Nobody is as blind as those who cannot bear to see – psychoanalytic perspectives on the management of emotions and moral blindness

Why do good people with seemingly high moral values do bad things? Even people who can distinguish between right and wrong and make the decision to do what is right, often opt to do what is wrong.

Nobody is as blind as those who cannot bear to see – psychoanalytic perspectives on the management of emotions and moral blindness


Author: JJ de Klerk

University of Stellenbosch Business School

Stellenbosch University

Republic of South Africa

Phone: (+27 21) 918 4139

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This article is an abstract from an article published in the Journal of Business Ethics. To read the full article with full citations, please follow the URL:


Why do good people with seemingly high moral values do bad things? Even people who can distinguish between right and wrong and make the decision to do what is right, often opt to do what is wrong. Rational explanations as to why good people do bad (e.g., necessity or greed) are plentiful, but are over-simplistic and fail to provide adequate answers. On the other hand, there is increasing evidence that indicates moral behavior is less a function of rational intent than what is often believed. It appears as if under certain circumstances, reasonably moral people become in some enigmatic way unable to consider the immoral aspects of what they are doing or grasp the consequences of their immoral actions. One particularly useful explanation of this perplexing occurrence lies in the phenomenon of moral blindness.

Moral blindness and the role of emotions and the unconscious in morality

Moral blindness is the temporary inability to see the ethical dimension of a decision, action or its consequences. A state of moral blindness makes people with reasonable (or even high) levels of integrity virtually blind to the inconsistency between their professed values and immoral actions, immoral aspects of actions and decisions and resulting consequences. Whilst being in a state of moral blindness, people may simultaneously act morally on many other aspects of their lives. Moral blindness should not be confused with a moral blind spot – a more pervading and inherent inability to recognize or identify certain moral issues, or the lack of an intrinsic capability to deal with certain moral issues.

It is the subjective experience of emotions that provides the contextual factors that promote moral blindness. Emotions permeate almost every aspect of our lives and are foundational to morality. Morality is an elaboration of our emotional life and often it is emotions that motivate people to be moral or to stray. The unconscious nature of moral blindness is the other important aspect of this phenomenon. People affected by moral blindness enter a state of unintended unethicality, consciously unaware that they deviate from their moral values or engage in immoral activity. Once the context of the specific event or the associated emotions changes, the individual may return to living according to his or her higher moral values. Afterwards, offenders are likely to be shocked by their immoral behavior.

Although one can consciously feel or identify many of emotions one experiences, you cannot always be consciously aware of all your emotions or be able to deal with them consciously. People can consciously experience emotions without being consciously aware of either the source of those emotions or its influence on their subsequent cognitions and behaviors. For instance, they may know they feel apprehensive or anxious, but are unaware of where this came from or that it is influencing their behavior. Unconscious emotions occur when one is not only unaware of the causes of an emotion, but also of one’s emotional reaction to the emotion.

Psychoanalytic theory as a lens into moral blindness

Psychoanalytic theory acknowledges people as complex beings, influenced by a rich myriad of conflicting emotions and unconscious processes. The psychoanalytic view is that people are neither good nor bad, but paradoxical and conflicted beings who are naturally capable of doing both good and evil. Both Freud and Jung viewed the human psyche as inherently marred by unconscious mental conflict, in which “unconscious and subversive impulses and desires… can undermine conscious intent”. We are simply not as ethical as we would like to think and we are prone to overestimate our morality.

Psychoanalytic perspectives on moral blindness

Most people desire to see themselves as moral. However, we are susceptible to an unconscious counterwill that can result in moral failure. Morally unacceptable or objectionable acts are emotionally laden and reasonable moral individuals are unlikely to engage in immoral acts without experiencing emotional turmoil (i.e., acute emotions of guilt, shame, anxiety, etc.) in the individual who wants to maintain an image as a moral person. These emotions could be self-regulatory as its acute negative affect may prevent you from acting unethically or to revert from your unethical actions. However, research shows that anxiety from recalling one’s immoral behavior or desires tends to result in compensatory actions to uphold the fantasy of a moral self, rather than corrective actions. This incongruence requires deactivation of the self-sanctioning process and mitigation of moral emotions. The next step is then to attack the mental functions and unconsciously manage emotions to render the experience less threatening. This process could be achieved by avoidance of the emotional threat, or regulating (mitigating) the intensity of the emotions to a level that it could be contained through mobilizing psychological defenses. As a result, the person experiences emotional safety and self-regulation remains dormant. On the other hand, because some emotions are unconscious, a person may be unaware how it influences his or her response. As a result, the unconscious regulation of emotions or affective responses can bypass self-sanctioning, blinding the person to the immoral aspects of his or her deeds.

