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~ Living with Oneself by Moral Distancing ~

We think that most people adopt a set of morals or ethics that govern their behavior and decisions. Yet basically moral people have been known to do horrible things and amoral ones to climb to the heights of heroism and self-sacrifice when circumstances and need warrants this response.

Disciplined military service personnel commit atrocities that would repulse their own consciences in their home towns and otherwise faithful and devoted ministers, priests and law enforcement officers can engage in sexual crimes and fraud. Defense lawyers are able to seek to set free clients they know to be guilty and socially dangerous and prosecutors are able to devote all their resources to commit people to life sentences and even death knowing they are innocent.

Benedict Carey of the New York Times reported the interesting insights of several studies exploring how people can engage in activities that are personally repulsive to them and their moral ethics. In order to perform certain duties or tasks, people do need to disengage from their moral belief systems, partly or fully. This idea is not new but rather well understood by institutions for centuries. Why, for example, does an execution firing squad need ten sharp shooters to kill one blindfolded man? Some of their rifles are loaded with blanks so members of the firing squad do not know who fired the fatal shot. Each can leave the execution yard in the consoling doubt that he was the one who killed the man.

The same psychology is used in military strikes. Fighter pilots never destroy men, women and children. They focus on and "service" a "target." Ground forces do not aim at people, but at "japs," "gooks," and "commies." We cannot live with the reality we mistakenly killed our own troops through bad intelligence or carelessness, but we can live with the notion they are "heroes" who were killed by "friendly fire."

German candy makers and master craftsmen of clocks, loving fathers to their wives and children, carried out Hitler's answer to the "Jewish question" and fulfilled the WW II holocaust. Jews and millions of others in the death camps could not be considered humans, but a "problem" to be eradicated.

Our more humane method of executing condemned prisoners still follows the same psychology, as Carey notes. A team of prison guards straps the condemned man to the table. A medical doctor sets up the three different injections in a separate room while someone else activates them. When the deed is done, no one person can assume full responsibility for the execution. This is a moral relief and, after all, they were all just carrying out their specific duties under the law as a team.

Carey writes, "In recent years, researchers have determined the psychological techniques most often used to disengage, and for the first time they have tested them in people working in perhaps the most morally challenging job short of soldiering, staffing a prison execution team. The results of this and other studies suggest that a person's moral judgment can shift quickly, in anticipation of an unpalatable act, or slowly and unconsciously.

"Moral disengagement 'is where all the action is,' said Albert Bandura, a professor of psychology at Stanford and an expert on the psychology of moral behavior. 'It's in our ability to selectively engage and disengage our moral standards, and it helps explain how people can be barbarically cruel in one moment and compassionate the next.' "

Carey continues: "Working with Mr. Cain, Dr. Bandura and Philip Zimbardo, another Stanford psychologist, Mr. Osofsky administered a moral disengagement scale to the execution team members and the guards not on the execution team. This questionnaire asked workers to rate how much they approved or disapproved of 19 statements, including: 'The Bible teaches that murders must be avenged: life for a life, eye for an eye'; 'Nowadays the death penalty is done in ways that minimize the suffering'; and 'Because of the nature of their crimes, murderers have lost the right to live.'

"In an analysis of the answers published late last year in the journal Law and Human Behavior, the psychologists reported that members of the execution team were far more likely than guards not on the team to agree that the inmates had lost important human qualities; to cite the danger that 'they can escape and kill again;' and to consider the cost to society of caring for violent criminals. The team members were also more likely than other guards to favor religious support for the sentence: an eye for an eye. [My note: The reason for this biblical injunction and Jesus' refutation of it was explained in a previous Weekly Reflection.]

" 'You have to sanctify lethal means: this is the most powerful technique' of disengagement from a shared human moral code, said Dr. Bandura, who has expressed serious moral reservations about capital punishment. 'If you can't convince people of the sanctity of the greater cause, they are not going to carry the job out as effectively.' "

Moral disengagement is actually an indication that a system of morality is in place in the person. You have probably heard certain people exclaim, "I would be happy to personally inject that scum of the earth myself!" I would say that person is amoral, but, even then, perhaps not fully. He still is categorizing the condemned human being as a non-human "thing". That would make it easier to kill, like crushing an annoying insect.

After Christ's resurrection, some of His disciples returned to fishing to make a living. Matthew, however, did not return to collecting taxes for the Roman Empire. That profession could not be practiced without invoking moral disengagement. Matthew and the others remained morally engaged, resulting in their executions in the name of Christ.

I propose a fresh paradigm for the examining of our conscience and spiritual growth. It calls upon us to honestly examine how much of our unChristlike behavior is justified in our minds by our moral and spiritual disengagement from His clear teachings and the bold examples of activism and civil disobedience by His disciples during the first century persecution.

We learned of stories during the former Soviet persecution of how many Christians were told, with a gun to their heads, to only renounce Christianity for the sake of the security and peace of the Union. Some thought to themselves, "If I am killed, how can I continue to care for my family and to do Christ's work? I'll lie to them, I'll continue to live, and then be able to serve Christ and family. Christ knows I am lying for the good of all." Christians engage in this self-talk today in China, North Korea and in many middle and far eastern nations. Moral and spiritual disengagement from the precepts and reality of the presence of Christ in them will enable them to "live" with such a decision. 

Yet we have the courageous examples of so many martyrs who never disengaged. Remaining engaged in Christian morality is fairly easy in prosperous times. I pray I can still remain engaged, fully and devotedly, during the challenges of suffering and self-sacrifice. I know I am not able to stay engaged by my own volition and strength. As St. Paul wrote, only Christ can provide me that will, devotion and strength.

We Christians have our "rules of engagement." They are certainly more challenging than that of any worldly institution. But we must choose. In that choice rests spiritual life or death and the integrity of our behavior upon which the lives of others rest.

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
~ Education, Research and Advocacy
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Spiritual Resource Services  © February 9, 2006

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