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What Is Moral Disengagement?

Esther Ejim
Esther Ejim

Moral disengagement theory was developed by Albert Bandura, a developmental and social psychologist. This theory seeks to analyze the means through which individuals rationalize their unethical or unjust actions. Moral disengagement can be achieved through various mechanisms, such as moral justification, euphemistic labeling, advantageous comparison or attribution of blame.

One of the mechanisms for moral disengagement is moral justification. Under this mechanism, people who engage in immoral or injurious conduct seek to justify their actions through morality. To such people, any such act is considered a service to humanity or for the greater good of the community.

A person who blames all relationship issues on their partner may be rationalizing their own unjust actions.
A person who blames all relationship issues on their partner may be rationalizing their own unjust actions.

A morally reprehensible or inherently unjust act might be made more palatable through the moral disengagement mechanism of euphemistic labeling. Here, the perpetrators use euphemistic terms — terms that are less negative or might be viewed as positive — to make their actions seem less harmful. This sort of labeling also serves to limit or reduce their responsibility for their actions.

The moral engagement mechanism of advantageous comparison proposes that people who engage in reprehensible acts make it seem less objectionable by comparing it to something perceived as being worse. An example is justifying an attack on an unarmed group by listing their potential threats to the larger society. Such unprovoked violence against small groups is often justified by the theory of advantageous comparison.

Displacement of responsibility states that people might try to shift the blame for their unconscionable acts on legal authorities. For instance, soldiers might justify the execution of infants, pregnant women or nursing mothers as part of the command that they were given during a war. Here, the authority figure or organization might accept the responsibility for the actions of the actors.

Diffusion of responsibility is another moral disengagement mechanism that states that people might try to limit their responsibility for an action by diluting it. For example, when a group of people make a decision, any effect from that decision will not be as personal as it would have been if one person made the decision. Another means of diffusing responsibility is through the division of labor.

People who act immorally might try to mitigate the effects through the mechanism of disregard or distortion of consequences. This mechanism proposes that the perpetrators minimize or distort the harmful effect of their actions. When the consequences of their actions are less visible, it will be easier for them to justify such acts.

By dehumanizing their victims, perpetrators of inhumane acts might see their actions as less heinous. This theory is based on the way that the perpetrators view the people whom they are treating badly. By divesting the victims of any human qualities, the perpetrators make their actions seem more acceptable.

Attribution of blame is the tendency to blame circumstances or adversaries for actions instead of taking responsibility. Such people tend to see themselves as victims rather than perpetrators. They justify their actions by rationalizing that they have been pushed to do certain immoral or unjust things through provocation or coercion.

Discussion Comments


@AnswerMan, I respectfully have to disagree with your assessment of the war in Vietnam. My cousin did two tours there in '68 and '69, and he came back convinced we were doing the right thing. It wasn't as clear cut as saving Europe from Hitler, but it was still morally justifiable. I think the better example of moral disengagement would be Pol Pot's decimation of the Cambodians during the late 70s. His Khmer Rouge thugs murdered and tortured millions of their own countrymen, all in the name of building a new Cambodia under his control.


I would think using the term "ethnic cleansing" instead of genocide would fit into this category. If an undesirable group is systematically purged in order to protect the "good" citizenry, then it must be morally justifiable. By calling the extermination of millions of Jews a "final solution", the Nazis could sell the idea to the rest of the country.

I would say virtually every major country in the world has employed moral disengagement from time to time. When the United States government sent troops into Vietnam, it was to save the entire region from Communism. Saving countries from an oppressive form of government sounds morally justifiable, but admitting that we sent soldiers to die for oil, tin and rubber rights would not.

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    • A person who blames all relationship issues on their partner may be rationalizing their own unjust actions.
      By: Bryan Creely
      A person who blames all relationship issues on their partner may be rationalizing their own unjust actions.