Moral disengagement revisited

Albert Bandura continues recent correspondence.

In the June issue (Letters), Dr Peter Lee commented on my February article ‘Disengaging morality from robotic war’. His main concern centred on his impression that I questioned the legitimacy of drone-based warfare. This misunderstanding underscores the need to clarify the dual functions that psychosocial mechanisms serve in warfare. These functions, also discussed in my 2016 book, involve moral engagement in the military mission coupled with moral disengagement in implementing the lethal practices required to achieve the mission.

Nations make the moral decision to go to war. They do so through justifications of the rightness of defending themselves against external threats. When there is unified public support for the use of military force, soldiers go to war with strong commitment that they are fighting for a just cause. However, soldiers face the gruesome task of killing fellow human beings. Mechanisms of moral disengagement enable them to perform the horrid aspects of war without being emotionally devastated by such experiences.

My article focused on militarised drones as an example of the growing robotisation of modern warfare, with an analysis focused primarily on how drone operators neutralise and distance themselves from their lethal actions. However, I did not ignore the moral engagement function at the national level entirely. I explained that President Obama adopted the ‘just war’ principles in morally justifying the use of militarised drones in Middle East nations. According to Dr Lee, the US differs from its UK counterpart in the context in which armed drones are used and stringency of rules of engagement. US drones bomb suspect terrorists in countries without US ground forces in combat zones. With deficient ground intelligence, terrorists are difficult to identify and risk of civilian casualties is difficult to judge, as discussed in Jeremy Scahill’s 2016 edited volume The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program.

In the UK drone operators assist their ground forces in combat zones. Moreover, drone operators follow strict rules that prohibit them from defending their soldiers in combat if a bomb strike risks any civilian casualties. Given the army ethos that soldiers support each other in battle and never leave fallen comrades behind, prohibition against defending one’s soldiers under attack amidst civilians can create a discordant moral predicament for drone operators. Protective inaction violates the army ethos; protective action violates the just war rule regarding civilian casualties. Either choice can be guilt promoting. A new military syndrome has been created called ‘moral injury’ in which soldiers are haunted by feelings of guilt, betrayal, self-loathing and self harm (discussed by Maggie Puniewska in her 2015 article for The Atlantic, ‘Healing a wounded sense of morality’). Unlike PTSD, which is rooted in traumatic combat stressors, moral injury arises from violating deeply held moral convictions.

One of the drone operators reported to Dr Lee that it was less disturbing to kill jihadists who slay gay men and rape Yazidi women. The moral disengagement in this case involves subhumanisation of the enemy, not advantageous comparison.

Dr Lee addressed drone warfare from his extensive scholarship in the ethics of war. Social cognitive theory addresses the human aspect of drone warfare. This psychosocial approach is rooted in a theory of moral functioning operating through affective self-sanctions. Within this theory, mechanisms of moral disengagement explain how soldier can engage in horrific aspects of war and still live in peace with themselves.

Albert Bandura
Stanford University

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