Moral disengagement: empirical evidence and alternative interpretations

Vitor Teixeira Institute of Criminology University of Cambridge

Abstract: The following article discusses the theoretical and empirical arguments for and against cross-cultural universalism of moral disengagement. First. how well they use their resources. Beliefs of self-efficacy control the conditioning power of selfregulatory mechanisms in the exercise of moral agency. 1990. and in conclusion.27). Under the latter theory. 271) Moral standards are taken up throughout the socialization process and “serve as guides and deterrents for conduct” (Bandura. The theory Moral disengagement theory uses social cognitive theory’s agentic perspective and the notion of self-efficacy to include moral agency (Bandura. their staying power when collective efforts fail to produce quick results or meet forcible opposition. alongside empirical evidence supporting the claimed universality of moral disengagement. I will introduce moral disengagement theory. These self-regulatory mechanisms prevent an individual from infringing their moral standards. What conditions individual behaviour.” (p. However. but also affects the actions of an entire group with shared beliefs in their collective efficacy: “People’s shared beliefs in their collective efficacy influence the type of futures they seek to achieve through collective effort. moral standards. a number of psychological 2 . Keywords: moral disengagement. which would otherwise provoke self-condemnation. violence. and their vulnerability to discouragement that can beset those taking on tough social problems. I shall argue for a different analysis of the results. second. Moral disengagement 1. presenting the different mechanisms of moral disengagement. are self-regulatory mechanisms abiding by the moral standards. using the same empirical studies on intimate partner violence. wife-beating. p. future lines of research are proposed following the arguments put forward throughout the article. criticizing some of the premises of moral disengagement and suggest alternative uses of mechanisms of moral disengagement. 270). personal efficacy is the belief that “one has the power to produce desired effects by one’s action” (p. cultural norms. This belief affects not just individual action. how much effort they put into their group endeavors. 2002a). however.

p. The higher the contrast between the example provided and the justified behaviour. 2002b) lists eight mechanisms of selective moral disengagement: moral justification. 3 . this “activates empathetic reactions through perceived similarities” (Bandura. displacement and diffusion of responsibility. whereas removing this characteristic from one’s victims prevents this empathetic reaction and allows for the perpetration of inhumanities. Whilst one categorizes others as humans.mechanisms may be used in order to selectively disengage oneself from moral conduct and allow for a behaviour which would otherwise bring self-condemnation (Bandura. These mechanisms are responsible for personal conduct whereas moral standards act as the norms to be followed. 103). Through the use euphemistic language one diminishes the perceived injuriousness of certain behaviour and diminishes personal responsibility. and the latter by disseminating responsibility of the act to the rest of the group who decides and shares the labour in the perpetration of the act (Bandura. p. 1990. Displacement and diffusion of responsibility both diminish the self-condemnation one feels in the course of immoral conduct. “[t]he further removed individuals are from the destructive end results. and attributing blame to the victim. p. disregard or distortion of the consequences. et al. another use of this mechanism is through the agentless passive voice. the more benign “one’s own destructive conduct will appear” (Bandura. 2002a). 2002b). euphemistic language/labelling. dehumanizing the victim. 2005). “[m]oral justifications sanctify the violent means” (2002b. As Bandura puts it. 2002b. the weaker is the restraining power of injurious effects” (Bandura. By dehumanising the victim.. or as Bandura puts it. one is less considerate for their suffering by feeling less empathy for them. Disregard or distortion of consequences for one’s immoral actions diminishes the self-condemnation one feels in the face of the harm caused. In moral justification people justify their actions under a moral imperative so that morally contradicting behaviour becomes free of self-condemnation. 2002b) Division of labour can also have the effect of professionalizing the action while lessening the responsibility for the entire act (Osofsky. Advantageous comparison is used to diminish the perceived repulsiveness of certain immoral conduct by comparing it with a far more horrendous example. p. advantageous comparison. 2002b. 2002b. 108). By the use of euphemisms one sanitises the language used in the perpetration of morally repulsive behaviour. 108). 105). in which agency is placed on unidentified forces rather than in the individual actor (Bandura. Bandura (1990. the first by attributing responsibility of the act to the authority figure who ordains that same act.

