Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves

We all know popular cases of people who became known for their immoral behavior: Think of Lance Armstrong, professional cyclist and seven-time-winner of the Tour de France, convicted for doping. Or the Abu Ghraib prison guards, soldiers of the U.S. army, who took photos while humiliating and abusing Iraqi prisoners under their protection. These, of course, are prominent examples that come readily to mind. However, immoral behavior also happens on the “smaller scale”: Every day, people commit tax fraud, pretend to be ill to skip work, or cheat on their partners – in many cases, they do so although or even despite of knowing that their behavior is wrong. When confronted with such a story, we often stop and wonder: How can that be? How can people do such harm and live with themselves? It is this question that Albert Bandura wants to answer with his enlightening new book, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves.

According to Bandura, we owe it to a set of subtle and efficient cognitive mechanisms which allow us to distort and change our perception of our own behavior, so that it no longer possesses any immoral or unjust characteristics. These processes operate on the individual and the societal level. For instance, we use euphemistic language (and talk of “collateral damage” instead of civilians who get killed by bombs, or “bad apples” instead of corporate wrongdoers) rather than naming the truth; we displace our own responsibility to someone else “in charge” or dehumanize the victims of a misdeed (by calling them “savages” or comparing them to animals).

In the first two chapters (chapter 1: “The nature of moral agency”; chapter 2: “Mechanisms of moral disengagement”), Bandura first introduces the reader to the broader context and the foundation of his model; this is followed by a detailed characterization of the set of mechanisms that promote moral disengagement. Each mechanism is grounded in sound psychological research, and is also vividly illustrated by anecdotes and every-day examples. The following chapters are each dedicated to an area that is particularly prone and vulnerable to processes of moral disengagement, like the entertainment industry and media (chapter 3), the gun industry (chapter 4), the corporate world (chapter 5), capital punishment (chapter 6), terrorism and counterterrorism (chapter 7) and environmental sustainability (chapter 8). Each chapter then starts with a general introduction, followed by a compellingly analytical and meticulous dissection of how the diverse mechanisms of moral disengagement are put to work by lobby members and various stakeholders.  

What makes this book readable?

One of the fascinating aspects about this book is that you as a reader get a feeling of empowerment. In fact, it is a real joy in taking part in Bandura’s thorough deconstruction of the various techniques of moral disengagement in each of the covered focus areas – there’s a man with an agenda, and he’s not to be trifled with! As a result, he provides you with a broad set of methods and questions to expose and counteract distortion tricks like euphemistic language and advantageous comparisons. I directly asked myself why I don’t see more of this in the news on television, newspapers or online. I was also very much impressed by the general scope of fields that are covered by this book. As such, I think this book is a must-read for all people working in media-related jobs such as journalists, politicians, publicists, and scientists.

Admittedly though, there are some aspects about this book which shortened my excitement while reading it: For instance, some of the chapters are rather comprehensive but also very specialized and come along with a lot of redundancies (e.g., chapter 4, “the gun industry”). For the non-U.S. readership, this is exhausting at times. In this respect, the book would have profited from tighter editing. In turn, chapter 3, which deals with processes of moral disengagement in the entertainment industry, almost exclusively focuses on television and neglects modern media (i.e., PCs, video games, smart phones) and the Internet (YouTube, social media, etc). Furthermore, most of the reported scientific evidence dates back to the 1970s, and even “more recent” evidence was published at least 20 years ago and appears very much outdated. To me, this seemed like a missed opportunity, since we face a burgeoning increase in excellent scientific studies on modern media’s effects on our every-day lives. As a final criticism, I had the impression that – although each chapter addresses a unique topic – all chapters follow the same build-up. In terms of style, this renders the book as somewhat lacking in variety and monotonous, at least if you intend to read the entire book. Instead, what I would recommend whole-heartedly, is the following: Pick a chapter of your core interest, and also read both introductory chapters 1 and 2 to understand the underlying model and the set of the diverse mechanisms of moral disengagement. What you get in return is an excellent, scientifically grounded and to-the-point analysis of how processes of moral disengagement are put to work in your area of interest.  And you won’t be disappointed!

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