Moral Landscapes

Living the life that is good for one to live

Blurred Moral Vision (The Psychology of Killing – Part 2)

Sometimes a system we are in overwhelms our moral sense

*Todd Junkins is co-author

In our previous post we discussed the development of the moral self and how our moral decisions shift according to which “self” is active (safety ethic, engagement ethic or imagination). Here we discuss how situations and systems influence the moral self.

Systems are organizations of power that exert psychological and ethical pressures (Zimbardo, 2007). No system is morally neutral. ‘Total systems’ are represented in famous dystopian novels like 1984 and A Brave New World. But total systems do not have to be as big as a whole society. We all come into contact with total systems at work, in the media, politics, government, and religion.

When people are stuck in a total system, their moral vision can become blurred, broken down systematically. We know that the social climate in an organization can foster particular attitudes of superiority and denigration of others, leading to unethical behavior. (e.g., Enron’s glee at robbing grandmothers’pensions). For example, Greg Smith wrote recently of a system-based moral breakdown in Goldman Sachs (link in his New York Times Op-Ed). Describing a corrupting ‘culture’ within the firm, Smith writes: “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the junior analyst sitting quietly in the corner of the room hearing about “muppets,” “ripping eyeballs out” and “getting paid” doesn’t exactly turn into a model citizen.” In these situations, and situations much more total and intense, values become mis-shaped or confused. In this case, aggressive or self-aggrandizing actions were condoned and increasingly more attractive. A system can also encourage a paralyzing fear, as among the populace in Nazi-occupied countries when Jews were being rounded up for extermination. Or, one can submit to a learned helplessness, especially as a child in a traumatizing home (later translated to situations as an adult).

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A powerful total system can dictate particular actions, and we can succumb, leaving aside our own skills, intuitions, and deliberations. This is especially true for unfamiliar, shocking or intense situations. Our better natures are overwhelmed.

Prisons are another example. Prison is a total system, in that it is the only system inmates’ experience. It is also highly structured, regulated, monitored, and maintained. Phil Zimbardo’s famous prison experiment demonstrated the effects of a total-system prison on presumed normal male college students (Zimbardo, 2007). The breakdown of moral vision in the participants was so fast that the experiment had to be shut down after only a few days instead of going for its planned two weeks.

Imagine solitary confinement (increasingly used): being in a prison cell for 23 hours of the day and the other 1 hour is spent alone, walking around a highly guarded, walled-in outdoor space. This solitary confinement is not just solitary in the sense of being totally separated from other people, but also in being under only one system of carefully constructed experience. It is double lonely, breaking down our social and creative needs and desires. Since humans, as mammals, are not meant to be alone, it can lead to permanent psychosis even after the prison term is ended (Haney, 2003; Travis & Waul, 2003).

Relationship between systems and the moral self

Systems, in the form of situational pressures, interact with our capacities and conditioning, prompting specific moral orientations (Safety, Engagement, Imagination). When a situation activates an ethic, that ethic guides our perception, goals, expectations and potential actions. For example, in emotionally warm and supportive environments, our engagement ethic can flourish. But when we feel threatened our vision narrows and we notice what might useful for self-protection (e.g., weapon, hiding place).

An individual can also privilege one of the three ethical systems based on conditioning or practice, making it a primary disposition. In this case, one of the three ethics may become a dispositional orientation, a primary or base position. For example, secure attachment in early life and the good caregiving that accompanies it, builds empathy and social wherewithal that become habitual. However, when our environment is experienced as perpetually threatening, self-protection may become our primary ethical viewpoint (Eisler & Levine, 2002).

In addition, each of the three major ethical orientations (Safety, Engagement, Imagination) described in the previous post can also be combined in various ways, resulting in more nuanced ways of acting and thinking. For example, the engagement ethic, in combination with imagination, represent a communal imagination or mindful morality. But these combinations are not always positive.

There is a particularly sinister combination that can result in the type of calculated and vicious actions shown in the Afghanistan murders. In fact, this combination is likely behind most human to human destruction. If the Safety Ethic is the dominate disposition from which we act, and there is sufficient mental space to use our imagination and creativity, the result is a “functionally reptilian organism armed with the cunning of the neocortical brain” (Lewis, Amini, & Lannon, 2000, p. 218).

Primitive emotions, such as anger, can fuel creativity, forming a vicious imagination, driven by a clever seeking of control. Ruthlessness or destroying anything that gets in the way of maintaining or regaining power can be viewed as a moral imperative. In this state, killing may be used to regain a sense of power or enact rage over not having the power needed to establish a sense of security.

Whoever systematically murdered the men, women and children in Afghanistan was potentially using a vicious imagination, methodically stalking, murdering, and then deliberately gathering and burning their bodies.

We can change systems

Systems can evolve in unpredictable and unwanted ways, creating situations where we are required to act in ways we never imagined. In the case of Goldman Sachs’ corrupt culture, Greg Smith recommended that Goldman Sachs, “Weed out the morally bankrupt people, no matter how much money they make for the firm. And get the culture right again, so people want to work here for the right reasons (Smith, 2012).” In making these recommendations, Greg Smith directs our attention to the fact that those who participate in systems have the ability to change them, and thereby change the situations systems create.


Note: For a more detailed look at this topic, see the chapter titled ‘An Educational Model for Teaching a Nonkilling Ethic’ in Nonkilling Psychology, published through Center for Global Nonkilling. The title is available for free in .pdf format or through Amazon.


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Darcia Narvaez is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame and Executive Editor of the Journal of Moral Education.


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