What does it mean, in real life, to be “morally engaged” in response to issues like inhumane behavior?
This question is difficult and complex. According to psychologist Albert Bandura (2002), being morally engaged involves exercising moral agency, which has dual aspects — inhibitive and proactive.
“Inhibitive” moral agency. The inhibitive form of moral agency allows individuals to refrain from behaving inhumanely (e.g., refusing to participate in the military, or disobeying orders to torture someone).
Individuals who demonstrate inhibitive moral agency are described by Bandura as having a strong sense of self-worth that allows them to resist pressures to behave unjustly or immorally. They do this despite the likelihood of punishment for such resistance, for example, through jail terms.
“Proactive” moral agency. The proactive form of moral agency moves people to take positive action in favor of a moral belief–e.g., actively protesting war, providing refuge to refugees, etc.
When exercising proactive morality, people act in the name of humane principles even when experiencing pressure to engage in expedient and harmful behavior.
Another psychologist, Theresa A. Thorkildsen, argued that moral engagement inhibits inhumane behavior and promotes humane behavior because it is powered by a vision of how the world should be.
There are many famous examples of people who exercised both forms of agency in service of moral engagement (consider the actions of Father Daniel Berrigan during the Vietnam War). In addition to the familiar exemplars, you have probably known others in your own lifetime.
Can you think of people who have shown moral engagement? (Perhaps you are one of the examples yourself!)
Please share their stories with us. Could their actions be characterized as showing inhibitive or proactive moral agency–or both?
Kathie Malley-Morrison, Professor of Psychology