Tuesday, February 07, 2006

When "Good" People Do Bad Things

An article today in the New York Times (sign-up required) by Benedict Carey discusses the process of Moral Disengagement:

"Common wisdom holds that people have a set standard of morality that never wavers. Yet studies of people who do unpalatable things, whether by choice, or for reasons of duty or economic necessity, find that people's moral codes are more flexible than generally understood. To buffer themselves from their own consciences, people often adjust their moral judgments in a process some psychologists call moral disengagement, or moral distancing.

In recent years, researchers have determined the psychological techniques most often used to disengage, and for the first time they have tested them in people working in perhaps the most morally challenging job short of soldiering, staffing a prison execution team."

Read the rest here.


Fiona de Londras said...

Do you think this has any relevance to how states behave, like states that would normally have championed moral behaviour (i.e. behaviour inkeeping with international human rights standards) but then begin to act 'immorally' by that standard?

John said...

Hi Fiona. You're very welcome.

I'm not sure about the relevance of this concept, since, without anthropomorphising, it's difficult to know where a state's "conscience" might be located. Certainly you could argue that particular individuals and (maybe) administrations might engage in moral distancing, but it might just as easily be dissimulation, deceit, or cognitive dissonance, because it's a case of trying to convince others rather than oneself that what you are doing is the right thing.

Nonetheless, such an analogy might allow dissenting groups to claim the mantle of "the nation's moral conscience," though, no mean claim in terms of political leverage.

Fiona de Londras said...


I should have studied something interesting.

John said...

Ah, but you've come to the right place if you want to practice your sarcasm ;0)

John said...

That's an interesting point, Dennis: Are the individuals in question modifying their moral codes to render their behaviour acceptable to themselves, or are they distancing themselves from their own behaviour. The instituion of state execution deliberately facilitates the diffusion of responsibility, so that those involved can disclaim personal responsibility, but this still involves a process of rationalization.

Hence, I think you're correct. Unless it's possible somehow for the brain to repress cognition of an individual's own voluntary engagement in an act, then it isn't even clear what moral disengagement can mean. Holding some acts in abeyance, perhaps, as not subject to moral evaluation? I don't know.

John said...

Thanks for that Dennis. Wow!

I think you're right to identify the necessary situational and social-psychological conditions that render "bad" behaviour possible. These, I think, go a long way to affecting an individual's willingness to bend their moral code, by which I mean, they rationalize and justify behaviour that they are already inclined to do as a result of fear, peer pressure, etc., and where their self-image/courage/capacity for empathy are not strong enough to motivate them to resist.

It's also significant that you make the difference between ethical and moral disengagement. That was what I was reaching for and trying to figure out how that might be possible, given that moral disengagement seems a nonstarter from a cognitive p.o.v.

A book that just arrived in my post yesterday but which I haven't had a look at yet is "Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture," by John Conroy. I'll be interested to see what he has to say on the subject. I can't claim any familiarity with the minutiae of neuroscience, but it seems to me anyway that the conditions for explaining this behaviour are situational, and therefore explicable in terms of an individual's psychology, biography, worldview, and the socio-historical circumstances in which they find themselves.

In other words, there is no transcendent "Evil" or "badness" beyond what already belongs in the repertoire of deliberate human behaviour. There's no psychosis necessary.

I hope that makes sense.