Moral Disengagement: The Perpetuation of the Inhumanities

Heather Wilburn and Henry Imler

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This reading aims to identify and explain processes that allow us to distort moral obligations. These processes include:

  • Diffusion of Responsibility
  • Displacement of Responsibility
  • Distortion of Consequences
  • Dehumanization
  • Attribution of Blame
  • Gradual Moral Disengagement
  • Moralistic Justification
  • Euphemistic Labeling
  • Advantageous Comparison

This list is not exhaustive and there are many more examples that can be recalled to help us understand what these processes look like. I encourage you to locate your own example for each process covered below.

To begin, we start with Bandera’s conceptualization of the processes through which moral self-regulations are disengaged from detrimental behavior at different points in the self-regulatory process.[1]In other words, we begin by looking at the processes we use to disengage ourselves from making or thinking about moral objections to behavior.

Moral justifications through euphemistic labeling allows for the displacement, or diffusion, of responsibility. This displacement of moral responsibility also occurs when we minimize, ignore, or distort the consequences of acts or when we offer a dehumanizing attribution of blame (i.e. blame the victim). These and those noted above are understood as follows:

Diffusion of Responsibility

Diffusion of responsibility is the process by which moral responsibility is considered to be spread out within an entire system or process so that no one person is to blame for the outcome. For example, one might argue that they are not responsible for the execution of an innocent person because they are just the jailer. Taking responsibility for our actions is difficult. It is even more challenging when you played a role but were not the only culprit. It is much easier to diffuse, or systematically spread blame so that no one is responsible.

Displacement of Responsibility

Displacement of responsibility is when responsibility from the actor and placed upon a superior. A historical, albeit severe, example of this can be seen in Adolf Eichmann’s defense against the 15 charges he faced following his role in the Nazi pogrom. Specifically, his role was to organize the “identification, assembly, and transportation of Jews” to extermination camps, including Auschwitz.[2]His defense was that he was simply following orders. He was found guilty and hanged in 1961 by an Israeli court. It is worth noting that this is the only time an Israeli court has handed down the death penalty. Hannah Arendt, a Jewish philosopher living in New York in exile during the time of Eichmann’s trial, covered the trial for the New Yorker. Her account was and remains controversial because she did not find Eichmann to be an evil monster, which is the characterization everyone expected. Instead, she found him to be an ordinary and mediocre man—a man of superficial thinking. This is what she refers to as the banality of evil.[3]Arendt’s thoughts on the trial led Stanley Milgram to conduct his experiments on obedience. The results were disturbing to say the least.

In 1974, Milgram publishes his work on obedience, which demonstrates obedient aggressors aggressively up to 90% of the time when peers are compliant. This compares to 10% of the time when peers are defiant. We should aim to be defiant and to challenge what we are told (and/or told to do).

Distortion of Consequences

Distortion of consequences occurs when one refused to consider the effects of their actions or allows themselves to believe a false set of effects of their actions. For instance, one might reason like this: “Strip mining this mountain doesn’t actually release harmful chemicals into the river, according to my company’s brochure on the topic, so I should not feel that I have done anything morally wrong by working for them.” Sometimes we do not want to see the consequences of our actions, our votes, or our purchases. Sometimes we have been trained not to look at the consequences. Sometimes in order to sell an idea or a product, we distort the consequences.

Milgram’s work also noted that the further away one is from an infliction of suffering, the easier it is overlook, allow, or participate in atrocities. So, it is important for us to not look away, despite distances between us culturally, geographically, technologically, or linguistically.


Dehumanization occurs when the people being acted upon are given subhuman characteristics, when then classifies them as sub-human, which allows them to be treated worse than one treats people. You can find dehumanizing terms in a wide range of contexts. For example, a nationally syndicated radio host referred to undocumented workers as cockroaches that need to be eliminated.

Political leaders, including presidents have referred to various group members as animals, cockroaches, criminal aliens, dangerous microbes, gnats, mad dogs, rapists, rat, reptiles, rodent, and vermin. Large swaths of history across a variety of cultures referred to the other, the stranger, the them, as barbaric, savage, non-rational, non-autonomous, and lacking in imago dei—the image of God.

Attribution of Blame

The attribution of blame is when the blame for the actions that harm someone is placed on the person harmed. The criticism of such is intended by the phrase “victim blaming.” For example, “If the Jews hadn’t been corrupt and hurting the German people, we would not have needed to fix ‘the Jewish problem’” (Imler). Other examples include “You were asking for it by dressing that way”, “well you were drunk,” “boys will be boys,” “you must have provoked them,” and the like.

Gradual Moral Disengagement

Gradual moral disengagement is the process by which immoral behavior is repeated (or gradually ramped up) rendering what was morally difficult to inflict the first time, to be easy or natural after repeated attempts. For example, one might reason, “it was really difficult the first time I was involved in an execution, but by my second year, all the moral worry wore off”.

Moral Justification

Moral justification is the process by which immoral actions are justified by appealing to core moral or social values. For instance, “the townspeople were justified in lynching the man because in speaking to the white woman, he threatened her honor”. Other general ways moral justifications are used include diminishing the consequences or impact of the event by comparing the act to much worse behavior and by indicating the act is in a morally gray area.

Euphemistic Labeling

Euphemistic labeling is the process by which the morality of terrible actions is obfuscated or “fogged up” by referring to them by innocent or neutral soundings. An example is something like, “we did not cheat on the exam; we collaborated”.

Advantageous Comparison

Advantageous comparison is a process by which immoral actions are justified by placing them in comparison with even worse outcomes that were stopped by the immoral action. An example is, “If we did not torture and murder Tim and Bob, they would have dynamited the dam, resulting in the deaths of the whole town”.


Again, this is not intended to be an exhaustive list of processes that allow us to disengage, morally. However, it is a list of processes that are common and fairly easy to identify. We have to be willing to look carefully, though, and not just as others but also ourselves.

Citation & Use

Originally developed and edited by Henry Imler at Moberly Area Community College, most of the content in this chapter was contained in a presentation of the same name and designed to supplement an Open Educational Resource (OER) textbook for introductory ethics students. Over the years, the editor of this textbook used it in ethics classes for years and expanded on some of Imler’s key points, and this chapter is the result of that work.

  1. A. Bandera, Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1986, (376).
  2. “Adolf Eichmann.” Encyclopedia Britannica, November 9, 2023.
  3. Arendt, Hannah. “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” The New Yorker, February 9, 1963.


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