These mechanisms of moral disengagement also are. and. that others did so much worse things. Ososfsky. 2005). Elizur and Yishay-Krien (2009) report how Israeli soldiers began dehumanising Arabs through field practices and how the orders demanding acts of violence against Arabs from superior officers in group exercises helped in this process. 2009). et al. 2009. Haj-Yahia & de Zoysa. and it is through the selective use of these mechanisms that individuals are able to perform inhumanities (Bandura. 2007). et al. I didn’t want to hit him point blank and he ran away with half his leg shot off. “the change is achieved by progressive disengagement of self-censure” (2002. 2002b). p. On the case of military training. Get it?” (F-1 in Elizur & Yishay-Krien. as Bandura argues. The behavioural changes these mechanisms enable. Violence was justified. There was a child there… he looked like he was throwing something. 1998. or as Bandura states. nor does one feel self-condemnation but legitimated in one’s actions when there is a perceived threat or provocation from another individual (Bandura. their self-exonerating power is greater when combined with each other. terrorism training (Hafez. for those unwilling to perform violent acts. There’s no limit anymore. Rani. So the limit just disappeared. 1990. 2. One of the soldiers refers to the ‘breaking down’ into the customs of soldier life: “My limit broke down when I shot into a school. do not occur abruptly.Attributing blame to the victims for your actions serves the same purpose as dehumanisation. Rani & Bonu.. and wife beating (Haj-Yahia. a universal characteristic of human agency (2002a). One’s actions are not to blame. Haj-Yahia & Uysal.. glorified. You get it? But everybody told me that it was nonsense to take this to heart. 2009) 4 . 2007. Sakalli. 110). advantageously compared to other types of violent acts. 2006. however. Jeejebhoy. Moreover. maybe a glass bottle. 1997. The evidence Studies on military training (Elizur & Yishay-Krien. 1999. 2008. 2004. These mechanisms allow for an individual to morally disengage from conduct that is against his own moral standards. 2001) attest to the use of different mechanisms to justify acts of violence which are morally condemnable.

what he states as “a primary mechanism for rationalizing Palestinian suicide attacks” (p. nor in England. The acts of suicide bombers are not framed as suicides. but in stages. In the case of terrorism indoctrination. But after all. 2009) Military campaigns are equally justified through moral disengagement mechanisms employed by governments onto their citizens: “Naturally the common people don’t want war. it is the leaders of the country who determine policy.Another refers to the whole process as a lengthy progression in violent deeds: “My own limit didn’t break down all at once. Rani. 299). nor in Germany. nor in America. and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along. That is understood. 2007).Hermann Göering. 2001). 2008. as evinced by how they ‘persecuted’ the Prophets of God” (p. As for wife beating. the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. patriarchal ideology (HajYahia & Uysal. or a fascist dictatorship. or a parliament. 1998. Voice or no voice. 2004. Rani & Bonu. and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. The third was…” (F-3 in Elizur & Yishay-Krien.” . 2008. 1946. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked. 5 . and then there is another step and another step until you reach your limit.. Sakalli. et al. for instance. It works the same in any country. neither in Russia. You don’t feel so much at each stage. … In the first step. receives a divine position in the literal interpretation in Quran’s verses. That is easy. It’s a step by step process. Jejeebhoy. it was a kick. It is so similar to the previous step. Hafez (2006) demonstrates how moral justification. The narratives of jihadists captures how justified and legitimate they feel in their actions after a process of indoctrination through the use of several mechanisms of moral disengagement (see Hafez. whether it is a democracy. something seen as an act of weak minded individuals. 305). which enforces male dominance and subordinate females to degeneratory roles (Sakalli. during the Nuremberg Trials. it was a slap. but as acts of martyrdom against others “portrayed as an arrogant people that are untrustworthy and inherently deceitful. In the second. 2001). several studies showed that. or a communist dictatorship.

