Reconceptualizing Moral Disengagement as a Process: Transcending Overly Liberal and Overly Conservative Practice in the Field

Ulf Schaefer*, Onno Bouwmeester

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Moral disengagement was initially conceptualized as a process through which people reconstrue unethical behaviors, with the effect of deactivating self-sanctions and thereby clearing the way for ethical transgressions. Our article challenges how researchers now conceptualize moral disengagement. The current literature is overly liberal, in that it mixes two related but distinct constructs—process moral disengagement and the propensity to morally disengage—creating ambiguity in the find- ings. It is overly conservative, as it adopts a challengeable classification scheme of “four points in moral self-regulation” and perpetuates defining moral disengagement via a set of eight psychological mechanisms, narrowing our understanding of the phenomenon. To address these problems, we propose to define process moral disengagement intensionally (specifying the necessary and sufficient conditions for correct application of the term) as intrapsychic cognitive reasoning processes through which people selectively reconstrue a moral judgment “behavior B by actor A is morally wrong” and shift it toward becoming “behavior B is not morally wrong” or “actor A is not responsible for behavior B.” This definition achieves disambiguation and increased concept clarity. We leverage the definition to motivate a classification scheme for psychological mechanisms of moral disengagement along two dimensions—reconstruing morality and reconstruing agency—and to initiate an open inventory of psychological mechanisms that specify how process moral disengagement operates.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)525-543
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Business Ethics
Issue number3
Early online date28 Apr 2020
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2021


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