[C]ollective moral disengagement is not simply the aggregation of the moral exonerations of its individual members operating in social detachment. It is an emergent group-level property arising from the interactive, coordinative, and synergistic group dynamics (White, Bandura, & Bero, 2009, p. 43)
Albert Bandura is a psychologist well known for his work on the concept of moral disengagement. Bandura’s research demonstrates the link between the psychological ability to disengage from one’s moral center and the subsequent ability to engage in morally reprehensible action. His work has implications for personal behavior but also behavior at a group level, and there is a relationship between the two in that social pressures can amplify or undermine one’s decision to apply or ignore moral principles.
The desire to maintain a self-perception of righteousness, however, exists either way. There are four primary ways by which one can distance oneself from personal responsibility for one’s actions: “by reconstruing the conduct, obscuring personal causal agency, misrepresenting or disregarding the injurious consequences of one's actions, and vilifying the recipients of maltreatment by blaming and devaluating them” (Bandura, Barbaranelli, Caprara, & Pastorelli, 1996, p. 364).
Bandura’s work helps explain why we can end up hurting one another and feel justified in doing so. It also helps explain the myriad ways in which we find our moral out: It’s for their own good, they brought it upon themselves, it wasn’t really my decision, it’s just not that big of a deal, it could have been much worse, etc.
But what could any of this have to do with Friends? In a fascinating paragraph in Bandura et al.’s 1996 article, “Mechanisms of moral disengagement in the exercise of moral agency,” the authors write:
The exercise of moral control is also weakened when personal agency is obscured by diffusion of responsibility for detrimental conduct… Group decision making is another common practice, one that enables otherwise considerate people to behave inhumanely. When everyone is responsible, no one really feels responsible. Group action is still another expedient for weakening moral control. Any harm done by a group can always be attributed largely to the behavior of others. People behave more cruelly under group responsibility than when they hold themselves personally accountable for their actions (p. 365).
This is an aspect of group discernment and consensus decision making rarely discussed among Quakers. Likely this is because the presumption is that in worshipful business meetings decision making is Spirit-led. It is a noble ideal and one that I have seen in action. And yet, it is also a dynamic that can be subject to abuse and as such ought to prompt some self-examination and possibly some intentional safeguards into meeting processes. Particularly considering the divisive schisms among Yearly Meetings in the U.S. in recent years, it may be worth asking whether group decision making serves as an opportunity to invite Divine guidance or rather to facilitate the othering, self-righteousness, euphemistic language (“reconfiguration” instead of “split”), attribution of blame, denial of consequences, and dehumanization characteristic of moral disengagement. Historically, Bandura's work on dehumanizing and ethical self-justification may also help shed light on Friends' horrendous treatment of Native Americans.
As Bandura et al. (1996) state:
Over the years, much reprehensible and destructive conduct has been perpetrated by ordinary, otherwise considerate people in the name of religious principles, righteous ideologies, nationalistic imperatives, and ruthless social policies. There is much to be gained from understanding how the facility for moral disengagement develops and how institutional justificatory strategies are used to enlist people for exploitive and destructive purposes (p. 372).
If there is any sense in which the latter elements are present, in what ways are Friends prepared to deal with the negative aspects of group psychology that enable us to justify the harm we inflict on our fellow Friends? Can the very language of our tradition serve to cloak our psychological naivete and disguise our least holy actions in the guise of spiritual discernment?
Our health and vitality may just be worth the risk of asking such difficult questions.
Bandura, A., Barbaranelli, C., Caprara, G. V., & Pastorelli, C. (1996). Mechanisms of moral disengagement in the exercise of moral agency. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(2), 364–374. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2064
White, J., Bandura, A., & Bero, L. A. (2009). Moral disengagement in the corporate world. Accountability in Research, 16(1), 41–74. https://doi.org/10.1080/08989620802689847