If wife beating is believed to bring obedience under one cultural group. and through mechanisms of moral disengagement one can behave against those standards without suffering self-condemnation (Bandura. 1991). The central question here is: what if different cultures foster different moral standards? The studies on wife-beating referred above presented an interesting result: in all samples. and moral disengagement gives the opportunity to engage with the rest of society and explain one’s behaviour in terms of their understanding. wife beating due to infidelity. 2006). 1. In the increasing globalisation and speedy exchange of information (Bandura. it becomes more westernized as well (Godelier. 2002b). 2008) were often related to the belief that wife beating is justified. e. the mechanisms may no longer function solely to prevent self-condemnation. However. Different moral standards? One incorporates a code of conduct appropriate for the community/social network where one was socialized (Teixeira. forthcoming). as it becomes ever more specialized. An alternative interpretation Moral disengagement theory appears to presume that everyone believes in the same code of conduct and engages in moral disengagement to allow themselves to act immorally under certain circumstances. and apparently equally westernising 6 . even if only under certain conditions. Is it not equally plausible that people adhere to different codes of conduct altogether.g. Education. values from different cultures are exchanged and enmeshed. less educated individuals more often expressed wife beating favourably. if one has socialized different moral standards. 2002a).and the belief on the benefits of wife beating to women (Haj-Yahia & Uysal. because one is part of a different culture. that is.. and that moral disengagement allows them to minimize their penalty when their deviant actions are made public? Moral standards are acquired throughout an individual’s socialization. justifying for that behaviour to the society at large would require one to justify that action in terms that they will understand and condone. even though some systems of norms and values may be related to others (Moran. having higher education was negatively associated with beliefs and/or attitudes which condoned wife beating. Both these hypothesis are considered below.

Does this inversely mean that a lower education level represents individuals more embedded in a traditional. and a similar factor of early violence experience is noted in psychological development of perpetrators of genocide (Baum. A previous experience of violence is ubiquitous cross-culturally in individual violent outcomes (Ember & Ember. 2000). On his previous work. something that is already pointed by other authors as a possible evolutionary use of violence (Buss & Shackelford. Those attaining higher levels of education are also being presented to western values.2 Mutability of agents? One small note to add on this argument is on the mutability of individuals throughout the life course. 1997. 1998. 2008. Dutton and Golant’s profile of cyclical spouse batterers points to the effect of parental abuse/harsh physical discipline early in life on the development of this type of spouse abuser (1995). 1997). Athens found a past of violence in all of them (Athens. One often overlooked theory on the genesis of violence argues that a specific set of social experiences is mandatory in the creation of dangerous violent criminals (Athens. forthcoming). 1992). and in all of the accounts of violent performances the perpetrators felt justified in their conduct (Athens. non-Western culture? 1. 1994). 2009). Since the moral standards appear to be the same to everyone. Teixeira. and these do not change over the life-course (hence placing the moral standards as the universal characteristic of all humankind). On their turn. 2008). he had categorized violent acts and actors. Eisner.(Demerath. Although. 1. 2005. Duntley & Shackelford. 1992). script changes as the ones Maruna (2002) has shown in people desisting from crime are unlikely to occur. Of all the violent criminals interviewed throughout his extensive ethnographic fieldwork. non-Western culture? Are the high results condoning wife beating mirroring this traditional. desistance of crime could still be accomplished done in the same 7 . violent performances serve to establish the dominance hierarchy within a community (Athens.1 A past of violence? Another interesting finding from the wife beating studies mentioned is that having experienced or witnessed violence in the household throughout childhood and adolescence was positively correlated to attitudes condoning of wife beating.

