Moral Disengagement Leads People to Act Immorally and Justify Their Unprincipled Behavior

Temptation of Christ on the First Day of Lent

Rationality Drives Human Behavior Only After Emotion and Impulse Lose Their Hegemony

People adapt moral standards that dissuade them from objectionable behavior. But these moral standards do not serve as a steadfast regulator of their moral actions. Occasionally, circumstances can make people to become selectively disengaged from those moral self-sanctions and end up pursuing unprincipled actions.

Particularly when people feel angry, pressured, or depressed, their mental footing tends to ebb away. Any state of emotional threat can let up their determination to act ethically and resist temptations. They lose discipline, get into a defensive mode, and become susceptible to thinking only about short-term benefits. They are more likely to engage in self-absorbed behaviors that they would otherwise spurn, especially if the payoff for such behavior is high and the odds of getting caught and punished are low.

Circumstances Sometimes Sway People to Engage in Behaviors That Conflict with Their Internalized Moral Standards

Moral disengagement is the psychological phenomenon that describes how people rationalize behavior that is at odds with their own moral principles. For example, suppose a teenager who has a principled framework that forbids theft. If he takes a newspaper without paying for it from a Starbucks store, he may rationalize his actions by telling himself that Starbucks warranted some harm because it overcharges its consumers and, until recently, purchased not all its coffee beans from certified fair trade sources.

'Moral Disengagement' by Albert Bandura (ISBN 1464160058) People engaging in wrongdoing often see that the rules are uncalled-for and unjustifiable. In their judgment, even though they may be breaking the rules and flouting conventions, they’re persuaded that they’re really not doing anything wrong because the rules deserve to be violated.

Moral reasoning usually deprives people when they devalue their prey and malign their victims (“her tattletaling deserved it” or “he brandish a knife, hence I pulled out my gun.”)

Stanford Psychologist Albert Bandura, who introduced the concept of moral disengagement, identified eight cognitive mechanisms (book) that disengage a person’s internal moral standards from his/her actions, thereby causing unethical behavior without conspicuous remorse or self-censure.

Idea for Impact: Be Wary of Suspending Your Moral Standards to Reduce Self-Censure

When circumstances or people provoke you to potentially regretful behavior, realize that you are a self-determining agent, and that you have a moral and ethical responsibility to behave with integrity and pursue wholesome actions. Step back and ask yourself, “Normally, would I judge this contemplated action to be wrong? Are my ways of thinking flawed? Am I defending the harm I am causing by blaming others? Am I criticizing the victim to justify my destructive actions?”

When in doubt, use Warren Buffett’s rule of thumb for personal integrity: “I want [people] to ask themselves whether they are willing to have any contemplated act appear the next day on the front page of their local paper—to be read by their spouses, children and friends—with the reporting done by an informed and critical reporter.”

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