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Moral Disengagement: The Theory

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adopt standards

judge own actions

apply sanctions

Moral conduct is motivated and regulated through the ongoing exercise of evaluative self-influence,

which can sometimes prevent you getting things you want.

(Bandura, 2002, p. 102).

e.g. Take a train instead of self-isolating after you have received a positive test for the Covid.

Imagine you are tempted to do something that is, by your own standards, wrong.

It’s obvious---or should be---that doing this will put others’ lives at risk.

You anticipate feeling bad (self-inflicted sanctions) if you surrender to temptation.

But you decide to give in to the temptation and do it.

What do you tell yourself?

Examples of moral disengagement

Everyone else is doing it

Johnson himself isn’t sticking to the rules so why should I

The rules are stupid

It’s only a mild illness for most people

It’s only like the flu, we shouldn’t be in lockdown anyway

I’m unlikely to infect anyone

Note the role of reason.

//- Reason plays a role in most, if not all, of these processes. It is central to Moral Justification, Displacement of Responsibility and Attribution of Blame. So if moral disengagement is responsible for a moral judgement or action, it is likely that reasoning will have played a causal role in arriving at the judgement or action.

Bandura (2002, p. figure 1)

Why is the role of reason significant?


driven by feelings -> unreliable

driven by reasoning -> reliable

Moral intuitions are not always entirely consequences of feelings.

Some moral intuitions are, at least in part, consequences of reasoning from known principles.

But why accept the theory?

Note the contrast with philosophy, where it often seems enough to have a good story. (I’ve nothing against storytelling. It’s proven incredibly useful. But you can’t do moral psychology merely by telling stories.)