What is moral disengagement: Definition and explanation

Moral Disengagement


What is moral disengagement?

Moral disengagement refers to the process where an individual or group of people distances themselves from the normal or usual ethical standards of behaviour and then become convinced that new unethical behaviours are justified due often to some perceived extenuating circumstances.

Research has found that usually people or groups of people have to go through the process of moral disengagement in order to carry out unethical behaviour.

Recent research (Knoll et al, 2016) has found that there is a 4 stage process by which people disengage morally in order to engage in unethical behaviour…

The 4 stage process of moral disengagement

The process by which people become morally disengaged is fairly well understood these days. Moral disengagement is usually a four stage process whereby the individual:

  1. Firstly the individual or group has to mentally reconstruct or tell themselves a story or context where the action or actions being or about to be taken cannot be viewed as being immoral or unethical. This can include recourse to devices like ‘others are doing it’, or ‘it’s not against the law’ for example.
  2. Secondly they will usually reduce their own sense of importance or agency in their actions. This is usually done by blaming others, the organisation, situation or context as the driver or originator of the actions.
  3. Next they will fail to see or deny the consequences of the actions being undertaken or their inaction
  4. Lastly they will need to change how they perceive and regard the victim(s) by either downgrading their status, importance or the effect and impact on them.
You could be getting up-to-the-minute research briefings, video research briefings, infographics and more every week.  

Try the Oxford Review Free

Back to The Oxford Review Encyclopaedia of Terms

You might also like to see: How to predict unethical behaviour


Knoll, M., Lord, R.G., Petersen, L.E. and Weigelt, O., 2016. Examining the moral grey zone: The role of moral disengagement, authenticity, and situational strength in predicting unethical managerial behavior. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 46(1), pp.65-78

Be impressively well informed

Get the very latest research intelligence briefings, video research briefings, infographics and more sent direct to you as they are published

Be the most impressively well-informed and up-to-date person around...

Powered by ConvertKit
Like what you see? Help us spread the word