Therefore. we morally disengage not just for us. Conclusion The mechanisms of moral disengagement occur widely in several cultures. That is to say that the mechanisms of moral disengagement used to explain the act are culturally biased. When the different mechanisms of moral disengagement are not used for diminishing or preventing self-condemnation and. there are justifications universally accepted. framing the act in a context where it is culturally acceptable to engage in that manner. From all the legislations 8 . When the justification of the immoral act is culturally acceptable. he must justify his actions to the community in a way that they will understand and comprehend his action. as the different studies mentioned attest. The different mechanisms of moral disengagement become. that is. but for the rest of the community. or whether it is a post-hoc justification which minimizes penalty from the community by explaining a socially inappropriate or prohibited act in ways understandable by everyone. Under this perspective. it is not yet clear whether there is an actual disengagement from the moral standard to prevent self-condemnation. If a single individual acts in a way different from what is expected. post-hoc rationalizations made in terms that the community and society at large would comprehend and perceive as legitimate acts. However. On the other hand. Minimize punishment? We are social beings living in communities and individual actions must be accounted for when the values and norms of conduct are the same for everyone within that community. considering the previous point in which people adhere to different moral standards and that different cultures socialize different moral standards to their members.lengthy process using moral disengagement mechanisms to reshape the subject’s behaviour into compliance with the moral standards? 2. as in the case of self-defence in murder cases. under these terms. one activates mechanisms of moral disengagement to explain and justify the perfidious act to one’s respective community. and the way this justification is provided is by using the arguments one has learned throughout socialization in that same community. these mechanisms may diminish and prevent the punishment from the community owed to the perpetrator of illegal acts. the due sentence of the offender for that act is diminished or even waived.

nl/ 9 . who beats his wife out of inappropriate behaviour from her part. Canada. 2000b) refers that post-traumatic stress disorder patients often are led to a reconstruction of the traumatic events which led them to a mental break down. they become capable of coping with those traumatic experiences (Quintais.. ranging from complete dissolution of guilt in Bolívia to life sentence in Singapore (as opposed to mandatory death for those found guilt of murder in the latter case). 2000a. can it be assumed that condoning wife beating under certain conditions is the result of the lengthy process of moral disengagement.lexadin. Moral standards may differ from culture to culture. is to test the self-worth obtained on individuals who condone of wife beating. 2002b). through a reconstruction of their personal history in group therapy. thus changing the function of the different mechanisms of 1 Available at http://www. a process which is culturally induced while maintaining universal moral standards? Another similar line of research focuses on military personnel and on the behaviours that produce self-worth before and after indoctrination. forthcoming) and. and UK)1. in all cases the sentence for self-defence was less than the sentence for murder. 2005). 2000b). The question of universalism of moral disengagement remains unclear. comparing as well their past experiences of violence. One. a tentative use of the mechanism responsible for distorting the consequences of one’s immoral actions could be used in the benefit of PTSD patients. According to the wife beating studies. Spain. If moral standards indeed differ from culture to culture. thus feeling self-worth (Osofsky. then the behaviours through which one enacts self-efficacy. are also different. following the arguments exposed insofar. Quintais (2000a. Otherwise. Portugal. Their condition is the effect an event for which they had not been prepared for during their socialization (Teixeira. An interesting future line of research. Slovenia. US. those who had experienced violence before were more likely to condone of wife beating than those who had not experienced violence. As for the example of humanizing victims to deter violent actions against them (Bandura. The underlying question here is: Does moral disengagement change their beliefs or just the scripts enabling self-condemning acts to occur free of guilt under the conditions they have been indoctrinated? In his work. Bolívia. Brazil. Macedonia. et al.consulted (Australia. should also feel some sense of self-worth for performing a task which is socially acceptable and even demanded from his fellow community members.

are no longer morally reprehensible for those groups whose notion of self-efficacy demands this type of action. Under this perspective the notion of self-condemnation on morally reprehensible behaviours loses its strength since those behaviours.moral disengagement. 2000). one could even tentatively say that they are universally applied. but their specific use may still vary cross-culturally. this appears more to be of a Western based ideology rather than one based on evolutionary behaviour. such as wife beating. 10 . 2000) than liberalism and equal rights. the mechanisms of moral disengagement seem to be widely applied. Universals require behaviour already present in our evolutionary origins (Cartwright. patriarchal ideologies are more imbedded in our collective history (Cartwright. From the evidence provided. However. From the original theory of moral disengagement. The liberal ideology of equal rights requires for people to morally disengage from certain actions.

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