Tag Archives: social cognitive theory

Impeding ecological sustainability through selective moral disengagement

Update: As an extra, here is a link to a video in which Dr. Bandura discusses the development and use of serial dramas, originated by Miguel Sabido and used by organizations such as the Population Media Center.

Editor’s note: It is my honor to feature an article by Albert Bandura. Dr. Bandura is one of the most influential psychologists of our time. Long a professor in the psychology department of Stanford University, he conducted landmark studies on social modeling, transforming the behaviorally based social learning theory to one in which cognition played a central role. This challenged the behaviorists’ view that human development was a one way process, dictated solely by reward and punishment deriving from external influences. In time, he developed a “social cognitive theory” of human functioning which emphasizes the reciprocal interaction of behavioral, personal, and environmental factors. I remember well being impressed, in my graduate studies some years ago, by the clarity and incisiveness of Dr. Bandura’s work. For much more information see this website maintained by Emory University psychologist, Frank Pajares.

Bandura has received many awards for his work and is a former president of the American Psychological Association.

Presenting his ideas with precise logic, Bandura continues today to refine and find applications for his theory. The article below is not his first venture into ecological sustainability-related subjects. He has written, for instance (PDF), on the effects on population growth of the kinds of serial dramatizations originated by Miguel Sabido and used by the Population Media Center on whose program advisory board Bandura sits. Such dramatizations, a crucial component of today’s work to address population growth, rest on a foundation of social cognitive theory.

In the article below, Bandura details an array of mechanisms used by those engaged in environmentally destructive practices to avoid the moral self-censure which would otherwise govern their behavior. From considerations of social and moral justification to our uses of euphemistic language to disguise the truth of our actions, it is a remarkably insightful examination of many facets of environmental politics including the games played by climate change and population deniers. Regarding the latter, Bandura writes, “High consumption lifestyles wreaking havoc on the environment and harming other people’s lives is a moral issue of commission. Evasion of the influential role of population growth in environmental degradation is a moral issue of omission.”

“We must make it difficult to disengage moral sanctions from ecologically destructive practices,” writes Bandura. After all, “A sustainable future is not achievable while disregarding the key contributors to ecological degradation – population growth and high consumptive lifestyles.”

This is a long article for a blog posting, but is well worth reading to the end. I suspect most readers here will find themselves increasingly fascinated as they progress through it.

This article appeared originally in the International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development (IJISD). It can be found in Volume 2, Issue 1, 2007, published by Inderscience Publishers which retains the copyright. My sincere thanks to Dr. Bandura and Inderscience for permission to reprint it here

Included at the end of the article is Inderscience’s press release which serves as a nice summary of the content. — JF

Albert Bandura
By Albert Bandura:

Abstract: The present paper documents the influential role played by selective moral disengagement for social practices that cause widespread human harm and degrade the environment. Disengagement of moral self-sanctions enables people to pursue detrimental practices freed from the restraint of self-censure. This is achieved by investing ecologically harmful practices with worthy purposes through social, national, and economic justifications; 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. These psychosocial mechanisms operate at both the individual and social systems levels.

Keywords: consumptive lifestyles; collective efficacy; environmental ethics; moral agency; moral disengagement; population growth; psychosocial change; self-efficacy; token gestures.

Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Bandura, A. (2007) ‘Impeding ecological sustainability through selective moral disengagement’, Int. J. Innovation and Sustainable Development, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 8–35.

Biographical notes: Albert Bandura is David Starr Jordan Professor of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University. He is a proponent of social cognitive theory, which is rooted in an agentic perspective. His landmark book, Social Foundations of Thought and Action: a Social Cognitive Theory, provides the conceptual framework for this theory. In his book, Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control, he presents the definitive exposition of the centrality of people’s beliefs in their personal and collective efficacy in exercising some measure of control over their self-development, adaptation and change. He was elected to the presidency of the American Psychological Association and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

1 Introduction

The present paper examines the selective disengagement of moral self-sanctions as an impediment to collective action designed to stabilise and reverse the ecological degradation. Human conduct can be distinguished in terms of whether it falls in the realm of social custom or morality. This distinction is based, in large part, on the gravity of the social consequences of the conduct. Harming others by one’s practices becomes a matter of morality. The harm to the earth is largely the product of human activity. Societies, therefore, have a moral obligation to preserve the environment so that future generations have a habitable planet.

We are witnessing hazardous global changes of mounting ecological consequence. They include widespread deforestation, expanding desertification, rising earth’s temperature, ice sheet and glacial melting, flooding of low-lying coastal regions, severe weather events, topsoil erosion and sinking water tables in the major food-producing regions, increasing loss of fertile farmland, depletion of fish stocks, loss of biodiversity, and degradation of other aspects of the earth’s life support systems. As the unrivalled ruling species atop the food chain, humans are wiping out species and the ecosystems that support life at an accelerating pace (Wilson, 2006).

Environmental degradation of human origin stems from three major sources: population size, the level of consumption; and the damage to the ecosystem caused by the technologies used to supply the consumable products and to support a given lifestyle (Ehrlich et al., 1995). A comprehensive approach to environmental sustainability must address all three resources of impact on ecological systems and quality of life. There are limits to the number of people the earth can support sustainably. The world’s population was 3 billion in 1950, more than doubled to 6.5 billion in the next 50 years, and is increasing by about a billion every 15 years toward a rise of over 9 billion in the year 2050. Adding billions of consumers will take a heavy toll on the earth’s finite resources and ecological system. The diverse forms of environmental degradation suggest that we have already exceeded the size of the human population the earth can sustain. Clean, green technologies, renewable sources of energy, and adoption of less consumptive lifestyles will help. But adding billions more consumers will offset the benefits of these other remedies. Lifestyle changes must, therefore, be coupled with reduction of population growth.

2 Mechanisms of moral disengagement

In the development of moral agency, individuals construct standards of right and wrong that serve as guides and deterrents for harmful practices. They do things that give them satisfaction and a sense of self-worth, and refrain from behaving in ways that violate their moral standard because such conduct will bring self-condemnation. It is through the ongoing exercise of evaluative self-sanctions that moral conduct is motivated and regulated. Adoption of moral standards is only half of the story and, in many respects, the less challenging half. Moral standards do not create an immutable internal moral control system. The self-regulatory mechanisms governing moral conduct do not operate unless they are activated and there are many psychosocial manoeuvres by which moral self-sanctions can be selectively disengaged from harmful practices (Bandura, 1999). Indeed, large-scale inhumanities are often perpetrated by people who can be considerate and compassionate in other areas of their lives. They act in the name of religious, political, social, and economic doctrines (Bandura, 2004; Reich, 1990; Zimbardo, 2007). Moreover, people can be ruthless and humane simultaneously toward different individuals depending on whom they exclude from their category of humanity.
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