I've been cleaning out my inbox and I ran across this blog post that a friend sent to me way back in 2008. It just got buried and forgotten about. I clicked the link but the blog has been removed, and googling the title didn't bring it up either. However, he sent me the whole thing, so I am pasting it here. It is written by a blogger named Trinifar.  - Dallas


Excuses, excuses, excuses


 Everyone who participates in a relationship whether it is parent/child, teacher/student, manager/employee, or something else hears excuses for bad behavior. Thankfully, people are nearly always self-regulating. When faced with a moral dilemma, we usually do the right thing if for no other reason than to avoid self-censure, that is, to avoid thinking, “I really shouldn’t have done that.” At times, though, this self-control fails; we violate our own moral standards and find ourselves producing excuses for behavior we know was wrong.


The man who beats his wife — but in all other interactions with friends, family, and colleagues appears to be perfectly normal — has found a way to avoid self-censure. In the history of American race relations, many otherwise fine people attended church on Sunday after a lynching on Saturday. They, too, found a way to avoid activating their self-regulation controls.


The psychologist Albert Bandura enumerates eight mechanisms we use to avoid self-censure and thereby enable bad behavior:



In the case of lynching, these moral disengagement mechanisms might be expressed like this:

  • moral justification: “we have to keep them in line”
  • exonerative comparison: “it’s not like we hanged a white guy” or “we could have killed his whole family”
  • euphemistic language: “we were just putting down a dog”
  • disregarding, minimising, and disputing harmful effects: “there are plenty of coloreds to fill his shoes”
  • dehumanization of the victim: “they’re not people like us”
  • blaming the victim: “if he hadn’t looked at my wife that way…”
  • displacement of responsibility: “the Klan did it”
  • diffussion of responsibility: “I was just one of a hundred”


The people doing, watching, and abetting lynchings used mechanisms like these to avoid self-censure, and by doing so they could go off to church on Sunday thinking of themselves as perfectly normal, God-fearing, law-abiding folks.


At the other end of the spectrum, consider stealing from the office supply cabinet:

  • moral justification: “I’m using this for a good cause [church, civic, education, helping the poor,…]”
  • exonerative comparison: “it’s not like took a laptop”
  • euphemistic language: “I just borrowed it”
  • disregarding, minimising, and disputing harmful effects: “nobody will miss a few pens”
  • dehumanization of the victim: “the boss [or business owner] is just another rich guy [or corporation]”
  • blaming the victim: “if they cared about us taking stuff they’d have locked the cabinet”
  • displacement of responsibility: “if my friend hadn’t asked for one, I won’t have taken it”
  • diffussion of responsibility: “everyone does it”


In his paper, Impeding ecological sustainability through selective moral disengagement, originally published in International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development, Bandura addresses yet another case,


the influential role played by selective moral disengagement for social practices that cause widespread human harm and degrade the environment.

In other words, faced with the knowledge that our current economy and lifestyles are causing

ecological destruction to such an extent that our, and certainly our children’s, well-being is in jeapordy, how is it we avoid taking any significant action?


Albert Bandura’s paper has the depth and quality that comes from a long and distinguished academic career. (One survey based on the frequency of journal citations, introductory textbook citations, and the survey responses of 1,725 members of the American Psychological Association ranked him as today’s most influential living psychologist. His theories have had tremendous impact on personality psychology, cognitive psychology, education, and therapy.”)


As much as I wish everyone would read his paper, its 13,000 words are too many for most. What follows is my 1,800 word distillation. The headings correspond to his. My hope is that this summary will encourage you to read Bandura’s paper in its entirety at GIM. It’s filled with examples pertaining to all aspects of sustainability.




Harming others by one’s practices becomes a matter of morality. The harm to the earth is largely the product of human activity. Societies, therefore, have a moral obligation to preserve the environment so that future generations have a habitable planet.


mechanisms of moral disengagement


There is no disembodied group mind doing the moral disengaging. Rather it is people acting together on shared beliefs. … Collective moral disengagement requires a network of participants vindicating harmful practices that take a heavy toll on the environment and the quality of human life.


This is where Bandura produces the figure on which the diagram above is based. He notes that like the victims,


The messengers of harmful effects and those working toward ecological sustainability also are derogated and discredited.


Instead of lynching as a first example, Bandura uses the tobacco industry noting that agriculturalists, tobacco executives, chemists, biotech researchers, movie actors, funded scientists, advertisers, investors and shareholders, lawyers, legislators, department of agriculture, trade representatives, tobacco companies, and the US government are all participating in one or more forms of moral disengagement in order to promote a product that does nothing but cause death.


