Moral Disengagement: How Good People Can Do harm and Live with Themselves

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

In part 1 of this review, we talked about the mechanisms which allow good people to execute Moral Disengagement. In this part of the review, we’ll talk about the second half of the book, which discusses moral disengagement in a variety of topics. These are hot button issues in today’s society. Some of them are straightforward situations where moral disengagement is happening. In other cases, it could be that Bandura is using his platform to push his agenda.

More Than Just Entertainment

Bandura has had a persistent conflict with the media industry, particularly with television, because of his views that television violence leads to more violence in society. The Bobo doll experiment suggested that when children watched violence, they imitated it. Television is filled with gratuitous violence despite the awareness that situation comedies are the reigning champion of ratings.

Bandura starts a list of six foci on moral disengagement in practice with the impacts of television violence. He argues that television sanitizes immoral acts and repeated exposure desensitizes people. While there is research that children imitate what they see adults do, the research is less clear about the impact on adults. While Bandura makes a compelling point about needing to limit the amount of violence on TV, particularly for children, I’m hard-pressed to argue the point in either direction.

I watch almost no TV and very few movies. I’m simply not qualified to say whether TV is causing violence or isn’t. I can say, and Bandura confirms this, that the greatest incidence of violence comes in the form of cartoons. The Saturday morning favorites from my childhood had Wile E. Coyote getting blown up, thrown, flattened, etc., in seemingly every episode. Violence in TV has been a challenge for a long time, and in truth violence is going down in the US – even while there’s the perception that violence is going up and coverage of real violence has been more prevalent.

Put Out the Fire

Grappling with Guns

The second industry that comes under Bandura’s focus is the gun industry and, in particular, the National Rifle Association (NRA). An organization that used to be focused on hunting and sportsmanship has lost its way as a lobbying group. The fight for gun rights has stopped being about hunting and sportsmanship and has become a fight for the right to protection.

Here, Bandura points out that interesting facts about gun ownership. There are more deaths due to gun suicide than by gun homicide. Most homicides are a result of heated disputes among family members, acquaintances, and relatives than criminal encounters. In short, you’re more likely to kill yourself or someone you know than the random criminal breaking in to your home. In an age of paranoia created by increasing news coverage of break-ins and harm wrought on home owners, it makes sense that more people are looking to protect themselves than ever before. The randomness of the crimes makes people feel it’s necessary to protect themselves.

Bandura makes some claims which I realize are not correct. He speaks of the need for police to escalate their level of armament based on the arms that criminals acquire. The police may have had to get access to armor-piercing rounds because criminals started wearing body armor but that isn’t responding to threat with threat. It’s responding to the greater defenses criminals started wearing. In reality, most police carry a 9MM weapon – or in some cases a 40 caliber weapon (which is larger). However, Bandura ignores the fact that the standard-issue military handgun in World War II was a 1911 – a .45 caliber weapon (bigger still than a .40 caliber).

He makes the point effectively that relatively few criminals get their guns illegally – but some do. He’s also quite right that we’re increasing our spending on housing criminals at a greater rate than on education. However, this ignores the impact of the “War on Drugs” on prison populations. (See Chasing the Scream for more.)

Conversely, the evidence that states with more lax gun laws have higher rates of gun violence is disturbing. However, a few minutes of deeper researching the topic reveals that there are many other factors that are also correlated with high gun death rates. None of the research or commentary I saw could convert the correlation to causation. As a result, it’s unclear whether more or less gun control leads to a safer – or less safe – environment. Bandura’s position is clearly articulated but not compelling to me.

Immoral Corporate Institutions

If you’re looking for moral disengagement, corporations are an easy place to start. There are so many scandals of organizations where the employees – and particularly the leadership – suspend their morals to worship at the altar of corporate profits. The financial markets meltdown that we had a few years ago was a result of the greed in the financial sector.

Subprime mortgages were being issued to people without the ability to pay. These were wrapped up and sold as financial derivatives – bundling of a bunch of different things. Ultimately, when people couldn’t pay for their houses, the mortgages went into default, the houses weren’t worth what was owed, and the system came apart at the seams. Warren Buffet called derivatives “financial weapons of mass destruction.” Given the carnage when the system fell apart, I can see why.

The problem is most (but not all) of the people involved in the creation of the mess walked away without any losses. They didn’t see the inside of a jail cell. They took their big paychecks and even bigger bonuses and walked away. Even after the government had to step in, they were still taking bonuses, even though the organization would have died had it not been “too big to fail.” There were no consequences for the bad behaviors leading up to – or during – the debacle.

Underlings do, in some cases, get convicted of fraud. Executives walk off scot-free. They leverage plausible deniability. In many cases, they actively avoided knowing what was going on. (Not exactly Servant Leadership or the kind of leader from In Search of Excellence.) We’ve created what William Black called a “criminogenic environment.” He said this term in the 1980s when we were bailing out the savings and loans.

The financial sector isn’t the only place where corporate greed runs rampant. The tobacco industry is the only industry where the product kills half of its users. It was targeted towards teenagers – because if they make it through their teen years without smoking, it’s unlikely that they’ll start later in life. The industry worked hard to undermine solid science that tobacco was killing people. They dumped in pseudoscience and tried to forestall the truth getting out. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for a perspective on pseudoscience.)

Moral Murder by the Name of Capital Punishment

Bandura shares his belief that capital punishment is wrong. Certainly, when looked at directly from a care/harm foundation (see The Righteous Mind), it’s pretty clear that killing is bad. However, I’m reminded of a story from Emotional Awareness, where the Dalai Lama relates a story of a bodhisattva on a boat with a mass murder who he cannot convince not to kill the rest of the passengers – so the bodhisattva kills him. The context of this is that a bodhisattva desires to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all living beings. The point is that the bodhisattva is – in the Lama’s estimation – operating under the principles of Buddha.