Moral blindness is thus a function of unconscious processes related to the management of emotions. Specifically, three main categories of emotion management can contribute to moral blindness:

  1. 1.      Emotion avoidance: The unconscious avoidance of the threatening effect of unwanted or unpleasant emotions in the self is a proactive way to manage emotions that may influence one’s moral decision-making, activating moral blindness.
  2. 2.      Emotion regulation to mitigate: The unconscious regulation of emotions (conscious or unconscious), or affective processes to mitigate its threatening effect, can influence moral decision-making, resulting in moral blindness.
  3. 3.      Failure to regulate emotion: Because some emotions are unconscious, there may be a failure of emotion regulation, resulting in moral blindness.

Although the state of moral blindness is per definition temporary, it can be sustained over longer periods through defensive mechanisms. This implies a fourth category on the sustenance of moral blindness:

  1. 4.      Emotion regulation to shield: The continued regulation of emotions (conscious or unconscious), or affective processes to shield one from reality, can sustain moral blindness over an extended period.

Any one of these dynamics can result in moral blindness, although not necessarily or predictably so. Moral blindness is situational. Whether the enactment results in moral blindness depends on the specific person, the particular circumstantial situation and the unconscious motivation underlying the process. Through these four categories on emotion management and regulation, I offer explanations as to ‘what could be happening’ in order for moral blindness to manifest in a range of circumstances.

Category 1: Emotion avoidance

When confronted with choices, the mind unconsciously assesses what is likely to happen and can proactively manipulate situations to largely avoid the threatening effect of emotions. When anticipating emotional pain or anxiety, the unconscious mind finds creative ways of avoiding it so that one can continue undisturbed and free of its threats.

Emotional distancing

Creating emotional distance between oneself and the moral crime is a cunning mechanism that the mind employs to diffuse one’s perception of active participation in a moral crime. By manipulating the emotional distance from the moral crime, the individual is able to avoid the unpleasant experience of being fallible. One of the ways people create emotional distance is by mobilizing others to act on their behalf. This not only creates physical distance between the actor and the immoral act, but also emotional distance between the act and its immoral consequences.

In organizations, emotional distance is creatively enacted through long hierarchical chains of command, with lower level employees carrying out executives’ plans on their behalf. Rooted in early childhood development, subordinates have a dependency on their leaders as imaginative parental figures. Subsequently, a leader can hold subordinates captive to his/her immoral values and desires without enacting it him/herself. Through projective suggestions, executives routinely delegate unethical behavior to subordinates; for instance, instructing open them to ‘do whatever it takes’ to achieve tough objectives. This not only leaves the possibility of unethical tactics, but insinuates it. Because of the emotional distance from the crime, executives are then able to overlook the moral decay they created and maintain a moral self-image, avoiding emotions of guilt and anxiety. The long reporting lines in the organizational hierarchy become psychodynamic conduits for emotional distancing and the manifestation of moral blindness.

Division of work creates emotional distance and diffuse a sense of personal responsibility, enabling avoidance of unpleasant emotions. The further individuals are removed from the destructive results, the weaker is the emotional restraining power. The role of hospital management is often entrusted to a professional manager who is not a medical practitioner, creating emotional distance between the manager and moral obligations of care towards patients. This role is notoriously much more difficult to fulfill by medical practitioners who continuously face patients' hopes, projections, fears and anxieties. Emotional distance enables the manager to avoid dissonance and anxiety that may arise from the conflict between the duty of care and harsh business objectives. This conveniently allows the manager to remain blind as to how policies or practices may cause human suffering.

