as hard to read as Robert Greenleaf in Servant Leadership, there were definitely places when I had to reread the text a few times to make sure I knew what he was trying to say. Some of it may have been poor writing – but I found that, more often than not, it was the nuanced understanding and complex schemata that he has for the topic. It took me some time to discern what he was trying to tell me. (See The Art of Explanation for more about the curse of knowledge and complex schema.)

Because it was a hard read, I didn’t read it as fast as some other books. In a way, I’m glad. It allowed me to read The Righteous Mind, which provided a framework for the foundations of morality. This allowed me to see how morality was defined and based before watching Bandura explain how morality was systemically torn down by dictators and armies, industries and entertainment, and our disconnected nature. (See Alone Together for more about how we’re more alone and more connected at the same time.)

My review is broken into two parts. This first part will deal with the mechanisms of moral disengagement, where the second part will deal with the hot topics that Bandura writes about to demonstrate the mechanisms in action.

Evolving Morality

Before getting to how morality is specifically formed, it’s important to realize that morality is relative. It’s relative to the culture that we live in. It’s relative to the times that we’re living in. While (hopefully) most of us would find owning a slave morally reprehensible, it was (unfortunately) an accepted practice a few hundred years ago. This is a striking example of how our morality changes over time.

Morality doesn’t, however, evolve with our genes. Morality evolves as we have greater margin in our lives. We can have greater compassion because we ourselves are not struggling. We can have higher standards, because we’re not struggling for the necessities of life.

Prior to the mid-1940s, women were expected to have a role only in the home – and not outside the home. As we entered World War II and we needed more labor capacity due to the large number of men sent off to fight in the war, women were allowed and even encouraged to enter the workforce. “Rosie the Riveter” was a propaganda character that drew women into defense industries. When the war was over, many women lost their jobs, but the taste of independence and respect lingered in their souls. By the 1950s and 1960s, women started entering the workforce again, but this time for good. Before the 1940s, it was not socially acceptable for women to be working in professional careers outside the home. Today, it’s expected.

In the US, divorce rates in the 1920s were about 1.5 per thousand people. In the early 1980s it peaked at about 5.25 per thousand people before settling back down to a new level at about 4 per thousand people. (See Divorce for more of this data.) The greater independence of women, changing divorce laws (like allowing for those due to irreconcilable differences), and greater prosperity made divorce more socially acceptable.

Genes don’t evolve substantially in a single generation, but our sense of morality did – and still does.

Discover the Truth

Founding Fathers and Slavery

If you were to make a list of people that you felt like had a firm moral foundation, the founding fathers of the United States are likely to make the list. After all, they created the great American nation. They declared that all men were created equal and that they were born with certain inalienable rights – well, except in reality. The Three-Fifths Compromise was worked out for how to represent black slaves as people.

In a strange twist, the Southerners wanted slaves counted for purposes of the House of Representatives representation: equally. This would have given them a larger number of seats in the House of Representatives. The Northerners wanted the slaves treated as property and thus not eligible for representation.

Patrick Henry, who is famous for saying, “Give me liberty, or give me death,” owned slaves. He admitted the contradiction in his values: “I will not – I cannot justify it, however culpable my conduct.” However, he’s not alone. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison all owned slaves as well.

It seems that even our most heroic figures and pillars of morality would not fare well if their actions were evaluated with today’s standards.

Social Morality

Moral standards are formed personally but are influenced socially through both legal and social sanctions. We believe that things which are against the law are largely immortal. The law is a legal sanction that inhibits socially-undesirable behavior through its effect on self-sanctions. There are, however, some situations when lawlessness is seen as desirable and where legal sanctions lose their power, such as the situation described in Change or Die and the famous Delancey Street work.

Social sanctions were discussed in The Righteous Mind as “social conventions.” These are what society expects of its citizens but doesn’t legislate. Social sanctions have a less inhibitive effect than legal sanctions. Still, social conventions have a powerful effect on us. Few of us would stand with our backs to the door of an elevator voluntarily and without reason. We’re conditioned that the right way to face is towards the door which will open.

Legal and social sanctions are called “fear controls.” They function by fear of reprisal. Legal sanctions carry the threat of legal recourse, including imprisonment. Social sanctions carry the threat of being ostracized by the group – which historically meant death.

Moral control rooted in self-sanctions are called “guilt controls,” because they work on the avoidance of guilt that violating the standards will mean. Self-sanctions are the ultimate endpoint in moral disengagement. In the end, you need to be able to live with yourself in the morning.

Bandura makes the point that moral agency – that is, moral influence on behavior – can be either inhibitive or proactive. The inhibitive form manifests itself in the resistance from behaving inhumanely. The proactive form manifests itself in compassion. Compassion is that humanitarian ethic. It’s the care for other human beings. (See My Spiritual Journey for more on compassion.)

Disengagement Doesn’t Alter Morality

One of the key questions that everyone asks is “How can good people can do bad things?” This question is followed by “Don’t they believe it’s wrong?” The heart of these questions is whether the other person (or people) have the same set of moral beliefs that we have.

