Recently ABC performed a version of Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment on obedience to authority. Of course the psychology of the participants in the study is certainly interesting. But the psychology of the experimenters is, too. For example, the questions they ask reveal something about them. How can “ordinary” people perform “unthinkable” acts? How do “good” people go bad? These questions are interesting because they imply that people willing to cause pain and injury to another at the urging of an authority were, at least before the experiment, good people. Somehow, due to the psychological makeup of humans in general, the urgings of an authority figure “made” them go bad. What’s interesting is that it never occurs to the experimenters that those who would do such a thing were never good people. The experiment exposes the immorality of the people, it doesn’t create it. Good people don’t suddenly go bad. They were always that way.
Morality is a very touchy issue. There are a lot of emotions wrapped up in the concept, at least partially because most “moralities” are attempts to fool people into doing things that are against their own interests. You heard that right. What passes for morality is actually a control mechanism put in place by authority figures to make people want to obey their rules. The only way to get people to obey rules that are against their own interest is to convince them that they will be rewarded for it eventually. And this is how most “moralities” operate.
Morality really is a set of principles one uses to protect his own interests and values. Think about why you feed your cat. Well, he’s a poor cat, life would be very hard for him if he had to live outdoors on mice. But that’s not why you feed him. You feed him because you want him around and you want him healthy, because you get something from his being that way. Well, why should you do anything for other people? Because the existence, health, happiness, education, etc. of other people benefits you. But, in order to help others, you have to have the resources to do so. That means you have to look after yourself first. Remember when you’re on an airplane, the stewardess always reminds you to “put your mask on first;” a very sound piece of advice, and one you would not have to be reminded about all the time if you weren’t bombarded with “moralities” that tell you to put others first. It is impossible to put others first. You’d be dead before you could help anybody.
Another aspect of morality that makes it a touchy issue is the emergency case; the lifeboat situation where one person must die if another is to live. No one likes to think about situations like this. And, thankfully, they are extremely rare. In situations like that politics breaks down. You are essentially at war with the other person. No one wants to imagine himself on the losing end of a situation like that. At the same time, though, their own moralities tell them they must make themselves the loser. Or, envy takes over and they would rather see both individuals perish if one has to. After all, that’s “fair.”
The above paragraphs describe why people don’t want to think about morality. But, it’s not knowing what morality is at all that gets people into trouble in the Milgram experiment. If you have no principles to follow, you will not be able to think and judge for yourself. If you can’t think and judge for yourself, where will you turn? To a nice authority figure in a lab coat, who will take the responsibility for what you are doing. At least then you won’t have to feel guilty about it.
I thought ABC’s presentation was excellent. I have only one small criticism. I would like to have seen more of the people who refused to participate in the experiment once they realized the other person wanted to stop. I want to know all their names. They are heroes. They are good people.