As shown in this example, moral disengagement is not just a matter of intrapsychic machinations operating at a subterranean level. It is rooted in a lot of social machinations by a huge cast of moral disengagers pursuing their livelihood in a diverse array of social systems. By diffusing responsibility through subdivision of the tobacco business, the contributors see themselves as decent legitimate practitioners of their trade rather than as parties to a deadly operation.


social and moral justification


Social and moral justifications sanctify harmful practices by investing them with worthy purposes. This enables people to preserve a sense of self-worth while causing harm by their activities….


Unlike the other mechanisms of moral disengagement, which serve mainly to free harmful practices from moral consequences, social and moral justifications serve a dual function. Sanctifying detrimental practices as serving worthy purposes enlists moral engagement in the activity. Belief in the worthiness of an enterprise not only eliminates self-censure from its harmful aspects, but engages self-approval and brings social recognition and economic rewards for being successful at it.



  • conservative environmentalism in which human domination over nature is the natural order
  • unconstrained free-market: “The products of unfettered pursuit of self-interested activities within legal bounds, are said to contribute to the welfare of others.”
  • creativity: “Under market-driven incentives, technological ingenuity will supposedly provide solutions for environmental problems.”
  • urbanization: “most of the peoples of the world live under congested urbanised conditions where they are harmonising more with their constructed concrete environment than with their natural environment…. Environmental conservation becomes an abstraction rather than an experienced necessity.”


exonerative comparison


How lifestyle and industrial practices are viewed is coloured by what they are compared against. By exploiting the contrast principle, detrimental practices can be made righteous. If used skillfully, framing the issue by advantageous comparison can not only make the lesser of two evils socially acceptable, but even morally right. The disputes over the Kyoto Protocol illustrate how, through exonerative comparison, both sides of the controversy feel righteous about their high output of greenhouse gases.


Developing countries ask why they should curtail their economic growth for a problem they did not create while developed countries like the US and Australia say they will be placed at a competitive disadvantage.


euphemistic language


Language shapes perceptions and thought processes on which actions are based. Activities can, therefore, take on quite different appearances depending on what they are called. Moral self-sanctions can be reduced by cloaking harmful activities in sanitised, convoluted and innocuous language. Doublespeak renders them benign and socially acceptable. For example, the acid rain that is killing lakes and forests is disguised as “transit particle deposition from an unidentifiable source”. The convoluted form of Doublespeak disguises by piling on inflated words that do not add meaning. In his book, Telling It Like It Isn’t, Rothwell characterises the sanitising form of euphemisms as ‘linguistic novocain’ that numbs us to unpleasant and harmful realities; and the convoluted form as ’semantic fog’ that obscures and conceals detrimental practices.



  • US Environmental Protection Agency
    • …a senior official at the agency banished the word ‘hazard’ because it is “a trigger word that excites the American public needlessly”.
    • The Office of Hazardous Emergency Response was renamed the “Office of Emergency and Remedial Action”.
    • ‘enforcement personnel’ were renamed ‘compliance assistance officers’
  • nuclear power industry
    • an explosion is an ‘energetic disassembly’
    • a fire is ‘rapid oxidation’
    • a reactor accident is a ‘normal aberration’ or a ‘plant transferent’
    • plutonium contamination is ‘infiltration’ or “plutonium has taken up residence”


displacement and diffusion of responsibility


Moral control operates most strongly when people acknowledge that they are contributors to harmful outcomes. They are spared self-disapproving reactions by shifting the responsibility to others or to situational circumstances. This absolves them of personal responsibility for the harm they are causing. The exercise of moral control is also weakened when personal agency is obscured by diffusing responsibility for detrimental behaviour. This is achieved by division of labour in which the subdivided activities seem harmless in themselves. Group decision making is another common practice for reducing a sense of personal accountability. Collective action, which makes one’s contribution seem trivial, is yet another form of self-exoneration for aggregate harmful effects. Global effects are the cumulative products of local actions. The adage, ‘Think globally, act locally’ is an effort to restore a sense of personal accountability for the environmental harm produced collectively.



  • Critics of conservationists blame global warming on natural cyclic changes in climate.
  • [Union Carbide] displaced responsibility for the [Bhopal, India, industrial disaster in which thousands of people were killed, seriously injured, or partially disabled and nearly 200,000 were severely affected in other ways] by blaming the Indian government for its failure to regulate the plant and for allowing people to live nearby.
  • Union Carbide also blamed the explosion on sabotage….