As we discovered in The Righteous Mind, it’s possible that they don’t have the same beliefs – or, more precisely, they don’t evaluate the moral foundations in the same way that we do. However, Bandura asserts that, in most cases of moral disengagement, they have the same moral beliefs that they started with.

They still believe, for instance, that killing another human is wrong. What they’ve done is they’ve changed the other person into a non-person. They’ve dehumanized them to the point where they don’t believe they’re really people any longer. This is just one of many ways that a person can at one moment believe that killing another human is wrong and to be able to kill a person. This is the same thing that we see in Change or Die. That is, our ego has a massive system of defenses that allow us to see ourselves as good – even in the face of the wrong we’ve done.

Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy, the belief that what you do matters, is critical to the development of morality. If your actions don’t matter because you’re not in control or because they will have no effect, there is no need for morality, which controls behaviors and thereby influences outcomes.

The Time Paradox speaks of those who are focused hedonistically in the present – seeing limited consequences for their choices today. Morality has a reduced impact on them due to their inability to connect how their actions change the outcomes. Mindset looks at it through the lens of whether you believe you are fixed or whether you can grow. If you are fixed (called “present fatalism” in the language of The Time Paradox), then you need not take responsibility for your moral indiscretions. The Psychology of Hope describes self-efficacy as the “waypower” component of hope. (The other component is willpower.) Self-efficacy is the ability to do something and be successful.

More importantly – and from a different direction – if you believe that you can succeed in the context of your moral values, there is no conflict. However, if you don’t believe you can succeed without disengaging your morality, you may very well just do that. Those who, in Reiss’ terms, are not strongly motivated by honor (see Who Am I? and The Normal Personality) will be relegated to expediency – and moral disengagement is expedient. Bandura describes people with a low honor desire as “people with weak commitment to personal standards.”

Grit

To proceed with your morals when you doubt that you’ll be successful – when the alternative is a quick and easy moral disengagement – takes grit. It takes a persistence to continue to try to make things work, even when it appears that they ultimately won’t. When you doubt that you’ll be successful without a bit of moral disengagement (notice the minimization in my language), you’re likely to eventually succumb to a bit of moral disengagement. (See Grit for more on persistence through grit.) After all, willpower is an exhaustible resource, and constantly having to press on in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds is exhausting. (See Willpower for more.)

Lewin’s Behavior

Kurt Lewin famously said that behavior is a function of both person and environment. That is, how people behave is the outcome of the relationship and interaction between their personality and the environment. You can create environments that lead to more moral behavior and in the case of savings and loans, Enron, MCI, and others, you can generate environments that encourage immoral behaviors. While neither of the environments guarantees the behavior will align with the environment, they do tend to lead in one direction or another.

There are three types of environments that people find themselves in:

  • Imposed – Environments where the person has little or no control
  • Selected – Those environments that they’ve picked
  • Created – The environments that they’ve created

This is interesting, because, in most cases, we’ve not been in an imposed environment after childhood. We’ve largely selected or created the environments that we’re in. Our jobs are selected, where we live is selected. Our rooms we’ve created. We controlled the furniture and the decorations. We’ve chosen our environments.

The fact that we’ve selected – or often created – our environments means that we have substantial influence in our behavior (but not absolute) and our behaviors are sometimes a result of longer-term decisions than we typically believe. The decisions we make about our environment influence our behaviors as well. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy where I speak about longitudinal situational decision-making.)

A friend of mine says that I have an uncanny ability to leave a situation before it started to get – in his terms – “wild.” I don’t know that I ever thought about it. I somehow, I have tended to unconsciously sense that an environment is going to turn into something bad and leave – before it actually got bad. Not that I’m not capable of bad behaviors, I just avoid situations that would lead me to them and try to exhibit emotional awareness to shape my behaviors. (See Emotional Awareness for more on emotional awareness.)

Loci of Disengagement

There are three basic loci – or foci – of disengagement:

  • Agency – Displacement of responsibility to others, or diffusing it so widely that no one bears responsibility.
  • Outcome – Minimization, disregard, distortion, or dispute of the injurious effects.
  • Victim – Divestiture of a victim humanity, or belief that one is a victim and therefore justified in retaliation.

I believe that these loci are actually very difficult to understand – and, in the case of victim, two radically different mechanisms are grouped together. From my point of view, the agency locus is about responsibility. That is, agency deals with how individuals accept, reject, or defer responsibility for the morality of their actions.

I believe that the outcome locus is about negative effects. That is, it is about how the person sees the effects.

I believe that what Bandura describes as the “victim locus” really encompasses two concepts. First, there’s the compassion effect – that is, a lack of the compassion for others dehumanizes and devalues them to the point where you can do immoral things to them.

Second, there’s the vengeance effect – that is, I’m a victim because I’ve been harmed so I’m justified in harming others. Reiss speaks of vengeance as a basic desire. (Again, for more, see Who Am I? and The Normal Personality.) Vengeance should be clarified as different than “temporary insanity” or “amygdala hijack,” because it occurs over a much longer period of time. (See Emotional Intelligence for more about emotional or amygdala hijacking.)

Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement

Bandura highlights eight mechanisms which can disengage moral self-sanctions. They are:

  • Moral Justification – Attaching honorable purposes. I.e., “The ends justify the means.”
  • Palliative Comparison – Comparing their actions (or the proposed lack of action ) to the actions of others and the hypothesized negative results.
  • Euphemistic Labeling – Cloaks harmful behavior in innocuous language and removes humanity.
  • Minimizing Consequences – Minimization of the consequences of the action to minimize the violation of moral standards.
  • Ignoring Consequences – Completely ignoring the consequences of the action to make the behavior morally acceptable.
  • Misconstruing Consequences – Assigning the consequences to “externalities” rather than to one’s own behavior.
  • Dehumanization – Removal of the humanity of the victim and introduction of animalistic tendencies.
  • Attribution of Blame – Shifting of the blame to someone or something else.
  • Displacement of Responsibility – Focus on execution of tasks rather than the implications of the actions. I.e., “I was just following orders.”
  • Diffusion of Responsibility – Separating responsibility into so many parties as to make no one person wholly responsible.

Logical Paradoxes

Moral compromises lead to logical paradoxes. They seem to work on the surface, but if anyone would dig down deep into them, it would be impossible not to see that they can’t make sense together. Mastering Logical Fallacies provides a catalog of the kind of fallacies that others might attempt to use on us during a debate. Many of the arguments provided by terrorist organizations suffer from these situations. Radical religious groups use terrorism, which inflicts suffering and death on innocent people – yet their religion prohibits it. All causes – including those that use terrorism – must persuade people to join their cause or die out quickly.

Perhaps the best mechanism in use for avoiding the logical paradoxes is the use of projection. That is, the harm being inflicted by the terrorist is projected (or deflected) onto the perceived oppressor. The hostages would be home with their families if the oppressor had simply met our demands. It’s their fault that we’re having to hold the hostages so long – not ours.

This – and many other techniques – allow the logical paradoxes to persist despite their obvious falsehood. Somehow, there has to be a way to justify it – even if the justification is skewed.

Bad Means for Good Ends, and the Conflict They Create

“The ends justify the means” is an often-quoted saying. It’s a bit of linguistically-sanitary way of saying that we’re going to do bad – but for outcomes that are good. This is a utilitarian view of morality. So long as the end is good, whatever bad you do is acceptable. While this is convenient, it’s a house of cards that comes crashing down with great flair.

Consider the Vietnam War. All war is necessarily anti-moral at the most detailed level. The firmest foundation of morality is the care/harm foundation. War – in the traditional sense – means taking lives. This is typically justified because the cause is just. However, what happens when the cause isn’t just? What happens when an entire American culture decides that the war was wrong, it was unjustified, it wasn’t morally right? The veterans who faithfully served their country found out. They paid the price with greater emotional suffering as they returned from a war that the American people didn’t want or believe in. Veterans weren’t welcomed with open arms to fill jobs. Instead, they were shunned.

Deep in their own minds, they had post-traumatic stress disorder. They remembered the faces of the people they had killed – in greater numbers than those from prior wars. Their moral disengagement had been stripped, because the ends no longer seemed to justify the means.

The problem is that this disengagement is typically used in the absence of trying to get the ends without the negative means. Non-violent or more measured approaches are abandoned as being insufficient for change before they’ve been tried. (We’ve learned quite a bit about influencing change without resorting to violence or morally questionable behavior – Influencer is a good start to look for some of these tools.)

Second, the comparison tends to minimize the moral impact of the means and overestimate the moral benefits of the ends. We’re predictably irrational when it comes to justifying the beliefs that we want to cling to. (See Predictably Irrational for more.)

Training Terrorists

When most of us think about terrorists, we imagine the downtrodden teenager living in a middle eastern country whose family is barely scraping by. They set out to make the world more right by joining an organization that offers to change the world. Part of their mechanism for changing the world is through terrorism. The problem with this view of terrorism is that it’s wrong.

We think that terrorists are mentally unstable people who are willing to sacrifice their own life for no good reason. Their belief that their death is in service to a higher power eludes us. We can’t imagine how a sane person could believe this to be true, much less carry out an act of what we perceive to be senseless violence. However, terrorists are not, as a lot, lunatics who are constantly on the edge of breaking. Such instability wouldn’t be tolerated, since it would jeopardize the terrorist organization. This view, too, is wrong.

Terrorists typically come from middle- or upper-class families with a decent education and a desire to change the world to make it better. When coupled with a firm belief that you’ll be rewarded in heaven if you lay down your life for the cause of your God here on Earth, it becomes easier to see how terrorists are created.

Gears of War

These are the mechanisms of Moral Disengagement. These are the gears that allow wars to happen. In the second part of this review, we’ll walk through Bandura’s hot topics and see how we disengage our morals on those topics.