This for me establishes the moral bounds for which one could take another person’s life. Though it smacks of utilitarian moral disengagement, it remains true to the greatest good (care) and the least evil (harm). Despite Bandura’s admonishment that only 3% of shootings are in self-defense, I have no qualms about defending myself and my family from an intruder including, if necessary, taking the life of the intruder. (Note the linguistic cleaning by not saying “kill.”) So, it’s morally acceptable to defend oneself, and it’s potentially acceptable to prevent greater harm. Where’s the rub?

The rub is in the first step in the bodhisattva’s boat story. The first step was to attempt to convince the murderer to not murder. He attempted to change the mind of the murderer, to reeducate them in compassion for other human beings. The rub is we don’t know how to do that.

The more I learn about neurology, the more I realize that we’re literally of two minds. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow and Incognito for more.) Even if I could address the neurological issues, I realize that our understanding of psychology is primitive. We’re still fumbling around in the dark. House of Cards, The Cult of Personality Testing, Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, and even The Heart and Soul of Change all agree. We just don’t know what works. The best we can say is that if you like your therapist (perhaps because they’re using Motivational Interviewing), you’re likely to have greater success. Change or Die even covers the high rates of failure to change when a person’s own life depends upon it.

In short, we don’t have a reliable way of attempting to implore the death row inmate to change. This raises the question whether life in prison or a death sentence is the more compassionate thing. One could easily answer that a swift and painless death is more compassionate – except that it fails to account for the possibility of someone becoming remorseful. It also ignores the problem that there are innocent people on death row.

I’m not talking about the people who are guilty but are unable to accept that reality (when the ego and its defenses won’t allow it – see Change or Die). I’m speaking of the legitimately victimized people who went through the legal system and got a raw deal. How do you justify their death when they’ve done nothing wrong?

Bandura leans on Milgram’s work (which I discussed in my review of Influencer) to explain that the execution process is diffused among many people. Even the final injections are typically done by multiple people who have only a part of the deadly cocktail to minimize the moral self-sanctions that might prevent them from completing the execution. He correctly points out that if a single person (say a juror) had to be the one to “throw the switch,” they’d be much less willing to sentence a person to the death penalty.

In the context of Moral Disengagement, I believe that the system is designed to reduce the emotional burden on the workers who participate in the execution of convicted and sentenced criminals. They’re free to leverage the mechanisms of disengagement to make it easier to sleep at night.

Terrorism

My first real memory of terrorism wasn’t one of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombings, though certainly they were happening during my formative years. My first memory of terrorism was mixed in with my memories of my favorite airplane. It was the SR-71 Blackbird that took the pictures that proved that we had decimated terrorist training camps in Libya. (See The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird for more on the aircraft and 1986 United States bombing of Libya for more on that mission.)

Like most of the US, I thought that terrorism was something that happened “over there.” It wasn’t until the 9/11 attacks that terrorism felt real and close to home – though, admittedly, in Indiana I wasn’t close to any of the attacks. It was still close enough to be real. That’s the point of terrorism – to induce terror into people by creating fear that terror might strike them personally at any time.

Terrorist organizations need to recruit and train members who are willing to perform suicide actions in the name of their cause. They must be willing to accept the cause as greater than their own life for either secular or religious reasons. In the religious reasons, they’ve got to be able to cause recruits to look past the logical paradoxes that exist.

Most religions aren’t in favor of murder. Most are not supportive of torture or harming others. (Spiritual Evolution is a wonderful journey into why religions have standards that are useful to sustaining social life.) Somehow leaders must convince themselves and the recruits that those rules aren’t intended for times like these. They’re not intended for situations like theirs.

I suppose one condolence that can be offered for the suicide bombers is that they don’t have to live with themselves if they didn’t accomplish their mission. In that way, there wouldn’t be post-action self-doubt. However, with something so final, it’s important to be really sure that you’re right – which is why previous suicide bombers are revered as heroes whether or not they accomplished their mission. Not doing so would tear the fabric of the organization.

Environmental Sustainability

The idea that we’re creating problems for planet Earth isn’t new. My reading backlog includes Limits to Growth, which was originally published in 1972. There was much less data than was in Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, but the point is essentially the same. We can’t keep doing like we have been doing. It’s not sustainable. There’s too much population. There’s too much pollution. There’s just too much.

Donella Meadows and her colleagues were looking at the problem from a systems standpoint. (See Thinking in Systems for more.) We simply couldn’t expect that the environmental systems would accept the strain we’re placing on them. And it appears that they’re right.

From the perspective of Bandura, the question is less about the environmental sustainability problem and more about how people diffuse their moral responsibility. In this case, the indirect effects and the introduction of false “evidence” by those who have a vested interest in not addressing the environmental issues are powerful forces that lead too many people towards indecision and inaction.

On a personal level, I don’t drive a hybrid car. With the home office on the property here, I walk to work. I do have most (but not quite all) of the bulbs here in the house swapped over to LED. The furnace/heat pump combination units in both buildings are the most efficient I could buy. The windows in the office are as efficient as they come. Despite that, I’m quite clear that I’m consuming more energy than most folks. We look for ways to save, but the kids and the business require a lot of power.

I cautiously believe that there are issues to address with the environment and that we need to do them to maintain survivability on the planet – even when that’s a hard thought when we’re having colder winters than I can remember in 25 years of living in the Indianapolis area.

In Sum

While I don’t agree with Bandura’s assertions in every argument, I appreciate the fact that Moral Disengagement is willing to address hard topics and walk through why some of the topics are hard in the first place. Though it’s a difficult read, it’s worth looking at our own morality and making sure that we don’t get stuck into Moral Disengagement.