How People Commit Inhumanities

And how they live with themselves

Posted Feb 26, 2016

How do people do harm and live with themselves? As we develop the moral aspect of our lives, we often adapt standards of right and wrong that serve as guides and deterrents for our conduct. We aim to do things that give us satisfaction and a sense of self-worth, and refrain from behaving in ways that violate our moral standards because such actions evoke self-condemnation.

However, today we are witnessing a moral paradox in which individuals in all walks of life commit inhumanities that violate their moral standards and still retain a positive self-regard and live in peace with themselves. They achieve this paradoxical adaptation through eight psychosocial mechanisms whereby they selectively disengage their moral self-sanctions from their detrimental conduct.

Of the eight mechanisms, moral justification is especially powerful. It not only enlists morality in the mission but also disengages morality in its destructive execution. Perpetrators absolve their harmful behavior as serving worthy causes. ISIS militants, for example, behead their prisoners, force women and girls into sexual slavery, and terrorize entire populations in the name of Islam. Ordinary people perpetrate carnage in the name of religious, ideological, and national imperatives. Voltaire put it well when he said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Personal and social acceptability of given activities differ, depending on what the activities are called. Inhumanities are therefore shrouded in sanitizing and convoluted euphemisms. Bombing missions are described as “visiting a site” as if they were recreational outings. The civilians the bombs kill are linguistically sanitized as “collateral damage,” stripped of any humanity. Who would know that this byzantine verbosity—“atmospheric deposition of anthropogenically derived substances”—is the acid rain that is killing lakes and forests? In his book Telling It Like It Isn’t, J. Dan Rothwell dubbed the sanitizing form “linguistic novocain” and the convoluted form as “semantic fog.”

People also color their harmful behavior by comparing it with alternatives. Utilitarian comparison construes harmful actions as minor, relative to the human suffering that they supposedly prevent. Creative comparison can make the alleged lesser of two evils not only acceptable but even morally right. In another form of comparative exoneration, an international arms dealer asks why is he blameworthy for selling weapons to autocratic rulers when Dow Chemical is selling napalm to use against the Vietnamese people. In an effort to blunt comparatively the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, Pope Benedict XVI declared that Protestants and Jews do it and family members and relatives are even worse offenders.

Another set of mechanisms allows wrongdoers to absolve themselves of blame for the harm they cause by displacing and diffusing responsibility. For example, subordinates in social systems claim that they are simply carrying out orders. Those in the upper echelon do not want to be blamed either. They authorize transgressive practices indirectly and create systems of deniability that shield them from knowledge of detrimental acts. In the Iran-Contra affair John Poindexter created a system of deniability to keep President Reagan uninformed about illegal sales of arms to Iran and support of a guerrilla war against the Sandinista regime. Top officials also engage in willful blindness to keep themselves uninformed of what is going on. When transgressive practices are exposed, authorities shift the blame to rogue subordinates, using them as scapegoats, as was the case for some individuals during the financial crisis.

Moral control is also weakened when responsibility for detrimental behavior is widely diffused. This is accomplished by group decision making. In “groupthink,” the faceless group becomes the agent. Division of labor also diffuses and thereby diminishes a sense of responsibility, as we witnessed with the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. Napoleon expressed it aptly: “Collective crimes incriminate no one.”

Judging the harmfulness of given policies and practices is the major battleground in moral disengagement. There is no moral issue if those practices are judged to be harmless. Wrongdoers ignore, minimize, and dispute harmful effects. They disparage the research as “junk science” and attribute nefarious motives to scientists. For example, the tobacco industry derogated research that demonstrated the adverse health effects of smoking as “half-truths in the hands of fanatics,” “Scientific Malpractice,” and “Orwellian ‘Official Science.’” The firearms industry turns its wrath on gun regulation as “political terrorism” promoted by “loony leftists” with “reporters perched like vultures at shootings." The chemical industry went to great lengths to discredit Rachel Carson’s credibility as a scientist, portraying her as a “hysterical woman.”

In the final forms of moral disengagement, wrongdoers treat adversaries as subhuman animalistic, demonic beings. Expunging any sense of shared humanity eliminates moral restraints. Conflict-laden transactions involve reciprocally escalated acts. Blaming adversaries for bringing the suffering on themselves not only excuses provocative actions as self-defense but can even make retaliation self-righteous. Osama bin Laden characterized his terrorist activities as “defensive jihad,” provoked by “debauched infidels” bent on enslaving the Muslim world. The lead industry blamed “ignorant parents” for applying lead paint to juvenile furniture.

Moral disengagement does not occur only in an individual’s mind, nor is it confined to individuals acting independently. It often operates on a large scale within social systems. Collective moral disengagement at the social-system level requires a network of participants who justify their harmful practices. The examination of collective moral disengagement includes major industries such as the gun, tobacco, lead, and chemical industries and the world of “too big to fail” finance systems. Disengagement of morality does heavy duty in political systems. It is applied in all aspects of the death penalty, from public-policy debates to jury decisions to the execution itself. Moral disengagement in terrorism enables the mass killings of innocent civilians. In combating terrorism with military counterterrorism, societies face moral challenges as well. Of greatest consequence, stripping morality from environmentally detrimental practices helps to degrade the habitability of the planet for future generations.

How can disengagement of morality be deterred? A public that is well informed in disengagement practices can see through them and thereby reduce their effectiveness. How can we promote humane societies? One of the most striking findings of research on moral disengagement is the extraordinary power of humanization to curb inhumane conduct. Whether on the battlefield, in vengeful social relationships, or in the laboratory, people cannot persuade themselves to behave cruelly toward humanized others despite strong social pressure to do so. Seeing the common humanity in others arouses empathy and compassion toward them. It also instills a sense of shared responsibility for the quality of life in a society. Shared experiences that link a person’s own well-being to the well-being of others instill a sense of common humanity. These social conditions are essential to the development of inclusive, socially just, and humane societies.

Copyright: Albert Bandura 

Albert Bandura is author of Moral Disengagement : How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves, Worth Publishers, 2016