Behaving badly

2011

Why is it that some people routinely behave in ways that are unethical, immoral and untrustworthy and yet never experience any guilt? How does this happen?

A growing body of evidence suggests that such folks are able to "disengage" their moral compass and consciously "forget" information that would otherwise limit their inappropriate behavior. They rationalize what they are doing in a way that lets them off the "honesty" hook.

These individuals – white-collar and blue-collar - live and work in virtually every system and organization – be it finance, politics, healthcare or education., They even live in our homes. Our society has become inundated by the "dishonest" and "untrustworthy".

Psychologists tell us that "moral disengagement" and "moral self-regulation" lead to dishonesty. By either commission or omission, these folks either link their acts to their moral goals and values or simply uncouple their dishonesty from their moral goals and values. We seem to be experiencing more and more of the latter.

Symptoms of behaving badly
When behaving dishonestly and unethically, one experiences both mental and physical reactions. Mentally, one experiences "cognitive dissonance" - a knowing that there is a "disconnect" between one's act and one's value system, and a "felt-sense" somatically - in the body- that is experienced as some flavor of physical discomfort.

So, how do folks respond to their dissonance and discomfort? How do they come to grips with their distress?

There are those who "do the right thing" and move into alignment with their core values and moral code. And there are those who go through a "rationalization and judgmental" process - "moral disengagement" - in order to clear their conscience and to view their actions as morally permissible.

Then there are those who disengage morally in order to benefit from another's dishonest or unethical behaviour, such as buying clothes from a company that ignores human rights and uses child labor.

How do I morally disengage?
Ask yourself this: do I use "moral disengagement" as a strategy to excuse my or another's unethical actions as "permissible?" To what extent do I use moral disengagement to actually perpetuate unethical and dishonest behavior - mine and/or others'?

The number of "hypocrites" who have been "outed" in recent years in the arenas of politics, sports, finance, religion, health care, business and the like are prime examples of the duplicity that moral disengagement perpetuates.

The hypocrisy is couched in the belief that "I engage in more ethical behavior than others." Or, "I am less unfair than others." Or "I have a right to be more suspicious of others' actions than they do of mine." Or, "others are more greedy and driven by money than I am." Or, "I am more honest and trustworthy than others."

Guilt, shame and self-regulation
The ego-need underlying moral disengagement is absolution of guilt, blame or shame for one's dishonesty, for the disconnect between one's values and actions. When one acts dishonestly, their tendency to morally disengage is higher than when they consider another's unethical behavior - "I'm ethical and you're not."

Most of us can self-censure - consciously view our actions, and self-regulate, i.e., act morally or not. Everyone has the choice to engage in good behavior or bad behavior and judge their own actions, accordingly.

The ethical and moral bottom line is whether one chooses to activate their self-regulatory process - to consciously consider their values, standards, moral code and conduct in the moment. There are those who choose to not engage their self-regulatory process and morally disengage. That choice to morally disengage depends on the strength of one's core values and motivations.

Life at work, at home and in relationship
A major factor affecting the degree to which one morally disengages, and rationalize dishonesty, is their environment and culture - work, home, play and relationship.

Where you live, work or play, what is the culture around dishonesty, lying, or behaving unethically? What are the tacit rules that reflect immorality, illegality, dishonesty and unethical behavior? Is moral disengagement a "business-as-usual" strategy? Is there a growing sense of pervasive dishonesty?

Do you have an obsessive need to fit in" or "stand out," to be regarded as "somebody" that forces you to succumb to an unethically permissive environment? What opportunities, pressures or "silent consent" might drive you to lie, cheat and steal?

The antidote for moral disengagement
Life is choices. We choose to be ethical or unethical, trustworthy or untrustworthy. Here are some suggestions that can support you and others to live from a place of honesty, and ethical and trustworthy behavior:

Conduct formal, on-going conversations about ethics and moral behavior. These discussions can help to put a stop to some folks' moral disengagement.

Ask individuals to read, discuss and sign a "moral code of behavior" or honor code. These actions can help raise people's awareness which can stem the tide of unethical behavior.

Foster open and public agreement to live the espoused values of the organization, family, or team and have open conversations with others when they behave badly

Some questions for self-reflection

  • Is getting ahead more important than how you get there?
  • Is cheating OK if no one gets hurt?
  • Do you rationalize unethical behavior because others are doing it?
  • Do the ends justify the means?
  • Are you aware of the ethical standards in your workplace? Do you ever discuss them?
  • Do you use euphemistic language to condone moral disengagement?
  • Do you ever morally disengage in your personal life to justify unethical or dishonest behavior?
  • Do you ever encourage others ignore their own moral restraints?
  • Do you purchase products from companies you know to be in violation of human rights or other ethical standards?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how trustworthy would you say you are? What would others say?
  • How did you experience qualities such as integrity, honesty, and trust as you were growing up?
  • Can you envision a life where moral disengagement is never an option?

Review processes and procedures that invite dishonesty and institute ways to prevent inappropriate behavior from occurring.

Publicize behaviors and practices that have detrimental effects on individuals.

Increase the transparency of discussions around organizational policies and practices. Greater discourse can lead to less moral disengagement.

Initiating consequences. There must be consequences for bad behavior. Period!

Self-responsibility- it's all about "me"
In the final analysis, you are responsible for your actions. "The devil made me do it" and "Everybody does it" excuses don't apply - ever.

You alone are responsible for the alignment and congruence – or lack of each – between action, goal and motivation, for moral engagement. Whether you choose to adhere to your internal moral rules or not, is your choice.

The sad corollary of moral disengagement is that, like a progressive drug, the need to morally disengage can spiral down into a hellish vortex leading to a life of obsessive lying, cheating, stealing and dishonesty.

Living for the moment, driven by greed, caught up in competition and living in an environment that says, "It's OK to be a criminal," moral disengagement has become the "behavior-du-jour."

When we uncouple our behavior from our internal moral compass, with an "ends justifies the means" or "everybody does it" mindset, we are putting our individual futures at risk. The Universal Law of Attraction - The Universal Law of the Circle - says what we give out we get back.

So is "moral disengagement" the underlying principle of the legacy you want to leave?

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About The Author

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.

Older Comments

I am an ethics practitioner in the State Government of Queensland Australia. While I agree with the article, governments accross the world but especially those in 'democratic' countries send mixed messages to their citizens. On one hand they promote the rule of law, justice and fairness (Queensland has a comprehensive public sector integrity framework) but on the other they routinely lie, particularly through spin doctors. Where is the ethics in being the champion of freedom, authorising a state assasination while selling that as justice?

Rod Robinson Brisbane Australia