By Michael Shachat
Note from Kathie MM: Michael wrote an honors thesis under my direction two years ago when he was a senior at Boston University. This post is based on his thesis.
Why is it that so many ordinary law-abiding individuals are able to justify actions that lead to the loss of innocent life when they are told those actions are necessary to fight international terrorism?
One answer may lie in the extent to which people become morally disengaged when they are fearful—that is, the extent to which they justify violence by strategies such as euphemistic labeling (e.g., referring to civilian deaths as collateral damage) and moral justification (or “pseudo-moral” justification) (e.g., assuming the violence that led to civilian deaths was committed in self-defense)..
These ways of thinking contrast dramatically with morally engaged reasoning —raising principled moral arguments against aggression (nobody has the right to harm anybody regardless of circumstances) and “telling it like it is” (calling civilian casualties murder).
For my study, I analyzed response from 328 participants from three different countries (Israel, the U.S., and South Africa) to the statement “Sometimes the heads of a government have the right to kill innocent civilians in order to fight international terrorism.”
My analyses revealed that participants from these three very different countries with different histories from different parts of the world did not differ in the extent to which they used morally disengaged reasoning to justify the killing of innocent civilians.
Does this finding surprise you? Would you have expected that citizens in one of those countries might have been more likely to show moral disengagement than citizens in one or both of the other countries?
There were differences. The US participants were significantly less likely than the South African participants to offer morally engaged arguments. Does that surprise you? Can you think of anything that has happened recently to people in those two countries that might account for that difference?
Another difference was that more women than men made morally engaged argument. (Any surprises there?)But it is encouraging that, in all three countries, participants. provided more morally engaged than disengaged arguments.
If we can find ways to strengthen morally engaged thinking, perhaps there is hope for the future.