Several weeks ago, I posted a blog about moral disengagement regarding the bad call in the Saints- LA Rams game that effectively allowed the LA Rams to win a trip to the Super Bowl. ( As you know, the LA Rams lost to the New England Patriots- their sixth Super Bowl win!)

This notion of moral disengagement came back to me when the College Admissions scandal became the news of the day. This scandal has caused me much cognitive dissonance.  Why? I am a big fan of the Hallmark Channel and watched episodes of “When Calls the Heart”, and “Garage Sales Mysteries” (along with its many other movies!) starring Lori Loughlin. I am having a hard time reconciling her on screen persona with the alleged felonious actions she and her husband took to obtain admission into USC for their two children. (As I am also a Lecturer in Law at USC’s Gould School of Law, I am having cognitive dissonance issues with this USC aspect as well!)

Like many others, I am asking why did the 30 or so parents take the actions that are being labelled as conspiracy to commit wire (mail) fraud and honest services wire (mail) fraud? The only answer I can come up with is the “slippery slope” of ethics or what has been called moral disengagement.

As noted in my previous blog, “moral disengagement” “… refers to eight interrelated cognitive mechanisms that allow us to sidestep our internalized moral standards and behave immorally without feeling attendant distress….”

These eight mechanisms include: moral justification, euphemistic labelling, advantageous comparison, displacement of responsibility, diffusion of responsibility, dehumanization and moral muteness. (Id.)

(The following is taken from  Bandura, Albert, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves, (Worth Publishers, New York, 2016) at pages 48-64.)

Moral Justification: This can also include social and economic justification: the parents morally justified their actions as being for honorable purposes. (Id. at 49.) College educations are an imperative these days to do well in the world.  The purpose was honorable: to ensure that the children obtained good college educations. As some of these parents never went to college, it was imperative that their children do so! They wanted what every parent wants for their children: for the child to have a “better” life than they did.  The social justification is that the parents involved are all well known and to “save face” with society, it is imperative that their children go to “elite” schools.  (Indeed, one parent even dissed Arizona State University by claiming that his child must go to a better school than that one.)

Euphemistic  Language: The children obtained admission by a “side door”  rather than using the true names; bribery and cheating. ( Id. at 53.)

Advantageous Comparison:  The parents compared their behavior with something much worse. (Id. at 56.) They said to themselves, something to the effect of – if they did not help their children gain admission to college, the result to their children and to their own reputations will be much worse. To have a child that could not get into a “decent” college on her own merit would be “horrendous”, and the parent would be unable to face society etc. and would be unable to live with themselves as they were not giving their children opportunities they may not have had or every opportunity possible to be prepared for the world.

Displacement of Responsibility: ( Id. at 58-59.)  No doubt, the parents are placing the blame on William “Rick” Singer, the person who master minded the admissions scandal.  Throughout, the parents, in their own minds, minimized  their role in causing the harm. They were simply doing what Mr. Singer suggested for the greater good of insuring that their children obtained a good college education at an “elite” school thereby setting up the child with lots of advantages upon entry to the real world!

Diffusion of Responsibility: (Id. at 62-64.) In their minds, the parents believe that many other people are responsible for this fiasco; not only “Rick” Singer, but the other defendants who took the SAT and ACT tests for their children, the test administrators who “looked the other way” or helped insure that the scores would be high enough, the coaches who were bribed, the persons who photoshopped the pictures of the “purported athletes”  and all of the others who  assisted in the “side door” or “back door” entry into college for these kids. By diffusing responsibility onto such a large group of active players (now known as defendants in criminal proceedings brought by the U.S. Attorney in Boston, Massachusetts) the parents can greatly weaken the little voice in their heads telling them that what they were doing was wrong and illegal.

Dehumanization: The “victims” are large universities: University of California at Los Angeles, University of Southern California, Stanford, Yale, Wake Forest, Georgetown, University of Texas at Austin and University of San Diego. They won’t notice anything and  probably do not mind as each school will make money  (tuition etc.) from these admissions as well. (See: previous blog on this point.)

Moral Muteness: This  occurs  when people witness unethical behavior and choose not to do anything about it; they look the other way.   Clearly, all those involved were witnessing the others engage in unethical behavior and not only did they fail to say or do anything about it, they did the opposite by  engaging in it themselves.

I read an article in which the sketch artist (who was in federal court when some of the parents made their first appearances) noted that while one defendant looked sheepish with her head down, the other appeared defensive with arms crossed as if to ask why she is even here and when will she be out. ( )

To me, this indicates that for one of the defendants, the moral disengagement may be coming to an end, while for the other- it is still very much alive.

I guess the author Albert Bandura nailed it with the title to his book, “Moral Disengagement; How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves.” There are going to be wide ranging and far reaching repercussions and consequences for many years regarding what these parents did; the only way that they will be able to live with themselves will be to stay morally disengaged.

… Just something to think about.





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