Moral Disengagement Theory is a psychological concept that explores the ways in which individuals rationalize and justify their unethical behavior. Developed by Albert Bandura, this theory sheds light on the cognitive mechanisms that enable individuals to disengage from their moral standards and engage in behaviors that go against their personal values. Oddly, our minds are adept and protecting the ego. We can act badly but categorize our behavior as something not applicable to the normal rules that we consider ethical. Accordingly, we routinely convince ourselves that ethical standards do not apply to ourselves in the particular context which we violate them.
We allow context to determine whether or not ethical standards apply. But, we only consider context when considering our own behavior. Obviously, the context of our own behavior is most salient, and, therefore, most likely for us to consider as important. Underneath these protecting defense mechanisms lies sinister judgements of others, self-righteousness, and hypocritical stances. Moral disengagement theory gives us a little closer look at this process.
Moral disengagement theory examines the various mechanisms individuals employ to rationalize and justify unethical actions.
Bandura explains that “other people and even specific situations can facilitate the deactivation of the individual’s self-sanctions by representing the immoral conduct in a morally acceptable guise” (Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, 2020). Like any good defensive process, there is some legitimate uses. For instance, in many ethical behaviors, context does matter. We may express violent behavior within the context of a video game. Accordingly, we may dismiss our violent behavior within the context of game, deeming it acceptable.
However, real life is full of context as well. The most heinous acts may be excused by the individual, using the situation as the justification. Basically, we use contextual elements to excuse and justify, disengaging individual moral self-sanctions that set personal behavioral limits. Of course, context is just one of many cognitive mechanisms to relieve cognitive dissonance stemming from a discrepancy between actions and ethics.
Basic Foundation Concepts to Moral Disengagement Theory
Each theory is based on some generally accepted ideas. Moral disengagement theory is no different. Beneath the framework of the theory is some basic psychological concepts. The foundation to moral disengagement theory is beliefs about internal motivations to act according to an inner moral law. We hold an idealistic view of how we should and should not act. These beliefs shape actions and create inner sanctions against certain behaviors deemed reprehensible.
Bandura explains that in the course of socialization, we adopt moral standards “that serve as guides and deterrents for behavior.” Bandura continues, “Once internalized control has developed, people regulate their actions by sanctions they apply themselves” (Bandura, 1990).
Self-Satisfaction and Self-Worth
Once we internalized laws, following them creates a sense of satisfaction. We experience pleasure. However, when our actions fail to comply with self imposed standards, we experience discomfort—a loss of homeostatic balance—from the cognitive dissonance between our moral standards and behaviors.
In order to prevent, or to repair the dissonance, people cognitively disengage from moral imperatives. Bandura explains, “people do not ordinarily engage in reprehensible conduct until they justified to themselves the rightness of their actions.” He continues “what is culpable can be made righteous through cognitive reconstrual” (Bandura,1996).
Basically, we violate our inner moral laws, engage in moral justification, using a variety of mechanisms, and maintain a sense of righteousness without guilt or repentance of the wrong doing.
History and Formation of Moral Disengagement Theory
For centuries, dating back to the early philosophers, moral behavior has dominated human thought. Lawrence Kohlberg introduced six stages of moral development in 1958 (McLeod, 2023). However, most theories on moral behavior defaulted to some variation of moral reasoning. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, Albert Bandura (1925-2021), a Canadian–American psychologist known for social learning theory, began to question some of the basic tenements of moral behavior theories.
Most research, up to this point, on moral reasoning had been conducted within the pristine walls of a laboratory. Bandura wrote, “it is much easier to examine how people reason about hypothetical moral dilemmas than to study how they behave in difficult life predicaments.” Bandura adds, “a theory of morality must specify the mechanisms by which people come in accordance with moral standards” (Bandura,1996).
Bandura’s moral disengagement theory is only a part of Bandura’s overall work on social behaviors and motivations. He presented the moral disengagement process in a number of papers beginning in the early 1990’s and continued to add to the theory throughout his life.
Cognitive Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement Theory
According to Bandura, moral disengagement occurs through the use of various cognitive mechanisms that distort one’s perception of the morality of their actions.
Common Moral Disengagement Mechanisms:
- Moral Justification: People often use this mechanism to make their morally questionable actions seem justified by linking them to a higher purpose or noble cause. By framing their actions as necessary for the greater good, individuals can disengage from the moral implications of their behavior.
- Euphemistic Labeling: This mechanism involves using language that downplays the moral significance of a behavior. By using vague or euphemistic terms, individuals can distance themselves from the true nature of their actions and avoid feelings of guilt or responsibility.
- Advantageous Comparison: Moral disengagement can also occur through this mechanism, which involves comparing one’s actions to those of others who have behaved even worse. By emphasizing the immoral behavior of others, individuals are able to minimize their own wrongdoings.
- Displacement of Responsibility: This mechanism involves shifting the blame for one’s actions onto others or external factors. By attributing their behavior to situational factors or the influence of authority figures, individuals can relieve themselves of personal responsibility through displacement.
- Diffusion of Responsibility: In situations where multiple individuals are involved, moral disengagement can occur through this mechanism. By diluting the sense of personal responsibility across a group, individuals may feel less accountable for their actions and more likely to engage in unethical behavior.
- Disregarding or Distorting of Consequences: Avoiding exposure to the harm caused by personal behaviors, or reconstructing the seriousness to something less than the actual consequence.
- Dehumanization: This mechanism involves perceiving the victims of one’s actions as less than fully human. By objectifying others and denying their moral worth, individuals can disengage from the ethical implications of their behavior.
- Attributions of Blame: Viewing one self as faultless. Acceptably driven to injurious conduct by forcible provocation.
A Few Words By Psychology Fanatic
Understanding moral disengagement provides insights into the defense mechanisms protecting us from ill reactions to our unethical behaviors that violate core beliefs about ourselves. Despite having a genuine moral compass, we still easily act in ways contrary to internal beliefs of how we should act. By examining the cognitive processes that enable moral disengagement, psychologists and ethicists can develop strategies to promote ethical behavior and prevent the harmful consequences that arise from moral disengagement.
Bandura, A., Barbaranelli, C., Caprara, G., & Pastorelli, C. (1996). Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement in the Exercise of Moral Agency. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(2), 364-374. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1684
Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, Jens (2020). A Conceptual Critique of the Use of Moral Disengagement Theory in Research on Violent Video Games. Eludamos: Journal for Computer Game Culture. DOI: 10.7557/23.6180
McLeod, Saul (2023). Kohlberg’s Stages Of Moral Development. Simply Psychology. Published 8-3-2023. Accessed 9-17-2023.