Conformity, Obedience, and Moral Courage

Conformity, Obedience, and Moral Courage

An Essay On The Importance of Moral Leadership by Michael E. Berumen

How can it be that one social order is motivated to enslave others simply because of their race? How could the civilization that produced Goethe, Kant, and Beethoven also commit genocide upon literally millions of people? Why is one group of people so willing to persecute another merely because they hold different beliefs? How can we account for an entire society’s capacity to promote evil ends with remarkably little dissent? Very simply, our occasional idiosyncrasies and individualistic behaviors are for the most part peripheral tendencies, and we humans, as social animals, are essentially conformists. Moreover, when push comes to shove, we are much more prone to obedience than we are to defiance, despite our occasional displays of bravado––a bravado that occurs mostly when it really doesn’t matter. All primates are great bluffers, the naked hominid ape no less than others. Unfortunately, this tendency to conform is true notwithstanding the nature of the social trends or the authority involved, and even when they are of a malevolent nature. This is among the chief reasons that our institutions and the rule of law are particularly important. To be sure, there are limits to the willingness of some to conform or obey; however, as history and experiment both confirm, very few people are willing to go against the tide, to buck the norm, thereby taking the risk of incurring the opprobrium of others, which we as a species generally seek to avoid. Indeed, more often than not, we seek the approval of others. When the few who are willing to stand against the tide also possess leadership skills, they are also the ones most apt to lead others in a new direction, whether it is for better or for worse.

Consider an experiment performed in 1963 by Yale psychologist, Stanley Milgram, one validated repeatedly by scientists around the world. Milgram hired a group of “teachers” of varying ages, races, and backgrounds to participate in an exercise purporting to test the memories of people placed in various learning situations. The “students” they were to test were, in fact, actors, and the teachers were the real “guinea pigs” of the experiment. The actor- students were strapped into chairs with electrical plates and wires affixed to them. The teachers were told to test the students on how well they were able to recollect various things they were told before, and then to administer an electric shock after each mistake, increasing the voltage by 15 volts each time. The teachers had the ability to observe a meter indicating the total voltage with verbiage that clearly indicated the severity, up to a clearly-marked fatal amount of 450 volts. In reality, the apparatus was a fake and the actors were not really shocked at all. But the set-up was very realistic, and the teachers were even given sample shocks of 45 volts to persuade them of its potency.

When the shocks were administered to the erring students, they convincingly screamed and begged for mercy. This didn’t seem to matter to most of the dutiful teachers. Milgram found that fully 65% of the participants administered the experiment’s final, 450-volt shock to the students, even while believing that it could be fatal. A recent analysis of similar experiments demonstrated remarkable consistency, with 61%-66% of the participants in all samples willing to apply fatal shocks.

Milgram performed 19 variations of the original experiment, all with similar, equally disturbing results. One version included an actor who posed as a teacher and openly rebelled against the rules, cajoling and exhorting the others to stop, thereby causing 90% of them to stop administering the shocks. Another version included a teacher-actor who showed great enthusiasm for the job, causing over 93% to comply with the experiment, up from the 65% who administered the shocks without additional encouragement. Not only did Milgram show that humans have a remarkable propensity to comply with the rules, to go along in order to get along, but that we are also inclined to follow leaders, whether we are being led to commit evil or to avoid it.

We would prefer to think that slavery, genocide, or persecution for our beliefs could not happen here and in our time. We stand in judgment of our ancestors’ evil deeds and imagine that we would have behaved quite differently. Do not be deceived by such wishful thinking. There are enough examples around the world to make this evident, including some in our own country’s not-so-distant past. Here is my point: more than anything else, the Milgram experiment clearly illustrates the importance of rigorous moral training, particularly for those who are most likely to hold leadership roles, whether they be in business, academia, or government, for they shall be the ones most likely to lead us away from evil or towards it. Of course, we cannot really know, in advance, who among us will emerge as a leader. And this is why it is especially crucial to teach the young to understand the difference between right and wrong.

Knowing, however, is simply not enough. Having the courage to act when it is difficult or unpopular is what makes all of the difference. Morality, after all, is not simply about believing, it is about doing. Pious believers stood by whilst others were being herded away to gas chambers, just as we might reasonably suspect that those who administered the shocks in Milgram’s experiments knew better. It is at such times that moral courage is especially important. One wonders, today, whether or not this is just such a time in the United States. Time after time in the course of history, those who were able to resist evil, to take a stand, and, at the same time, were also able to convince others to take their lead, have proved especially important in preventing civilization from sinking into the abyss of moral depravity. Indeed, it is this that sets the greatest souls, the true saints, apart from the rest of us.

Michael Berumen is a retired business executive and published author on diverse topics including conomics, mathematics, and philosophy. He resides with his wife in Colorado. He is the author of the book Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business. He has been writing about and warning against Fascism in America and Trump for several years.