The fantasy of a victimless crime

The absence of identifiable victims feeds the fantasy of a victimless crime, creating emotional distance and distorting perspectives of the impact of immoral behavior. Because of the facelessness of victims, painful emotions are largely avoided, resulting in blindness to one’s immoral acts. Even when the victim is technically identifiable, it is easy to regard the crime as victimless by virtue that the actual victim remains virtually faceless and emotional distant to the perpetrator, e.g., plagiarism. When the ‘victim’ is perceived to be a powerful entity that can afford the cost of the crime, emotions are avoided or repressed, as transgressions are rationalized to be victimless, e.g., buying and wearing counterfeit products, taking stationary home from the office, tax evasion, piracy of music and DVD’s, insurance fraud, collusion, insider trading, etc.

The moral impact of the fantasy of a victimless crime is pervasive, unconsciously contagious and cumulative, yet deceptively effective in its ability to cause moral blindness. For instance, individuals experience themselves as inauthentic that when wearing counterfeit products, increasing their likelihood of behaving dishonestly also in other parts of their lives. However, no crimes are without victims; they are only victimless to the extent that those harmed may be unaware that they have been victimized.

Category 2: Emotion regulation to mitigate

In order to deal with unbearable internal conflict, unpleasant moral emotions such as guilt or anxiety can be mitigated through a range of defensive methods, protecting the person from emotional disruption and feeling obliged to face his or her moral fallibility. Self-regulatory processes are then disengaged and the person becomes morally blind to his or her immoral acts.

Emotional disengagement

In emotional disengagement, individuals reconstruct their actions through rationalization to negate its moral importance, suspend dissonance, mitigate the intensity of moral emotions and therefore self-sanctioning. Rationalization neutralizes confronting emotions by justifying unethical deeds through seemingly logical explanations. This allows individuals to preserve a delusionary moral self-concept, but unfortunately also allows evil to continue. Diffusion of personal liability dilute moral emotions and weaken moral control through emotional disengagement. Individuals act less morally under group anonymity than when they hold themselves individually accountable for their actions. In large groups, the emotional liability that theoretically should activate self-regulatory mechanisms, is dispersed through all participants. Self-sanctioning emotions are diffused through rationalizations that one’s personal contribution to the overall devastating effect is negligibly small. Justifications such as ‘everybody did it’ neutralize emotions of regret, guilt and shame, leaving perpetrators with illusions that the justifications nullify their personal contribution to the horrific events.

Stripping victims of their human qualities is a powerful projective mechanism to mitigate emotions supposed to activate self-sanctioning. Once dehumanized or projected as the enemy or despicable wretches, victims are no longer viewed as persons to whom moral considerations apply. Consequently, the effects of one's actions can be denied and reprehensible conduct can be redefined as good and moral. This toxic combination of projection with rationalization and emotional disengagement presents a lethal concoction that negates self-censuring emotions and routinely results in horrific deaths and displacements. By projecting Tutsis to be the enemy and  “Inyenzi” (Kinyarwanda for cockroach), prone to treachery and wickedness in the dark, Hutu leaders could rally followers to emotionally disengage from the atrocities of genocide in support of Tutsi “extermination” in Rwanda. The xenophobic attacks in South Africa present appalling evidence of how the combination of diffusion of responsibility, emotion contagion and dehumanization of the so-called ‘kwerekwere’, and rationalizations that ‘they are stealing our jobs’, resulted in collective moral blindness. In the absence of confronting unpleasant emotions, there is little reason for self-censure and the actors become morally blind to their deeds.

Defending self-interest

Self-interest is a powerful human motive and opportunities that provide substantive self-interested gain are likely to trigger emotional disengagement and moral blindness. Although rationally paradoxical, psychoanalytically it is common that a person can desire and despise the same thing. In this phenomenon, people are guilty of the very fault they despise or condemn in others. By applying an overcompensating moral standard, they project their moral failures to others, perceiving themselves as virtuous. A practical example is evangelists who forcefully preach against the evils of illicit sex, while secretly engaging in it themselves. The mechanism of ‘the pot calling the kettle black’ creates emotional distance, enabling actors to remain blind to moral inconsistency and their own immorality.

