Pseudo-moral justifications (Moral disengagement, part 2)

In our August 30 post, we introduced psychologist Albert Bandura‘s mechanisms of moral disengagement. Today we begin to explore the six strategies Bandura has identified.

Bandura indicates that often people “cognitively reconstruct” an inhumane  behavior to make it into something different from–that is, more moral than–what it actually is. One way to do that is to cloak the behavior “in moral wrappings.”

Bandura uses the term “moral justification” to describe this process.

When political/military leaders want their followers to go to war and kill “the enemy,” they argue that the killing is justified, even “moral.” They often claim that war has moral goals such as fighting oppression, making the world safe for democracy,  spreading peace, and so forth.

In this regard,  Bandura cites Voltaire, who said “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

In our view, Bandura has identified an important process manipulated by people in power. This process has been effective in getting ordinary people to kill and torture, while still viewing themselves as moral and even as followers of the Golden Rule.

On the other hand, we dislike the ambiguous use of  ”moral” in front of “justifications.” It suggests that the justifications are “moral” rather than “pseudo-moral.” For this kind of moral disengagement, we suggest that a better term would be “spuriously moral justifications” or “pseudo-moral justifications.”

Over the next few weeks, we will continue to explore mechanisms of both moral disengagement and moral engagement. Alternating posts between the two types of mechanisms, we hope to illustrate the spectrum of moral behaviors as they apply to engaging peace.

The next post will address the reciprocal of  pseudo-moral justifications–specifically, principled moral arguments.

Dr. Kathie Malley-Morrison, Professor of Psychology

Note: This post was adapted from my previously published article in Peace Psychology (a publication of the American Psychological Association), Spring, 2009.

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6 Responses to Pseudo-moral justifications (Moral disengagement, part 2)

  1. chari tsatsaroni says:

    Hi Kathie!
    Thank you for opening this dialogue! It is very exciting!
    Voltaire’s quote is so illuminating and reminds me that unfortunately human beings have experienced so many wars. We should listen more to historical voices that narrate human pain due to war.
    I agree that adding either ‘spuriously’ or ‘pseudo’ to “moral justification” would make such an important process as it has been described by Bandura less ambiguous and more comprehensive, especially if we would like to conceptualize a corresponding mechanism of moral engagement. Also, although the two suggested terms are synonyms, I would prefer ‘pseudo’ since I think it is more common in scientific use and it would form a compound word that captures people’s struggle to tolerate acts that violate their moral standards, ‘deceiving’ in a way themselves that such acts serve humanity.

  2. kathie mm says:

    Thanks so much for your comment, Chari.
    I know how interested you have been in your own research in understanding moral engagement. Keep up your good work!

  3. Ben Buckman says:

    Hi,
    I am acquainted with several members of GIPGAP, and am grateful to have been introduced to this blog. I have long had several serious concerns about GIPGAP’s work, the ideology (but not name) of which is reflected in these posts, so I would like to share some questions and thoughts.

    First, I am concerned that GIPGAP is primarily ideological not academic. The official subject matter is psychology, which as a field aspires to be a science, which implies objectivity. There is a clear ideology (of pacifism) to the group’s work, however, which brings into question that objectivity. The group’s research seems to reach too far into subjective realms of philosophy and ideology, selecting psychological interpretations to match the ideological preconceptions rather than testing empirical data and theory against hypotheses as the scientific method requires. I do not necessarily contest the ideology; I do question whether it belongs in the halls of academia (funded by tuition or grants that would be more suitably spent on objective science).

    Second, having studied political philosophy for many years, I object to the apparent equation made of moral “engagement” with anti-war politics. Serious, morally engaged thinkers over centuries considered seriously the concepts of just war and the moral uses of violence. I would submit that dogmatic pacifism is a view held by a very small minority of philosophers through history. The terminology used on this blog and by GIPGAP dismiss those schools of thought, and worse, try to preempt philosophical objections on the grounds of being engaged in psychology not philosophy.

    Third, the survey which GIPGAP distributes as the basis of its research has serious flaws. It asks, for instance, if one “believes world peace can be achieved” – without ever defining “world peace”. World peace can be defined in a myriad of mutually exclusive ways – for instance, the cessation of all violence anywhere, or a geopolitical equilibrium between militarily robust global powers – and the definition one has in mind determines the possible answers to the question (and subsequent judgments of moral “disengagement”). I can only hope the coding manual for that question takes into account the definitions before the answers, but the research would be more sound if the terms were simply defined in the survey itself.

    I would be very interested in your thoughts regarding these concerns. Perhaps my perception is misguided, in which case I look forward to being corrected.
    Thank you.

  4. kathiemm says:

    Ben: Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I would like to address some of your concerns.

    Psychology is a field that provides both empirical and conceptual tools for helping us make sense out of human (and other animal) behavior. Certainly great thinkers have grappled with the issue of “man’s inhumanity to man” for many centuries, and yet human beings continue to be warlike as well as peaceful, hateful as well as loving.

    At this stage in my life, near the end of my academic career, I want to add my voice to those who emphasize peace as the best alternative to war and loving as the best alternative to hating. Naturally I work with the tools with which I am most familiar, and want to use those tools in the search for better solutions.

    Although you did not define what you mean by “dogmatic pacifist,” I don’t consider myself to be one, despite my education at a fine Quaker institution (Swarthmore College). I do think we need to work harder at finding better solutions to human problems, and certainly think that the U.S. has launched wars that were counterproductive for its own welfare, its own future, and the future of humankind.

    In my search for social and behavioral scientists and philosophers who provide insight into why human beings can behave inhumanely, I have found several whose ideas are valuable and merit being shared with a broader audience. Among them are Albert Bandura (moral disengagement and engagement) and George Lakoff (framing).

    Just war principles are also extremely important, and a number of upcoming posts, including some from Michael Corgan, my friend and colleague from the International Relations Department at Boston University, will be devoted to a discussion of those principles.

    GIPGAP members and I engage in long debates about issues such as war, torture, and genocide—and attempt to use research methods that bring science to bear on a topic that can, in fact, border on philosophy.

    The Personal and Institutional Rights to Aggression and Peace Survey (PAIRTAPS) has been distributed in 40 countries as well as in the U.S. The questionnaire was designed to allow ordinary people to use their own words to define terms such as war and peace, and to express their personal views on such issues as government’s right to send people to war or torture prisoners in time of war, and whether children have a right to grow up in a world of peace. (PAIRTAPS will be discussed in more detail in a later blog post.)

    The research method provides an opportunity to learn what people around the world think about these issues without their being constrained by our assumptions about how the major terms should be defined.

    Obviously there are lots of competing views about how various forms of research should be done and which are more legitimate than others. I believe that both our exploratory study of how people think, and our efforts to encourage dialogue about views on war and peace are valuable and deserve my dedication, and the dedication of others.

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