What is Moral Disengagement?

Moral disengagement is a term from social psychology for the process of convincing the self that ethical standards do not apply to oneself in a particular context by separating moral reactions from inhumane conduct by disabling the mechanism of self-condemnation (Fiske, 2004).

Generally, moral standards are adopted to serve as guides and deterrents for conduct. Once internalized control has developed, people regulate their actions by the standards they apply to themselves. They do things that give them self-satisfaction and a sense of self-worth and refrain from behaving in ways that violate their moral standards. Self-sanctions keep conduct in line with these internal standards. However, moral standards only function as fixed internal regulators of conduct when self-regulatory mechanisms have been activated, and there are many psychological processes to prevent this activation. These processes are forms of moral disengagement of which there are four categories (Bandura, 1999). (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_disengagement)

Selective Moral Disengagement in the Exercise of Moral Agency by Albert Bandura (PDF file)

ABSTRACT: Moral agency has dual aspects manifested in both the power to refrain from behaving inhumanely and the proactive power to behave humanely. Moral agency is embedded in a broader socio-cognitive self-theory encompassing affective self-regulatory mechanisms rooted in personal standards linked to self-sanctions. Moral functioning is thus governed by self-reactive selfhood rather than by dispassionate abstract reasoning. The self-regulatory mechanisms governing moral conduct do not come into play unless they are activated and there are many psychosocial mechanisms by which moral self-sanctions are selectively disengaged from inhumane conduct. The moral disengagement may centre on the cognitive restructuring of inhumane conduct into a benign or worthy one by moral justification, sanitising language and exonerative social comparison; disavowal of personal agency in the harm one causes by diffusion or displacement of responsibility; disregarding or minimising the injurious effects of one’s actions; and attribution of blame to, and dehumanisation of, those who are victimised. Social cognitive theory adopts an interactionist perspective to morality in which moral actions are the products of the reciprocal interplay of personal and social influences. Given the many mechanisms for disengaging moral control at both the individual and collective level, civilised life requires, in addition to humane personal standards, safeguards built into social systems that uphold compassionate behaviour and renounce cruelty.


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