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moral disengagement theory

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Moral disengagement theory, pioneered by Albert Bandura, seeks to explain how people with a sense of morality nonetheless violate their own moral code.

While Bandura initially focused on individuals’ behavior in extraordinary circumstances like war and theft, current research is using moral disengagement theory to understand how people excuse their contributions to climate change and violating animal rights.

  • Moral justification: when we give immoral behavior a higher/overriding moral purpose, such as being for the greater good.
  • Euphemistic labeling: such as “collateral damage” for civilian casualties allows people to hide from the consequences of their actions. See George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”, in which he states “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
  • Advantageous comparison: when we deflect responsibility for our actions by comparing them to the (often exaggerated) actions of others. “Sure we tortured people, but did you see the atrocities the other side committed?!”
  • Displacement of responsibility: when we place the responsibility for our actions on another, often higher, authority. This is the classic “just following orders” defense.
  • Diffusion of responsibility: when we deny or downplay out moral responsibility by placing it on a group of which we were a part. “I’m not personally responsible for those actions I took part in, our platoon/posse/nation committed them.”
  • Disregarding or misrepresenting injurious consequences: when we downplay or deny the consequences of our actions on others. See also: gaslighting.
  • Dehumanization: when we deny that the victims of our actions are morally relevant. For example, “those people act like animals, so we treat them as such”. See moral progress and “the expanding circle” of morally relevant beings.