Moral disengagement as a social phenomenon: Effects of moral disengagement on moral judgments of others and shared cognition in groups

Ulf Schäfer

Research output: PhD ThesisPhD Thesis - Research VU Amsterdam, graduation VU Amsterdam

44 Downloads (Pure)


Unethical behavior in business is a serious and prevailing phenomenon. Much of this conduct is characterized by shared knowledge or coordination within a group, indicating that the social context may be relevant in the study of such unethical behavior. Advancing the understanding of the social context in which unethical behavior unfolds is a key consideration for this dissertation, which employs moral disengagement theory as its primary theoretical lens. Moral disengagement theory has established itself as a widely applied paradigm to explain unethical behavior, providing an account of how people do harm and live with themselves (Bandura, 1999, 2016). Moral disengagement theory proposes that people are able to reconstrue moral cognitions through psychological processes to the effect that they reconstrue morality, reevaluating behaviors formerly judged to be immoral as amoral, morally permissible, or even morally obligatory; or to reconstrue agency in the behavior, thereby distancing themselves from being responsible for the behavior. Most researchers so far have investigated moral disengagement exclusively as an intrapsychic phenomenon. By attempting to shed light on how people behave unethically when they are not operating in the shadows or when they do so in concert with others, this dissertation contributes particularly to the moral disengagement literature that transcends the frontier of the individual and explores moral disengagement as a social phenomenon. First, this study attempts to investigate how someone’s own morally disengaged unethical behavior affects their moral judgment of the behavior enacted by others (Research question 1). To this end, the present research takes an individual-level perspective, which involves studying people as they mentally represent other people. Second, the research seeks to explain how individual moral disengagement theory can be extended to a multilevel theory that specifies the relationship between moral disengagement and unethical behavior at both individual and collective levels (Research question 2). To achieve this objective, the present study takes a multilevel perspective, identifying relationships between moral thought and moral behavior at both individual and group levels. Chapter 2 of this dissertation devotes itself to a systematic review of the moral disengagement literature. This review not only establishes opportunities for theory advancement by studying moral disengagement as a social phenomenon, but also reveals that there is substantial variance in how the term “moral disengagement” is used in the literature. Chapter 3, a reconceptualization of moral disengagement, introduces an intensional definition of moral disengagement, and this paves the way for delineating moral disengagement at the collective level. Chapters 4 and 5 address the two research questions, which are designed to help advance our understanding of moral disengagement as a social phenomenon.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
  • Wempe, Johan, Supervisor
  • Bouwmeester, O, Co-supervisor
Award date3 Mar 2021
Place of Publications.l.
Print ISBNs9789036106399
Publication statusPublished - 3 Mar 2021


  • behavioral ethics
  • business ethics
  • collective moral disengagement
  • collective unethical behavior
  • group moral disengagement
  • moral disengagement
  • moral judgement
  • moral neutralization
  • moral rationalization
  • social intuitionist theory

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'Moral disengagement as a social phenomenon: Effects of moral disengagement on moral judgments of others and shared cognition in groups'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this