Moral disengagement in relation to (un-)sustainability

Prof. Dr. Wendelin Küpers

Among the many irritating phenomena that characterise our times of multiple crises is the moral disengagement, especially related to (un-)sustainability.

Moral disengagement

When people morally disengage, they often convince themselves that ethical standards or principles do not apply to them in a particular context or related to a specific issue. In moral disengagement problematic or destructive behavior is reframed as being morally acceptable or justifiable without changing the behavior or the moral standards.

According to Bandura (1999), selective moral disengagement occurs when a person actively disengages or consciously disconnectstheir self-regulating efficacy for moral conduct. The person is then separating what one is doing in terms of moral acting or reactions from unacceptable conduct which serves also to disable mechanisms of self-condemnation. And as he or she has shown selective activation of self-sanctions and internal moral control or disengagement allows for a wide range of behaviour, given the same moral standard.

As Bandura and his colleagues (1996) found out moral disengagement functions in the perpetration of inhumanities and unethical behaviour through moral justification, euphemistic labelling, advantageous comparison, displacing or diffusing responsibility, disregarding or misrepresenting injurious consequences, and dehumanising the victim, all of them. Importantly all of these cognitive mechanisms are interrelated within a (materio-)socio structural context to promote unethical and unsustainable conduct in people’s daily lives. Both are important as individual orientation and behaviour cannot be separated from (materio-)social situatedness, realised in everyday life. We know from various radicalist of fundamentalist groups how religious principles, nationalistic or other imperatives as well as righteous ideologies have and are used as means to justify all kinds of reprehensible and destructive conducts. But besides extreme groups and context moral justifications is increasingly used in everyday life and to make unsustainable und unjust behaviour socially acceptable.

One often used form of moral disengagement is realised by using euphemistic language to describe reprehensible acts or conduct is another way that individuals or groups can morally disengage from their moral standards. By using innocuous word or expression in place of one that is deemed to suggests something problematic or unpleasant euphemism is a powerful way of influencing. For example, euphemisms are used to make unsustainable, injurious, and harmful behavior or implications acceptable or even respectable while reducing esponsibility for it from the person. With the help of intricate rephrasing detrimental unsustainable behaviour is made innocuous and acceptable, and people who are part of it are liberated from feeling sense of guilty. There exists different varieties of euphemisms including sanitising language or sanitise labelling, showing how disinfection can be infectious.

How sanitising it is to refer to the dangerous heating up and destructive dynamics on the planet Earth in and through the Anthropocene as ‘climate change’. How neutralising is calling for ‘climate neutrality’: A climate can never become neutral, but what is necessary is to reduce CO2 emissions that requires more radical transformation on all levels, of individual and collective mindsets, practices and institutions.

By disguising the (actually) problematic and deleterious with seemingly innocent wordings, the detrimental behaviour causing it itself becomes more acceptable, or respectable, wrongly normalised. This is often done for the sake of public interests or utilities, and sometimes express like in the language or military and terror/ language of the military and terrorism with terms like „collateral damages“; long term negative effects for future generations of species are vindicated. Sanitising euphemism by rephrasing have a long history. For example, the acid rain, which imposed destroying effects on lakes and forests has its own euphemistic label of „atmospheric deposition of anthropogenically derived acidic substances“ as described by Hechinger (1995) is his analysis of distorting Orwellian double-speak. Deliberately obscuring, disguising, or distorting the meaning of words and sense-making double-speaking tries to alter the truth sound more palatable or producing intentional ambiguity in cloudy vague language or to actual inversions of meaning.

Exploiting the contrast principle, according to which perception of human conduct is influenced by what it is compared againstadvantageous comparison are deployed to make harmful behavior seem morally acceptable. Here, individuals and groups contrast their conduct with other examples of more immoral behavior , and in doing this comparison their own behavior is trivialised or relativised.

These exonerating comparisons are based on moral justification by utilitarian logic. Accordingly non-violent alternatives are judged to be ineffective to achieve desired changes and consequently eliminated as options. Furthermore, injurious actions are affirmatively justified as they will prevent more human suffering than they cause. However, the calculation process of estimating the significance of these potential threats remains subjective.

Disengagement of moral may also causes, happens through or results in forms of displacement or diffusion of responsibility, as well as disregarding or misrepresenting injurious consequences. Furthermore, consequences of moral disengagement imply increased unethical decision making and deceptive behavior.

Moral disengagement & unsustainable practices activities

While conventionally, moral disengagement has been looked at as occurring/ examined in extreme cases or moral intensity scenarios and behaviors. But the, its significance of moral disengagement and self-serving practices at unsustainable and unjust expense of others in everyday situations, especially related to (un-)sustainability is becoming more important. 

The disengagement of moral self-sanctions enables people to pursue detrimental practices freed from the restraint of self-censure also to various forms of unsustainable behaviour.

For example, people are investing ecologically harmful practices with seemingly worthy purposes through social, national, and economic justifications. This can be done by enlisting exonerative comparisons that render the practices righteous use of sanitising and convoluting language that disguises what is being done; reducing accountability by displacement and diffusion of responsibility; ignoring, minimising, and disputing harmful effects; and dehumanising and blaming the victims and derogating the messengers of ecologically bad news. Importantly, these psychosocial mechanisms operate at both the individual and social systems levels.

