The Situationist

Archive for December 11th, 2007

The Need for a Situationist Morality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 11, 2007


In 1999, renowned social psychologist Albert Bandura published an article examining the role of “Moral Disengagement in the Perpetration of Inhumanities.” That article’s abstract reads as follows:

Moral agency is manifested in both the power to refrain from behaving inhumanely and the proactive power to behave humanely. Moral agency is embedded in a broader sociocognitive self theory encompassing self-organizing, proactive, self-reflective, and self-regulatory mechanisms rooted in personal standards linked to self-sanctions. The self-regulatory mechanisms governing moral conduct do not come into play unless they are activated, and there are many psychosocial maneuvers by which moral self-sanctions are selectively disengaged from inhumane conduct. The moral disengagement may center on the cognitive restructuring of inhumane conduct into a benign or worthy one by moral justification, sanitizing language, and advantageous comparison; disavowal of a sense of personal agency by diffusion or displacement of responsibility; disregarding or minimizing the injurious effects of one’s actions; and attribution of blame to, and dehumanization of, those who are victimized. Many inhumanities operate through a supportive network of legitimate enterprises run by otherwise considerate people who contribute to destructive activities by disconnected sub-division of functions and diffusion of responsibility. Given the many mechanisms for disengaging moral control, civilized life requires, in addition to humane personal standards, safeguards built into social systems that uphold compassionate behavior and renounce cruelty.

This year, Bandura published a related article on the perpetration of environmental harm. In this more recent piece, titled “Impeding Ecological Sustainability Through Selective Moral Disengagement” (pdf here) Bandura examines how environmental harms are rendered palatable through our ability to preempt or deactivate the self-regulatory mechanisms that would otherwise condemn the behavior that leads to those harms. Understanding the human proclivity for self-justification, he argues, is a key ingredient to saving the environment that sustains us. Or, as we might put it, there is a need for greater situationist awareness and a situationist morality.

Below we excerpt a of a December 5 press release summarizing Bandura’s article by ScienceDaily.

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We can disguise environmentally harmful practices and dress them up in words to help ease our consciences, argues Albert Bandura . . . but such practices will have a negative impact on the planet and the quality of life of future generations, no matter how we label them.

He explains that we must stop attempting to disguise our actions and switch on our environmental conscience to save the world.

As consumers we are repeatedly bombarded with messages telling us to consider the environment and to save energy in the face of global climate change. However, much has been made recently of the fact that personal economic savings on energy consumption might be offset by increased consumption of goods and services. What may at first appear to reduce the level of ecological harm that we cause, may in effect be cancelled out and possibly lead to even greater harm.

Moreover, many of us pursue practices that are detrimental to the environment but which we justify by a kind of moral disengagement. This frees us from the constraints of self-censure and we defend our actions on the basis that such practices are somehow fulfilling worthy social, national, or economic causes and, as such, offset their harmful effects on the future of our planet.

Moral disengagement equates to switching off one’s conscience and there is nothing like self righteousness to exonerate and sanitize malpractice in the name of worthy causes. Convoluted language helps disguise what is being done and reduces accountability, and also ignores and disputes harmful effects. Learning about moral disengagement shines the light not only on the malpractices of others but on ourselves, argues Bandura . . . .

Process of Moral Disengagement - from Bandura paper

Bandura, in his paper, . . . highlights how we can be selective about acknowledging the global consequences of our behaviour and points out that harmful practices, thinly disguised as worthy causes, could cause widespread human harm and degrade the environment nevertheless.

“We are witnessing hazardous global changes of mounting ecological consequence,” he says, “they include deforestation, expanding desertification, global warming, ice sheet and glacial melting, flooding of low-lying coastal regions, severe weather events, topsoil erosion and sinking water tables in the major food-producing regions, depletion of fish stocks, loss of biodiversity, and degradation of other aspects of the earth’s life-support systems. As the unrivaled ruling species atop the food chain, humans are wiping out species and the ecosystems that support life at an accelerating pace.”

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In the article itself, Bandura concludes with this warning:

Ecological systems are intricately interdependent. Global-level changes affect everyone regardless of the source of the degradation. Because of this interconnectedness, lifestyle practices are a matter of morality not just environmental sustainability. Most of the current human practices work against a less populated planet with its inhabitants living sustainably in balance with natural resources. Given the growing human destruction of the earth’s environment, Watson . . . may not have been too far off the mark when he characterized the human species as an “Arrogant primate that is out of control.” One should add morally disengaged to the characterization as well. 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.

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To read all of the press release, click here. To open a pdf version of Bandura’s article, click here. To review some previous Situaitonist posts providing a situationist perspective on environmental challenges, see “Edward O. Wilson’s Situationist Plea,” “Nuclear Power Makes Individualists See Green,” “Al Gore – The Situationist,” and “The Heat Is On.”

Posted in Deep Capture, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | 1 Comment »

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