Moral disengagement

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.[1]

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.[2]


Reconstructing conduct

One method of disengagement is portraying inhumane behavior as though it has a moral purpose in order to make it socially acceptable. For example, torture, in order to obtain information necessary to protect the nation’s citizens, may be seen as acceptable. Voltaire is quoted as saying, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”.[2]

Another disengagement technique is advantageous comparison. Moral judgments of conduct can be influenced by structuring what the conduct is compared against. In social comparison the “morality” of acts depends more on the ideological allegiances of the labelers than on the acts themselves.[3]

Displacing or diffusing responsibility

Another dissociative practice, known as displacement of responsibility, operates by distorting the relationship between actions and the effects they cause. People behave in ways they would normally oppose if a legitimate authority accepts responsibility for the consequences of that behavior. Under conditions of displaced responsibility, people view their actions as the dictates of authorities rather than their own actions.[2]

Additionally, there is the practice of diffusion of responsibility. This is when the services of many people, where each performs a task that seems harmless in itself, can enable people to behave inhumanely collectively, because no single person feels responsible. An example of this is in executions where multiple persons have distinct roles in the execution process so no individual is responsible.[4]

A similar technique is collective action. Any harm done by a group can be blamed on the other members so people act more harshly when responsibility is collective than when individualized. For example, a juror sentencing a person to death can blame the “jury” rather than him or herself as a juror.[4]

Disregarding or misrepresenting injurious consequences

Another method of disengagement is through disregard or misrepresentation of the consequences of action. When someone pursues an activity harmful to others for personal gain they generally either minimize the harm they have caused or attempt to avoid facing it. Instead, they will recall prior information given to them about the potential benefits of the behavior. People are especially prone to minimize harmful effects when they act alone. It is relatively easy to hurt others when the detrimental results of one's conduct are ignored.[2]

Dehumanizing or blaming the victim

A final disengagement practice, dehumanization, is applied to the targets of violent acts and depends on how the perpetrator views the people toward whom the harmful behavior is directed. Once dehumanized, divested of human qualities, people are no longer viewed as persons with feelings, hopes, and concerns but as subhuman objects which do not evoke feelings of empathy from the perpetrator and can be subjected to horrendous treatment.[5]


  1. ^ Fiske, S. (2004). Social Beings: A core motives approach to social psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  2. ^ a b c d Bandura, A. (1999). Moral disengagement in the perpetration of inhumanities. Personality and Social Psychology Review. Retrieved October 12, 2007 from
  3. ^ Bandura, A. (1990). Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement in Terrorism Retrieved October 12, 2007 from
  4. ^ a b Bandura, A. (in press). Moral disengagement in state executions. Retrieved October 12, 2007 from
  5. ^ Stanford University. (1991). How People Do Bad Things Retrieved October 12, 2007 from

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