Moral Disengagement – Lack of Remorse

April 22, 2020
Moral disengagement is the difficulty assuming responsibility for one's actions when they contradict a value or a norm. Many seek means to minimize or hide an ethical transgression when they incur in one.

Moral disengagement is an interesting concept that points to a theory proposed by Albert Bandura. It’s related to the reasons why many people end up engaging in behaviors that contradict their values. Those who, for example, speak of respect and offense or of peace and aggression.

This moral disassociation was evident in many historical phenomena. The Nazi Holocaust is the most publicized. It makes you wonder how the entire country complicity agreed to a massacre. How could it be that men and women, some of them highly decent and enlightened, lent themselves to bring the world to an extreme and devastating situation?

However, moral disengagement isn’t a macro phenomenon only. You can see it on a daily basis. For example, people who are supposedly against corruption but are masters at bribing. Also, some who defend the rights of the most vulnerable but exploit their employees. What’s striking about all this isn’t the behavior itself but the fact that it doesn’t generate any kind of discomfort for those who incur such contradictions. This is precisely what this theory is about.

A person handing out an envelope.

Moral disengagement

Several theories try to describe how human beings acquire the principles and ethical values ​​that govern them. For Albert Bandura, it’s a process by which these values ​​are instilled. In other words, through stimuli such as rewards and punishments. People internalize rules due to this.

According to his theory, some circumstances lead to flexibility in the observance of said rules. It may be due to social pressure, because it’s an inconvenience at certain times, or perhaps because there’s an urgency, among others. The truth is that human beings are capable of acting against the norms instilled in them since they were children.

When a person betrays their moral convictions, great discomfort occurs inside them. It’s a mix of remorse, guilt, and dismay. In this state, the affected person needs to resolve their discomfort. They can do so by rectifying or using mechanisms to justify what they did. Moral disassociation is one of them. It allows you to reinterpret your behavior so you don’t feel bad about it.

A seemingly concerned man.

The mechanisms

According to Albert Bandura’s theory, there are seven mechanisms or ways to justify or give a convincing explanation about the reasons why a person betrays the values ​​they claim to believe in:

  • Moral justification. It occurs when a person hides behind certain values ​​merely to excuse the transgression of other values ​​or certain norms. Like when a parent physically punishes their child and says: “It’s for your own good”.
  • Euphemisms. This takes place when you minimize the impact of behavior and soften it through language. For example, when you dismiss or abandon and refer to it as “letting go”.
  • Displacement. Making an external agent responsible for what you do. For instance, when you have to follow an unfair because “it’s the law”. The laws that led to the mistreatment of Jews in Nazi Germany is one example.
  • Diffusion. This corresponds to the cases in which individual responsibility dilutes within collective guilt. In fact, it’s a typical mechanism of corruption. “If others do it, why shouldn’t I?”

And

  • Arbitrary comparison. In this mechanism, there’s a parallel between the worst possible acts and the behavior that a person assumed. If they steal money, they say that others steal 100 times more than they do. Or if they hit someone, they say that others kill.
  • Objectification. It consists of symbolically taking away the dignity of the victim of one’s behavior. For many centuries, people said, for example, that blacks had no soul. But currently, many defend the practice of cooking lobsters alive by saying they don’t feel pain.
  • Attribution of responsibility to the victim. It occurs when the victim is blamed for the damage done to them. If they hadn’t complained, they’d still be alive. If she hadn’t dressed in a sexy way, no one would’ve raped her, etc.

Finally, all these mechanisms are a part of today’s world. This is an era of excessive moral relativism. It isn’t good to adhere to inflexible principles, but neither is it healthy for a society to have limits that are so uncertain.

  • Bietti, L. M. (2009). Disonancia cognitiva: procesos cognitivos para justificar acciones inmorales. Ciencia Cognitiva, 3(1), 15-17.