Moral Engagement

Morality is one of the greatest confrontations people have, both with themselves and with others.


Albert Bandura is one of the greatest psychologists of morality in history. In his paper "Selective Moral Disengagement in the Exercise of Moral Agency" the first line of the abstract reads, "Moral agency has dual aspects manifested in both the power to refrain from behaving inhumanely and the proactive power to behave humanely."

Bandura focused on identifying the eight different ways that people morally disengage. Those are the things that we have to work on avoiding. But, in addition to that there needs to be the things that we are aiming for. There's a reverse to each of the eight things that Bandura identified, and in addition to avoiding moral disengagement, which rightly brings self-condemnation, we must also pursue moral engagement.

Moral Justification

This is the basic idea that the ends justify the means. If the end is justice we cannot reach it through injustice. The path is no longer a path, it's a treadmill. Instead of trying to pursue the end of justice through the means of injustice, we must pursue just ends through just means.

Sanitizing Language

Murder is a bad sounding word. Kill is better. Terminate is better. Eliminate is even better. Neutralize almost sounds nice. Dispatch seems like you might be sending them a letter. Putting someone on ice sounds like you might be helping to cool them down after a hot summer day. But, they all mean to make a person dead. Instead of saying things in such a way that they sound nice, we should say things in such a way that they are clear.

Exonerative Social Comparison

We can use other people as benchmarks. We can use them on both the good side and the bad side to see whose principles we align with, to pursue the good and avoid the bad. But, if you're doing something evil, does it matter if it's a small evil? If you're not good at being a serial killer, is that better than being an efficient serial killer? In a moral sense, no. Instead of comparing ourselves to people who have made a larger impact, we should look at the real impact we have had.

Diffusion of Responsibility

In organizations there usually isn't a single decision maker. You often have to come to a consensus. And, if it's a group or an organization, even if you're a part of it, is it really your fault if some bad things are done? Other people played a part, they could have done something. Instead of looking to who else could've done something, we should look at what we can do.

Displacement of Responsibility

Often, we do things that we didn't even decide. They are orders, commands, policies, etc. You're just an unthinking and undeciding tool in the hands of a real person. That's a very dangerous state of mind to enter into. The psychologist Stanely Milgram called it the agentic state, a term he made while researching if people would torture others who didn't deserve it under orders from an authority. The answer was often, yes. The philosopher Hannah Arendt called this the banality of evil, based on the trials of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Bandura quotes C. P. Snow in his article, “More hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience, than in the name of rebellion.” Instead of acting without thinking as the agents of others, we should do our own thinking and our own deciding.

Minimizing the Injurious Effects

If you're not being hurt, it's easy to think that the pain isn't really that bad. Instead of minimizing the pain of others, we should take it seriously.

Attribution of Blame

Often people are at fault when they are hurt. But, especially if we are the punishers, it's dangerous to put the blame on the victim. It's a different matter if you are the victim, then you should take as much responsibility as possible, to take the power and control in the situation back. But, if society did that then there would be no society, only chaos. Instead of blaming the victim, we should look at who initiated force.

Dehumanization

I don't feel that bad when I step on ants, especially if they're in my house. The closer we come to thinking of people as something other than people, as lower than people, then the easier it is to do bad things to them. Those animals, those beasts, those demons. If you're disposing of someone then they're just trash anyway. Trash is supposed to be thrown out. Instead of dehumanizing people, we must humanize them.

Life is complex, of course. When and how to apply every idea and every principle is impossible to articulate beforehand, and oftentimes even afterward. But, if we keep in mind the idea of avoiding evil and pursuing good. If we push moral disengagement away, and we reach out and grab hold of moral engagement, then we will get better as individuals and as a society.

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To read more from Jeff go to JeffThinks.com or JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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