Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Declaring Moral Bankruptcy

How do you lose yourself?

What is moral bankruptcy? The state a person reaches when they trade away or violate too many of their core moral values and commitments. They may also lose important relationships either as a cause or consequence of his loss of moral commitments. Someone who is morally bankrupt may or may not recognize that they have reached this state.

As someone working in moral philosophy, I argue that our deepest moral values and commitments are a crucial part of our self-identity. When a person knows his nonnegotiable moral commitments and the values he holds most dearly, he knows himself in a very important way. He knows his limits and his boundaries. He knows his motivations as well as how he tends to act in situations that require a moral response.

Our self-identity is also a matter of the particular relations we have with other people. There are some particular social relations that are vital to our identities and our self-understanding. I am a daughter/sister/best friend/teacher etc to particular others. My moral commitments and my relationships are fundamentally connected; I often live my moral commitments and practice my moral values in those social relations. I become a loyal and trustworthy person by acting in loyal and trustworthy ways with the people around me.

Given this, it isn’t surprising that when our vital relations change, our key moral commitments may change. And when our deep moral commitments change, our vital relations may change. This can be both the bad news and the good news depending on the direction of the change.

The bad news: As a person’s use of a substance or engagement in behavior such as gambling progresses, her moral commitments and vital relationships may change simultaneously. Consider a man who begins to gamble in ways that move him down the spectrum from a mild problem to a more severe one. He may have regarded his spouse and children as the most important people in the world. He sees himself as a good father and husband; this is crucial to his identity. He understands himself to have the highest duty to provide well for them. He continues to gamble, such that he pays less attention to his family because he spends more time gambling. Many of the common ordinary activities such as sharing meals, doing errands, and puttering a day away together fall by the wayside. His mounting losses make it no longer possible to provide well for them. In fact, he might not be able to provide enough for basic necessities. He changes his relationship to his family and they may well change theirs to him. His partner may leave. His children may tend to avoid him when he is home.

Rationalization acts as an accelerant in a case like this. Rationalization is the ultimate form of excuse-making and justifying after the fact; it is “yeah, but” thinking. When a person rationalizes, he attempts to maintain his understanding of himself and his commitments by shifting responsibility onto others. With the family man who gambles, he might start to think, “they don’t appreciate me, so why should I work so hard for people who are ungrateful?” He may convince himself that his family has changed but not him. Or there may be vestiges of his deep moral commitment to provide well for his family that makes him think, “I am risking all of this for my family,” even though that is the very activity that risks his family. In the most extreme form, he may start to blame his family and their demands for his gambling.

In losing those vital relationships, a person loses the very people who are best able and situated to provide moral mirrors. In losing one’s core moral commitments, a person loses his orientation such that he can no longer appreciate and cherish the people around him. This is a vicious cycle that leads to moral bankruptcy.

Some people may never recognize they have reached the point of moral bankruptcy. Denial, the first cousin of rationalization, functions to maintain a person’s perception of reality. Denial helps a person to maintain a fiction in the cold light of fact. Denial is a perversely remarkable creative ability that carries a great potential cost.

The good news: Some people will come to recognize when they have traded away or violated their core moral values before things progress too far. They feel pain, loss, or disorientation that pierces their denial; the haze that denial creates is lifted. Once lifted, a person is able to see themselves and the world differently, which makes it possible to act differently.

Some others reach moral bankruptcy and begin to realize how they got there. They may recognize the good people they lost. They may see the effects of losing their moral commitments or living commitments that had become skewed. In short, they begin to see and appreciate the connection between their core moral commitments and vital relations. They may see that their moral commitments and priorities can only be lived in the company of certain others. And, they may see that some of their vital relations can bring out a best in them they had never even imagined.

More from Peg O'Connor Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today