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Why Good People Can Do Awful Things and Why They May Ignore the Bad

How and why good people may do nothing when bad things happen.

Key points

  • Dr. Albert Bandura says in his moral disengagement theory that humans can engage in a process that allows them to justify certain actions.
  • A person may convince themselves that the rules in a particular ethical situation simply do not apply.
  • As humans, it is our ethical and moral responsibility to act and to intervene when we see and hear of injustices, including acts of violence.
Kristin Meekhof
Source: Kristin Meekhof

As a fulltime secret keeper, an occasional mental health speaker, and writer, I've heard thousands of bad stories. These narratives range from deep secrets to traumatic life events, such as experiencing sexual abuse, to less harmful things like being upset with a neighbor for creating an ugly outdoor playspace. And, yet, what seems most troubling is when others know something bad has happened or is happening (like sexual harassment at work) and they proceed with "business as usual."

One famous business that kept operating with “business as usual” despite being told of the damaging effects their products had on people was the tobacco industry. You may be wondering, How could leadership go onward knowing their products harmed their consumers and those around them?

Moral Disengagement

One of the pioneers in psychology, Dr. Albert Bandura (he died in 2021), would likely tell you it is due to something called “moral disengagement.”

Dr. Bandura coined this theory and wrote a book with the same title. In brief, it states that a person convinces themselves that the rules in a particular ethical situation simply do not apply. The process by which someone may do this can be seen as intellectualizing the circumstance or rationalizing it or even blaming others. Worse yet, they may dehumanize someone or minimize the suffering others are experiencing or will experience.

A popular example is cheating. As a student, you were up late because you were helping a sick parent. At the last minute, you couldn't pull together the resources needed to complete the assignment so you "borrowed” someone else’s words, took credit for them, and submitted them as your own. You may even justify this action by saying your father needed your assistance.

While doing research for my book, I interviewed more than 100 women about their experiences with loss and grief. And it wasn’t usual for a woman to say, “I’m telling you something I’ve told no one.”

Before sharing the secret or secrets, many times, the women would either say, “I know this sounds bad but I…” or “I am justifying this by..."

The secrets often contained elements of difficult emotions, such as not feeling devastated when their spouse or partner died because they didn't have a fulfilling relationship, or untruthful actions, such as cheating on their spouse or partner.

Perpetuating Unethical and Immoral Behavior

In these instances and in others, Dr. Bandura says people use the “moral disengagement" process to cover their actions, and this can perpetuate unethical and immoral behavior. This process may seem like it is an excuse to let others off the hook for their questionable actions. And, to be clear, Dr. Bandura wasn't saying it is OK for others to lie and commit unethical and violent acts. Instead, Dr. Bandura was giving a theory as to why some good people may do bad things and go on living with their actions without feeling much guilt or empathy for the injured party, or why they may look the other way when something violent or unkind happens.

Where we stand on a particular situation, whether it be a political or private one, can determine what we see, and how we think about it can inspire us to act.

Dr. Bandura says this in his book (as quoted in The Helper's Journey):

The sense of common humanity is developed through shared relational experiences that link one's own well-being to the well-being of others. Commitment to humanitarian causes greater than oneself can further build commonalities. These interpersonal conditions are essential to the development of inclusive, socially just, and humane societies.


Bandura, Al. (2016). Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Larson, Dale (2020). The Helper's Journey: Empahty, Compassion, and the Challenge of Caring, Second Edition. Champaign, ILL: Research Press Publishers.

Meekhof, K., Windell, J. (2015). A Widow's Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice For The First Five Years. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.

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