Updated: June 22, 2023 03:59 AM GMT
In this May 19, 2016 photo, then US president, Barack Obama, presents the National Medal of Science to Dr. Albert Bandura of Stanford University at the White House in Washington, DC. Bandura's contribution to exposing the role of justification in moral disengagement to help understand how bullies and other aggressive persons behave differently and justify their behavior has been well appreciated. (Photo: AFP)
Most people refuse to do evil. At the same time, there is so much of it in the world. One way of explaining this contradiction is by bringing in the concept of “Moral justification” as proposed by Albert Bandura (1925-2021), a Canadian-American psychologist, who has influenced contemporary ethics significantly.
The process of moral justification is activated when harmful behavior is cognitively reinterpreted to make it acceptable on a personal and social level. This cognitive reinterpretation places a strong emphasis on the behavior's goal and portrays it as serving an important societal or moral goal.
When acting in morally justified ways, people adhere to social or moral obligations based on worthwhile goals. In non-sporting situations, bad behavior is morally acceptable if it furthers social (e.g., honor and reputation) and moral (e.g., religious) goals.
However, moral justification, typically in sport, takes place when undesirable behavior is thought to help accomplish desired social results. A football player defying the laws of the game to score may resort to moral justification, as the act helped the team to win.
The process of moral justification
In this area, the person believes that his unethical actions are justified by a higher goal. People frequently believe that the immoral things they perform are done to uphold a conviction or protect something morally better.
The actions of military officers are often morally justified, particularly during times of conflict. Real conflict occurs when an action is committed to achieving a higher goal, but on the contrary, it undermines other humanitarian efforts.
Simply expressed, moral justification is the process through which someone who is analyzing morally dubious conduct tries to make it appear right. To keep a clear conscience, this person seeks a way to portray the action favorably.
To put it another way, it is a type of alchemy whereby dubious activities are transformed into something tolerable, if not positively outrageous; turning evil into good or lead into gold.
If something seems too good to be true, it probably is, as the saying goes. But despite this, this clever ruse has been used to dupe people for hundreds of years, implying that the end justifies the means.
The biggest flaw of moral justification is that it rewards crafty behavior. People are very proficient at justifying their dubious behavior, especially to themselves.
This kind of scheming is child’s play for individuals who are sharp-witted and skilled manipulators. If such justification rewards the cunning and the greedy, people need to take notice and prevent it.
Second, moral justification is a search for arguments that are sophisticated enough to hide the unethical aspects. Do we want to encourage individuals to act in this way when they are in an ethical dilemma? Do we want them to spend their time trying to find excuses and cover up their wrongdoings?
Bandura claims that moral justification is a strategy for relieving oneself from moral responsibility. It is a cover-up to hide moral misgivings, as Bandura elaborates in his work, Moral Disengagement in the Perpetration of Inhumanities.
In the paper, he argues, "Cognitive restructuring of harmful conduct through moral justification, sanitizing language, and exonerating comparisons is the most powerful set of psychological mechanisms for disengaging moral control."
It is a major tactic used by those who go on to commit atrocities in the name of a higher cause. And each of us engages in it every day as we commit the small lies, cruelties and injustices.
A child deceives his/her mother to relieve her of the worry. People who have grown up in a justification-centered culture are less prone to tell themselves things like, "I'm a bloody liar, she deserves better, I've got to make this right."
Instead of trying to convince oneself by saying, "I really did it for her good, and that makes my lie just fine," people find encouragement in habitual moral justification.
A convenient excuse
According to Bandura, "People do not ordinarily engage in harmful conduct until they have justified to themselves the morality of their actions. In this process of moral justification, detrimental conduct is made personally and socially acceptable by portraying it as serving socially worthy or moral purposes. People then can act on a moral imperative and preserve their view of themselves as a moral agent while inflicting harm on others."
He suggests better social safeguards as a remedy.
Many people do value morality and do agree that "two wrongs don't make a right" and "ends don't justify means." Still, they defend lies as "technicalities" and "mere stretching of the truth." They may agree with deception and violence, with the justification that it is the overthrow of a despicable dictator. Justificatory habits have a morally damaging effect on everyone.
Bandura's contribution to exposing the role of justification in moral disengagement has been well appreciated. They help us understand how bullies and other aggressive persons behave differently and justify their behavior.
However, why shouldn't the bully use proper moral reasoning and not justification, as we are all called to do? And if moral justification is unwise in one situation, shouldn't we look at its application to moral instruction in general?
Examples will help to clarify the practice of moral justification. According to research, many police officers prefer perjury to disloyalty. They tend to defend their actions as being loyal to their peers when given the choice between testifying against their colleagues or lying under oath (perjury).
A different illustration explains, in reference to unethical conduct, "This is actually not the morally right thing to do; we're actually helping our group by doing this. That makes it actually right!"
In the case of players, they defy the laws of the game to score and think it is acceptable since it helps the team win.
Additionally, it is simple to apply this bias of moral justification in exceptional circumstances like war, terrorism, murder, killing, or committing any kind of physical or mental violence.
Moral justification is a way to conceal evil behavior under the pretense of fostering the larger good. Thus, rationalizing immoral behavior is all too common.
It is a way of justifying our own immoral acts. It is a revision of culpable behavior in the direction of the bad guy.
Church leaders who are learned and committed are quite prone to moral justification as a way of perpetuating misdeeds, beginning with small ones and ending with bigger ones.
They need to be extra watchful.
*Jesuit Father Kuruvilla Pandikattu is a theologian and Chair Professor of JRD Tata Foundation for Business Ethics at XLRI-Xavier School of Management in Jamshedpur, India. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.