Subordinates have substantive interest in living up to the expectations of managers and will go to great lengths to find favor with leaders, even if it requires a ‘moral’ person to act unethically. Although subordinates have a rational potential to speak up against immoral expectations of line managers, research suggests that subordinates remain silent out of fear of negative consequences. Managers hold much coercive power over subordinates and there is little incentive for subordinates to stand up to leaders. Employees have fears of being scapegoated if they do not deliver on expectations of managers and it is managerial suicide to be labelled a naysayer. In order to mitigate confronting emotions, individuals project blame and feelings of guilt onto their superiors. Rationalization provides subordinates with a psychoanalytic excuse of being an innocent victim of the situation and therefore blameless.

Downplaying the moral substance of an act neutralizes unpleasant emotions, making it easy for self-interest to trump morality, or espoused moral standards, resulting in moral blindness. For instance, one often hears the rationalization ‘it is only a game’ to explain away maliciously dangerous and unlawful actions in competitive professional sports. It is easy to be moral – until we really crave something that is immoral. Paharia et al. (2013) aptly note this deceptive mechanism in the title of their article: ‘Sweatshop labor is wrong – unless the shoes are really cute’. Without these rationalizations, illusions of control over one’s thoughts and actions are bound to be shattered, resulting in the experience of moral guilt and anxiety. However, rationalizations protect the actors against an emotional calamity and promote moral blindness.

Category 3: Failure to regulate emotion

Because some emotions are unconscious, there may be a lack of emotion regulation, trapping a person into becoming blind to how it influences immoral behavior.

Diffusion of responsibility

Contagion of high intensity emotion in the collective unconscious in combination with diffusion of responsibility can stimulate pernicious possibilities for moral blindness. Through diffusion of responsibility in the crowd, individual morality fades and an emotionally violent and immoral mob emerges (Adamatzky, 2005). It is the lack of regulation of the emotional hype and emotion contagion that can make actors in a crowd blind their immoral acts and contributions.

Messianic attributions and fantasies

Top leaders are the object of much curiosity and fascination, awed by many followers. The lack of regulation of dependency and emotions of awe and wonderment in followers about their leaders can promote moral blindness. To many subordinates, top leaders are not just other human beings, but they represent supreme, god-like beings and a proverbial messiah. Messianic fantasies render followers blind to both the leaders’ unethical requests and their own behaviors aimed at finding favor with such leaders. Followers who worship their leaders are likely to do almost anything to earn favor in the eyes of idealized leaders, even at the loss of their own identity as a moral person.

It is commonly accepted that leaders need a healthy dose of narcissism. Grandiosity of narcissists make them specifically susceptible to dispositions of entitlement and regarding themselves to be above the law. Entitlement is preoccupied with a belief system that one has a right to possess whatever you desire. Dreams of messianic glory can push talented leaders to greatness, but the restraint of such dreams leads to acute emotional frustration and pressure. Failure to regulate narcissistic inclinations and emotions, in combination with entitlement, can lead to increased urgency to accomplish these goals. This is likely to overpower emotion regulation and make leaders blind to pursuing their goals in immoral way.

Malignant self-righteousness and idealizations

Although it may sound counter intuitive and paradoxical, the higher the moral claims of a cause, the more susceptible it is to immoral behaviors in pursuit of this cause. The perversity of the organization-ideal makes an important contribution to the understanding of the blindness in the collective emotional life of people in idolized organizations; those who view themselves as morally righteous often pursue the most extreme alternatives under a fantasy of being morally sanctioned.

When people believe their cause has a strong moral mandate, the ego-ideal stimulates malignant feelings of self-righteousness. Malignant self-righteousness develops when positive emotions such as pride, inspiration, and confidence develop excessively and without regulation to become manic, aggrandized, overconfident and destructive. The idealistic cause and any task related to achieving it become emotionally laden, with exaggerated claims that the cause and actions in support of it are sacrosanct and beyond questioning. The damage Greenpeace caused to the Nazca lines in Peru, is but one example of an organization-ideal becoming sacrosanct, resulting in failure to regulate emotions and seducing members into becoming blind to their immoral actions aimed at upholding this ideal.

