Advantageous comparison is another form of moral disengagement described by psychologist Albert Bandura. This mechanism is a way of trying to make one behavior look good by comparing it with a more frightful alternative.
For example, during the Vietnam War, massive destruction of the Vietnamese countryside by means of Agent Orange was portrayed as being a lot better for the Vietnamese people than being enslaved by the Communists.
One of the most familiar forms of advantageous comparison used to justify war and torture is “sacrificing a few to save thousands.” Undoubtedly, many people still believe that the dropping of atomic bombs on citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved thousands of American lives—an assumption with no real support.
Advantageous comparison became integral to “24,” a popular American television show. The program routinely justified the use of torture as essential to avoiding the greater disasters that could (ostensibly) hurt the innocent if torture had not been used.
The TV series was particularly popular among conservatives, many of whom apparently accepted the program’s message that not only is torture necessary to safeguard “national security” but also that it works.
This belief in the justifiability of a practice banned in international law flies in the face of warnings by experts on torture, including senior military and FBI officials. These and other experts criticized “24″ for misrepresenting the effectiveness of torture and contributing to the misbelief that torture is justifiable.
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.