Moral Justification: Reconstructing Unethical Conduct
Moral justification is one method people use to disengage from inner conflicts between behavior of central ethical beliefs. According to Albert Bandura we internalize laws that regulate our behavior by imposing self sanctions. However, at times, our behaviors violate these self sanctions, and shun the ethical laws we have internalized. In these common conflicts, we address the cognitive dissonance through a number of defensive strategies. One of these strategies is moral justification.
According to moral disengagement theory, moral justification refers to the process of framing harmful actions or behaviors in a way that makes them seem morally acceptable or justified. Individuals who engage in moral justification often use various cognitive mechanisms to distance themselves from the negative consequences of their actions and reduce their feelings of guilt or moral responsibility.
Moral justification is a personal strategy we employ to excuse personal behaviors that conflict with internal ethical laws of behaviors.
A common moral justification is citing the reprehensible behavior is in service to a higher cause. Many governments crumble under the guise of a higher cause. Groups cite a ‘higher cause’ and willing destroy constitutions, innocent lives, and any other obstacle standing in their way. We see groups in service of a political cause engage in horrifying behaviors.
Bandura wrote that, “what is culpable can be made righteous through cognitive reconstrual” (Bandura, Barbaranelli, et al., 1996).
Police may believe they are engaged in “the Lord’s work” and the greater good of the society when they justify trampling constitutional rights of citizens they perceive as unworthy of such freedoms. Armies trample, rape, and destroy small villages citing they are serving a higher purpose. The kings warriors raid and murder neighboring countries that hold to a different religion.
Much sadness and corruption exists and is protected under self-righteous claims to higher causes. Perhaps, there are justifiable higher causes. However, when we personally weigh the higher cause against our own misdeeds, biased self-serving perceptions intrude, and we unnecessarily injure others just to escape or alleviate the emotional discomfort of the guilt.
Utilitarianism and Moral Justification
One of the most common justifications put forth is the notion of utilitarianism. According to this ethical theory, the end result or outcome of an action is what matters most. Therefore, if an unethical act leads to a greater overall good or happiness, it can be considered justified. However, this line of reasoning often neglects the importance of upholding moral values and the inherent dignity of every human being.
Moral Justifications Allow Unethical Behaviors to Continue
This can involve attributing blame to others, minimizing the harm caused, or emphasizing the greater good achieved through their actions. Moral justification plays a crucial role in enabling individuals to engage in morally questionable behaviors while maintaining a positive self-image. Accordingly, by disengaging normal self-censoring systems, we invite more disengagement and continued unethical behavior.
Leon Festinger explains the dangers of justification, he wrote, “few people want to reduce dissonance by deciding they aren’t so good or kind after all; much easier to reduce it by justifying the harm they cause: ‘He deserved everything he got'” He continues to explain when we use moral justification our “acts of abuse and aggression do not reduce violence, but often insure its escalation” (Festinger, et al., 2017).
“The only way out of the nasty practice of disconnecting ourselves from our moral grounding is to reconnect. This means that we must take our eyes off the demands of the moment and cast our view on the larger moral issues by reframing reality in moral terms. And we have to do it in a way that is both vibrant and compelling. Simple lectures, homilies, and guilt trips-verbal persuasion at its worst- won’t work” (Grenny, et al., 2013).
A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic
While we may put forth valid arguments to justify unethical behavior, it is crucial for us to recognize the potential harm and negative impact on individuals, communities, and society of these justified behaviors. Striving for ethically sound decisions and actions fosters trust, promotes fairness, and ultimately contributes to the well-being and progress of humanity.
As discussions concerning the justification of unethical conduct continue, it is important to engage in thoughtful reflection and deliberation, always keeping in mind the larger implications and consequences of our choices. Behaviors never stand alone. While we may rightfully justify a behavior in a simplistic view of a single action and consequence, we miss the larger impact and second and third order consequences of excusing unethical behaviors. We live in a complex system. In conclusion, only by upholding strong ethical standards can we build a society that values integrity, justice, and compassion.
Bandura, A., Barbarella, 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: 10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1244
Festinger, Leon; Riecken, Henry W.; Schachter, Stanley (1956/2017). When Prophecy Fails: A Social & Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. Independently published.
Grenny, Joseph; Patterson, Kerry; Maxfield, David; McMillan, Ron; Switzler, Al (2013). Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change. McGraw Hill; 2nd edition.