People fear seclusion, being branded as disloyal and ostracized as non-team players. Inadequate regulation of such emotions can result in moral blindness, especially when aspiring to belong to groups with identities high on extremist idealism. The fear of seclusion finds unconscious expression in what individuals will do to earn the admiration and acceptance of such groups. The attribution of moral responsibility and moral high ground to a group carries with it a corresponding denial of personal moral responsibility within the members of that group. During the US involvement in Iraq, Iraqi fundamentalists killed many innocent people and US soldiers committed horrific acts against those whom they have captured (e.g., Abu Ghraib tortures). In these cases, individuals became morally blind to committing moral atrocities in order to demonstrate their commitment to their groups and unity with its struggles.

Emotional overpowerment

The powerful nature of some emotions can overwhelm one’s self-sanctioning capacity. Especially when powerful emotions are socially unacceptable, they are repressed, making them unconscious, but still active in influencing behavior. In contradiction to rational expectations that individuals would feel guilty after cheating, cheating is often associated with feelings of self-satisfaction and a boost in positive affect. It is in this powerful experience of this ‘cheater's high’ that the potential for self-deceit and contagious threat for repression and the deactivation of self-sanctioning lies.  

Category 4: Emotion regulation to shield

The fantasy of a moral self cannot be contained indefinitely as repressed memories can become active at any time and at some stage, a person is obliged to admit his or her immorality. After a period or when the context changes, a person is likely to proverbially ‘wake up’ from the virtual blindness and has to face the realities of what he or she has done. When the blindfolds of moral blindness fall away, the perpetrator is likely to be shocked by his or her behavior. When socially unacceptable behavior becomes visible, yet too repulsive to acknowledge, people experience the need to restore their moral self-image and contain confronting emotions. This often results in compensatory action to uphold the fantasy of a moral self, rather than corrective moral action.

People are prone to believe ideas that are emotionally enticing and to disbelieve ideas that evoke emotions of pain or distress. Through denial, individuals cloud the truth of moral failures in order to maintain a moral self-image, negating unpleasant emotions and emotional distress. Denial then actively drives self-deception; repressing negative aspects of the self and maintaining a positive moral self-concept. Self-deception can promote unethical behavior, while at the same time, falsely believing that your moral principles were upheld. A disturbing finding is that self-deception cumulatively reduces self-awareness, breeding even more self-deception and moral blindness. In the beginning stage, one may sense that something is wrong and feel tension between the unethical actions and your moral standards. However, if one does not revert to corrective action, as time goes by, unbearable anxiety and emotional dissonance tension is mitigated through defensive mechanisms in order to contain it. Over time, unethical behavior become relatively inaccessible to consciousness. Sustained moral blindness is then the result of the internal con-game of self-deception, allowing people to continue behaving immorally while falsely believing their moral principles are being upheld.


Why do people who generally have sound moral values sometimes act in contradiction with these standards? The answer to this question represents a complex range of possibilities, one of which lies in the phenomenon of moral blindness. The way we manage emotions (both active regulation and lack of regulation) is central to the manifestation and sustenance of moral blindness.

Morality is not unlimited. Emotions and unconscious processes routinely lead individuals to engage in morally questionable behaviors that apparently are inconsistent with their cognitive values and intentions. Jung cautions “the individual who wishes to have an answer to the problem of evil … must know relentlessly how much good he can do, and what crimes he is capable of… ". This paper illustrates what we are capable of, notwithstanding good intentions. With the blindfolds of naivety lifted, people can ‘see’ the immoral behaviors they are capable of and how their emotions and unconscious mind can make them virtually blind to their immoral actions or desires. Indeed, people can find strength in understanding their propensity to moral failure and imperfection, not to rationalize unacceptable behavior or to fabricate excuses, but to move beyond moral hypocrisy, claiming ignorance towards accepting moral accountability. From better understanding one can only hope to become more equipped to recognize early signs of moral blindness and then to engage in corrective actions. However, this will not be easy and may remain an elusive fantasy as the unconscious mind can never be fully controlled.

This inquiry into moral blindness represents a search for meaning and is to be read as a reasonable explanation of the activation and sustenance of moral blindness, not predictions about what happens in all circumstances. The potential value of the explanations lies in their plausibility and usefulness. At the end, it is the responsibility of the individual reader to make up her or his mind about potential predictive validity in his or her own life and circumstances.