Psychologist Albert Bandura has conducted extensive research on the prominent role of social modeling in human motivation, thought and action. In a study published in 1986,
Moral disengagement is the propensity to disengage self-regulatory processes from the actions taken. The individual brings a lifetime of experiences and learning to the ethical decision making process.
Social cognitive theory proposes that individuals possess self-regulatory mechanisms which provide a level of stability in interactions with the environment. If motivated solely by external rewards and punishments, behavior would fluctuate erratically. Instead, Bandura suggests that, in many areas of social and moral behavior, the individual's standards for behavior remain relatively stable.
Bandura identifies four distinct points at which the individual can disengage from these internal self-regulatory mechanisms. Specifically, internal self-sanctions can be disengaged from detrimental conduct by reconstruing the conduct itself through the processes of moral justification, advantageous comparison, and euphemistic labeling.
Individuals may also disengage by clouding personal causal agency through displacement and diffusion of responsibility. The third way in which an individual can disengage self-sanctions is by diminishing or disregarding the consequences of his/her actions.
The individual's final disengagement mechanism is to disparage the recipients of the actions through dehumanization or attribution of blame. It is expected that each of these points will weaken the linkage between the individual's moral reasoning and intention to behave in accordance with that reasoning.
It is a mix of these that is explored in Benedict Carey's essay on moral disengagement among executioners. I have been discussing the death penalty on this blog, and this issue has a close resonance with its de-humanizing aspects:
Participants in executions, like ones carried out by lethal injection in San Quentin, traditionally divide the responsibilities among workers so that no one person is entirely responsible for the death.
The innate human ability to disconnect morally has made it hard for researchers to find an association between people's stated convictions and their behavior: preachers can commit sexual crimes; prostitutes may live otherwise exemplary lives; well-trained soldiers can commit atrocities.