Disregarding, minimising, and disputing detrimental effect


When people pursue activities that serve their interests but produce detrimental effects they avoid facing the harm they cause, or they minimise it. If minimisation does not work, the scientific evidence of harm can be discredited. In this way doubt and controversy is created despite substantial evidence to the contrary. As long as the harmful results of one’s conduct are ignored, minimised, or the evidence is discredited, there is little reason for self-censure to be activated, or any need to change behavioural practices.


Beck (2007) has categorised the various stages of denial of adverse climate affects. The first stage is outright denial or treating it as nothing new. It also happened centuries ago so its just part of a natural change. ..


In the next stage, one acknowledges a climate change but can still neutralise any moral concerns by trivialising the change or even ascribing benefits to it through selective inattention to adverse effects. Warmer weather is said to make life more pleasant in cooler northern regions. This may be personally comforting as long as one disregards the millions of people living near the equator whose lives are impaired and dislocated by rises in the earth’s temperature produced elsewhere.


Arguments in the final stage claim that the earth’s temperature is uncontrollable by human action, and, regulatory policies to curb carbon emissions will be economically disastrous. If nothing new is happening climatically, and it is not of human origin or mitigatable by human action, there is no need to change lifestyle practices. Nor is there anything to get morally exercised about. Polluting behaviour is freed from the restraint of moral self-sanctions.


Derogation of those working toward ecological preservation is a common tactic for neutralising moral concern over lifestyle practices that impair the ecological supports of life. The proponents are disparaged as ‘doomsayers’, ’scaremongers’, ‘environmental wackos’, ‘tree huggers’, and the like. Bloggers who target deniers that environmental problems are of human doing are called ‘kooks’. The critics christened Al Gore, the indefatigable environmentalist, as ‘ozone man’. The British press labelled Prince Charles, who called for a sustainable stewardship of the environment, as a “loony eccentric prince who talked to plants”


dehumanisation and disparagement


The strength of moral self-censure for harmful practices also depends on how those who suffer the consequences are regarded. To perceive another as a sentient human being with the same basic needs as ones’ own arouses empathic reactions through a sense of common humanity (Bandura, 1992). The joys and suffering of those with whom one has a sense of kinship are more vicariously arousing than are those of strangers or those divested of human qualities. It is difficult to inflict suffering on humanised persons without risking self-condemnation. But it is easy to do so if they are viewed as subhuman objects. Many conditions of contemporary life are conducive to impersonalisation and dehumanisation. Bureaucratisation, automation, urbanisation, and high mobility lead people to relate to each other in anonymous, impersonal ways. Strangers can be more easily dehumanised than can acquaintances. In addition, social and political practices that divide people into ingroup and outgroup members create human estrangement that fosters dehumanisation. People group, divide, devalue, and dehumanise those they disfavour. Their well-being is easy to discount when they are in far-off places.


Moral self-sanctions can be disengaged or blunted by depersonalising people or stripping them of human qualities. The infliction of human suffering at the global level is, in large part, by indirection rather than done directly. We saw earlier that the world’s wealthiest countries are producing most of the heat-trapping gas emissions that are raising the global temperature. It is the people living in poor, developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia who are bearing the brunt of the adverse climate shift. As the receding glaciers in mountain ranges are further melted by the rising earth’s temperature, the rivers they feed will provide declining water for personal, agricultural, and industrial use. Water shortages, crop failures, and expanding desertification are forcing mass migration of people who lack the resources and means to protect themselves against the degradation of their environment by the climate change. Displacement of millions of people is creating a growing humanitarian crisis. Their meager livelihood contributes little to the temperature rise, but they suffer the adverse consequences of it.




If we are to preserve a habitable planet it will not be by token gestures and schemes for buying one’s way out of wasteful and polluting practices. Rather, it will be by major lifestyle changes with commitment to shared values linked to incentive systems that make environmentally responsible behaviour normative and personally worthy. A sustainable future is not achievable while disregarding the key contributors to ecological degradation — population growth and high consumptive lifestyles.


If we are to be responsible stewards of our environment for future generations, we must make it difficult to disengage moral sanctions from ecologically destructive practices.

Tags: ethics, moral disengagement, moral relativism, morality, morals

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Replies to This Discussion

That's a really good post. Very good paper/essay on ethics.

I appreciate this cogent summary. However, it would be nice to include the diagram to which you refer. I get upset almost daily by headlines that use euphemisms and disparage climate scientists.

Ruth, the original post no longer exists. See note at top.


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