As empirically shown by Kilian and Mann (2020), people are likely to engage in self-serving moral reasoning (i.e., moral disengagement) when a presented consumption option with poor socio-ecological performance was perceived as desirable and when a suitable argument (i.e., moral disengagement cue) was available. They demonstrated that moral disengagement reduces moral feelings to forgo a consumption option with poor socio-ecological performance and fostered behavioural intentions towards it. For instance, consumers tend to willfully ignore and are disproportionately more likely to forget about socio-ecological product attributes than about “traditional” attributes such as quality or price for avoiding negative and potentially conflicting emotions in the presence of ethical issues (Reczek et al., 2018). Thus, desire for a specific even unsustainable consumption and possibilities for moral disengagement (i.e., a suitable argument) motivate moral disengagement that induce lower moral feelings to forgo a product with poor socio-ecological performance (e.g. shopping sweatshop-produced clothes) and in turn facilitated favorable purchase intentions, word-of-mouth intentions, as well as hampered willingness to pay for better socio-ecological performance (i.e., radical CO2 reduction). As Kilian & Mann stated while calling for specially tailored communication strategies and message frames that mitigate the potential for moral disengagement related to e.g., fair trade, organic products etc. “most persuasive and visible campaigns are worthless if consumers will finally overwrite their moral feelings with disputable reasons” (ibid 127).

Another form of moral distorted communication and decoupling is the practice of so-called brown-washing. Adding to the fraudulent and deceptive color games of white washing and green washing, brown-washing organisation are either do not reveal, silence or underreport their environmental, social, or governance activities or progress. These forms of non-communication or understating, thus hiding their light (Montgomery & Robertson, 2022) are strategically done also to avoid the risk of getting caught of unwarranted promises that could result in potential further stakeholder scrutiny and negative reactions, such as activist or NGO attacks. Or organisations might fear of being seen as hypocritical or attacked or punished in one way or another when perceived as greenhushing (Font et al., 2017). Both forms, exaggeration, also via covering up or divert attention from amoral, illicit, or criminal activities by establishing partnerships or connections with legitimate, value-based organizations, or lack of communication and undue modesty in corporate sustainability disclosure (Kim & Lyon 2015) are part of inventions and fraught uses of miscommunication. There seems to be no end in sight of such deceitful practices, while at the same time, we are no closer to solving the pressing environmental and social issues of our time (Montgomery et al., 2023).

We are living in a world where all these green claims are multiplying with much investing in using CSR and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria and all kinds of commitments, while it seems that corrupting, delaying, and weakening of genuine moral engagement takes place.

What we need is a moral re-engagement, including ‘going public’ while knowing that it takes extra time, energy, and conviction to forge a path that diverts from the norm. This is especially true in a scholarly community, as it involves additional, counter-normative work to engage and communicate with other audiences (Etzion & Gehman, 2019).

Overall, in the near future, we will probably see many more forms of disengagement as the decoupling of the ‘talk’ and the ‘walk’ of humans and organisations also regarding claimed goodness and real actions will increase. Therefore, investigating the rhetorical modes of ethos, pathos, and logos as a form of communication to handle ethical issues may become even more important (Küpers & Minisri, 2023). Considering the role of digitally mediated communication, and current crisis situation, what will be important is a critique of the instrumentalising, and irresponsible approaches in communication, and developing more balanced, proto-wise forms for rendering enlivening practices. These may then contribute to mediating and fostering a personal, interpersonal, and institutional integrity through which a more sustainable world can be enacted now, for a forthcoming future to come.

Bandura, A. (1999). Moral Disengagement in the Perpetration of Inhumanities, Personality and Social Psychology Review. 3 (3): 193–209

Bandura, A. (2007). Impeding ecological sustainability through selective moral disengagement, International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development. 2 (1): 193–209.

Bandura, A.; Barbaranelli, C.; Caprara, Gian V.; Pastorelli, C. (1996). Mechanisms of moral disengagement in the exercise of moral agency“. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 71 (2): 364–374.

Etzion, D., & Gehman, J. (2019). Going public: Debating matters of concern as an imperative for management scholars. Academy of Management Review, 44(2), 480–492.

Font, X., Elgammal, I., & Lamond, I. (2017). Greenhushing: the deliberate under communicating of sustainability practices by tourism businesses. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 25(7), 1007-1023.

Hechinger, F. M. (1985). Down with doublespeak. San Francisco Chronicle, This World section.

Kilian, S., & Mann, A. (2020). When the Damage is Done: Effects of Moral Disengagement on Sustainable Consumption. Journal of Organizational Psychology, 20(1).

Kim, E.-H., & Lyon, T. (2015). Greenwash vs. brownwash: Exaggeration and undue modesty in corporate sustainability disclosure. Organization Science, 26(3), 705–723.

Küpers, W. n & Minsri, K. (2023). The Role of Embodied, Living Ethos in relation to Pathos and Logos for Integral ‘Aesth-Ethical’ and Wise Practices’ (unpublished paper under review).

Montgomery, A. W., & Robertson, J. L. (2022). Why Firms Hide Their Light: Brownwash, Silence, and Bifurcated Stakeholder Communication. In Academy of Management Proceedings Vol. 2022, No. 1, p. 12138.

Montgomery, A. W., Lyon, T. P., & Barg, J. (2023). No End in Sight? A Greenwash Review and Research Agenda. Organization & Environment,

Reczek, R. W., Irwin, J. R., Zane, D. M., & Ehrich, K. R. (2018). “That’s not how i remember it: Willfully ignorant memory for ethical product attribute information”. Journal of Consumer Research, 45(1), 185-207.