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Moral Disengagement: Significance

The existence of moral disengagement shows that some moral judgements are, at least in part, consequences of reasoning from known principles. It also appears to be a source of objections to each of the theories of moral judgements we have so far considered, as well as (to anticipate) to Greene’s dual-process theory.

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We have understood the theory of moral disengagement and seen evidence that it occurs and can explain an interesting range of morally-relevant judgements and actions. No doubt, then, that it is interesting for its own sake. But why are we focussing on it at this point in the course on moral psychology?

The existence of moral disengagement shows that some moral judgements are, at least in part, consequences of reasoning from principles which the reasoner can articulate.[1]

The role of reason in moral disengagement—and therefore in moral judgement—is incompatible with views on which ‘basic values are implemented in our psychology in a way that puts them outside certain practices of justification’ (Prinz, 2007, p. 32). It is also incompatible with the view that ‘moral reasoning is [...] usually engaged in after a moral judgment is made, in which a person searches for arguments that will support an already-made judgment’ (Haidt & Bjorklund, 2008, p. 189).[2],[3]

How might a defender of one of those views rely to this objection? Observe that those views are not incompatible with the obvious truth that philosophers sometimes reason about ethical dilemmas. This does not contradict those views because such reasoning is (presumably) relatively rare and has not been a significant part to everyday life for most people over the last hundered thousand years or so. The defender might reply to the objection by asserting that moral disengagement is similarly rare.

Is this reply correct? Moral disengagement is implicated in a wide range of inhumane actions, from small-scale bullying (Pelton, Gound, Forehand, & Brody, 2004) through executions of individuals (Osofsky, Bandura, & Zimbardo, 2005) to the use of military force where civilian casualties are expected (McAlister, Bandura, & Owen, 2006). These findings are a challenge to the correctness of the reply.

For those who hold that reasoning does matter for moral judgement, the findings about moral disengagement may also present a challenge. The challenge is that, in moral disengagement, people’s reasoning is usually terrible. Moral disengagement indicates that reasoning often functions to support moral judgements in ways that do not provide justification (because the reasoning is so bad; e.g. ‘Kids who get mistreated usually do things that deserve it’ (Bandura, Barbaranelli, Caprara, & Pastorelli, 1996, p. 374)).[4] Although not directly our concern in moral psychology, this may be a source of objections to theories of moral judgements based on analogies with language (for example, Mikhail, 2007).

In short, moral disengagement appears to be a potential source of objections to each of the theories of moral judgements we have so far considered.

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dual-process theory : Any theory concerning abilities in a particular domain on which those abilities involve two or more processes which are distinct in this sense: the conditions which influence whether one mindreading process occurs differ from the conditions which influence whether another occurs.
moral disengagement : Moral disengagement occurs when self-sanctions are disengaged from conduct. To illustrate, an executioner may avoid self-sanctioning for killing by reframing the role they play as ‘babysitting’ (Bandura, 2002, p. 103). Bandura (2002, p. 111) identifies several mechanisms of moral disengagement: ‘The disengagement may centre on redefining harmful conduct as honourable by moral justification, exonerating social comparison and sanitising language. It may focus on agency of action so that perpetrators can minimise their role in causing harm by diffusion and displacement of responsibility. It may involve minimising or distorting the harm that follows from detrimental actions; and the disengagement may include dehumanising and blaming the victims of the maltreatment.’


Bandura, A. (2002). Selective Moral Disengagement in the Exercise of Moral Agency. Journal of Moral Education, 31(2), 101–119.
Bandura, A., Barbaranelli, C., Caprara, G., & Pastorelli, C. (1996). Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement in the Exercise of Moral Agency. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(2), 364–374.
Dahl, A., & Waltzer, T. (2018). Moral Disengagement As a Psychological Construct. The American Journal of Psychology, 131(2), 240–246.
Dwyer, S. (2009). Moral Dumbfounding and the Linguistic Analogy: Methodological Implications for the Study of Moral Judgment. Mind & Language, 24(3), 274–296.
Greene, J. D. (2014). Beyond Point-and-Shoot Morality: Why Cognitive (Neuro)Science Matters for Ethics. Ethics, 124(4), 695–726.
Haidt, J., & Bjorklund, F. (2008). Social intuitionists answer six questions about moral psychology. In W. Sinnott-Armstrong (Ed.), Moral psychology, Vol 2: The cognitive science of morality: Intuition and diversity (pp. 181–217). Cambridge, Mass: MIT press.
Hindriks, F. (2014). Intuitions, Rationalizations, and Justification: A Defense of Sentimental Rationalism. The Journal of Value Inquiry, 48(2), 195–216.
Hindriks, F. (2015). How Does Reasoning (Fail to) Contribute to Moral Judgment? Dumbfounding and Disengagement. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 18(2), 237–250.
Holyoak, K., & Powell, D. (2016). Deontological Coherence: A Framework for Commonsense Moral Reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 142(11), 1179–1203.
McAlister, A. L., Bandura, A., & Owen, S. V. (2006). Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement in Support of Military Force: The Impact of Sept. 11. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 25(2), 141–165.
Mikhail, J. (2007). Universal moral grammar: Theory, evidence and the future. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(4), 143–152.
Osofsky, M. J., Bandura, A., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2005). The Role of Moral Disengagement in the Execution Process. Law and Human Behavior, 29(4), 371–393.
Pelton, J., Gound, M., Forehand, R., & Brody, G. (2004). The Moral Disengagement Scale: Extension with an American Minority Sample. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 26(1), 31–39.
Prinz, J. J. (2007). The emotional construction of morals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Royzman, E. B., Landy, J. F., & Goodwin, G. P. (2014). Are good reasoners more incest-friendly? Trait cognitive reflection predicts selective moralization in a sample of American adults. Judgment and Decision Making, 9(3), 175.


  1. Royzman, Landy, & Goodwin (2014) provide an independent source of evidence for this conclusion. (Why not use this as a shortcut rather than discussing the more complicated research on moral disengagement? Because, as noted below, there are some further conclusions that we can draw by from the existence of moral disengagement.) ↩︎

  2. Dahl & Waltzer (2018, p. 241) offer a conflicting interpretation: according to them, the findings about moral disengagement are ‘consistent with recent proposals that decisions about moral issues do not typically follow from reasoning about moral principles [...] Instead, decisions are said to happen before moral reasoning in most situations. [...] moral reasoning happens primarily when people later seek to justify their decisions to themselves or others.’ I reject their interpretation because do not know how to reconcile it with Bandura (2002, p. 102)’s point that moral disengagement requires anticipating the effects self-regulation; this appears to require reasoning in order to make or sustain a moral judgement. ↩︎

  3. Much of research on moral disengagement does appear to support these authors’ claims about the social role of reason. But note that these are independent claims. We can consistently hold that moral reasoning influences moral judgements both intra- and inter-individually. ↩︎

  4. Hindriks (2014, pp. 206--7) attempts to argue that individual differences in propensity to morally disengage do suggest there is a role for reason in justifying moral judgements. I think Royzman et al. (2014)’s findings would provide a more direct route to this conclusion. ↩︎