Techniques of Neutralization

Ryan and Adam have been discussing the role of situation in morality. Do read both in full.

Ryan’s is a convincing defense of the banality of evil. Rape is an inevitability of war, for example, not because the participants of war are particularly bad human beings, but because the situation of being at war drives otherwise normal human beings to do heinous things. As he writes,

Situational psychology does not excuse evil, it democratizes it. It’s easy to believe that a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, or a torture chamber in Cuba, or an insane-asylum-cum-torture-chamber in Iraq, or the total eradication of life as we know it in Syria, has nothing to do with us.

Both he and Adam point to self-delusion as the culprit. Writing from the experience of having once rationalized the immoral actions of a close friend, Adam says he

received that wake-up call about my own capacity for self-deception over a decade ago. The bigger shock was not that I was able to be so willfully blind, but that so many of my friends continued to be in light of what the investigation uncovered. In fact, they doubled down, entrenching themselves in a persecution narrative which provided a useful framework for rationalizing away any hint of their own guilt.

I don’t have much to add so far that my senpai hasn’t (as usual) said earlier and much better. From his discussion of the shortcomings of virtue ethics in Morality Competition, and the Firm, Joseph Heath brings up the criminology literature on violent subcultures:

In the 1950s David Matza and Gresham Sykes suggested that the reason deviant subcultures (such as youth gangs) are criminogenic is not that they encourage primary deviance with respect to the moral norms and values of society, but that they facilitate secondary deviance with respect to cognitive and epistemic norms governing the way situations are construed. … Instead of maintaining that violence itself is good, members of the group may instead convince themselves that they had no choice to act as they did, or that the victim had done something to deserve it … What distinguishes the criminal, according to this view, is not a motivational defect or an improper set of values, but rather a willingness to make self-serving use of excuses, in a way that neutralizes the force of conventional values.

One implication of these “techniques of neutralization,” as they’re known, is that proper behavior, for the most part, is not hidden knowledge that the deviant is ignorant of. In fact, social deviants usually “know” the right thing to do, but explain it away with reference to exceptional circumstances, or by construing the situation differently. Paraphrasing an example Heath often gives, when someone says they have “borrowed” an item they in fact stole, they are in essence substituting one normative violation (“do not steal”) with a different, less bad cognitive violation (the generally accepted meaning of the word “borrowed”). He discusses other techniques of neutralization here. They include:

  • Denial of responsibility
  • Denial of injury
  • Denial of the victim
  • Condemnation of the condemner
  • Appeal to higher loyalties
  • “Everyone else is doing it”
  • Entitlement

Reading Ryan’s post, I was left with the sense that he sees a situation’s influence over moral decision as inevitable, possibly even deterministic. He thus suggests abandoning the even greater delusion that we can avoid self-delusion, and instead focus on reforming the broader system that generates the situations that leave us most compromised.

The problem with this argument comes back to the eternal question asked by criminologists: Why isn’t there more crime than there actually is? Given the state’s limited enforcement capacity, society depends on most people, most of the time behaving morally, i.e. of following the rules. If self-delusion were truly the rule, rather than the exception, civilization would collapse under a crisis of endemic shirking.

Ironically, blaming the system is one of the most pernicious techniques of neutralization criminologists have identified. Indeed, saying “it’s systemic” is one of the easiest ways to deny responsibility for one’s action, and in turn make the problematic behavioral pattern all the more common and entrenched.

This is true not just with respect to crime stemming from war or systemic poverty, but applies equally well to white collar crime, too. When bankers engage in shady lending or regulatory arbitrage, for example, they often neutralize their bad behavior by blaming the systemic forces of market competition (“Everyone else is doing it”), or the duty to maximize shareholder value within the letter of the law (Appeal to higher loyalty). Over time this leads to juridification, the thickening of law books, as behaviors that were once enforced by unwritten social norms and voluntary self-restraint must be replaced by codified laws with explicit sanctions.


The upshot is that we shouldn’t stop holding people accountable for their actions just because the situation they somehow found themselves in made shirking their moral duties the path of least resistance. Indeed, just the opposite. Employing techniques of neutralization, as a self-serving behavior, should itself be an object of social sanction.

Moreover, it means there’s a chance we can preempt our techniques of neutralization by being aware of them, and by training ourselves in strategies that undercut self-delusion. That’s essentially what Joseph Heath argues business ethics courses should look like, rather than tired lessons in the history of moral philosophy. But in general it’s probably the sort of moral education we should all be subject to, starting as children.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s