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Human Moral Weakness and its consequences

2012 May 18
by Ian Welsh

(This is discarded text from the non-fic book I’m working on, and should be treated as such.  I offer it because I think my regulars might find it interesting.)

When we say humans are weak, what we mean is that they tend to do what they’re told to do, and tend to follow the roles and norms of their society and peer group. We’ll explore this by touching on two famous experiments: the Milgram electroshock experiment and the Stanford prison experiment.

In the Milgram experiment subjects were told to administer painful electrical shocks to another person when that person answered a question wrong. Each time an answer was wrong, the amount of the shock was increased. Sixty-three percent went all the way up to a 450 volt shock, continuing after the person being shocked started screaming, begged them to stop and told them they had a heart condition. With variations, the number who would go all the way could be increased to 91% or go as low as 28%. This result has been replicated time and again since the original experiment in 1963, and has been found to be true in multiple cultures

The sixty-three percent compliance rate was a surprise to psychologists when the result was first published, despite the world having recently seen the Nazi death camps. Perhaps this is because death camp guards were under military discipline and could expect harsh punishment for refusing orders. Or perhaps it is because Americans assumed it was a cultural thing: Germans would do it, Soviets would do it, but Americans wouldn’t.

The students in the Milgram experiment were American and faced no consequences for refusing to shock a screaming man. Most of them shocked the man anyway.

Americans would. People of every culture would.

Milgram’s subjects almost all felt that shocking the subject was wrong. They did it anyway.

Most people will do something they believe is wrong if told to by a figure in authority.

If you read the results of the variations on the Milgram experiment three things stand out. First, that you can get the compliance rate very high, to the point where about nine out of ten people will torture. The second is that no matter what you do, you can’t get everyone to continue shocking victims. The third is that even if you do everything you can to make rebellion more likely, some people will still shock the subject as often as they can.

People will do things they know are wrong if told to do so by an authority figure. After the financial crisis, firms hired hourly wage employees and had them sign documents stating that homeowners were in default of their mortgage, that the bank owned the mortgage, and that the person signing had reviewed the necessary documents to know this well enough to swear to it. The people signing had not reviewed the documents and thus could not swear. They signed anyway, at a rate of about 30 seconds per signature.

As a result, people lost their homes. It was wrong, the people doing it had to know it was wrong. They did it anyway, and for very little money.

Let’s move on to our second experiment. In 1971 Phillip Zimbardo set up a mock prison and divided eighteen college students into nine prisoners and nine guards. The guards had never been prison guards, the prisoners were guilty of nothing.

The experiment was due to run two weeks. It had to be stopped in six days. As Zimbardo himself says, “our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.”

Why, specifically, did it end after 6 days?

First, we had learned through videotapes that the guards were escalating their abuse of prisoners in the middle of the night when they thought no researchers were watching and the experiment was “off.” Their boredom had driven them to ever more pornographic and degrading abuse of the prisoners.

Second, Christina Maslach, a recent Stanford Ph.D. brought in to conduct interviews with the guards and prisoners, strongly objected when she saw our prisoners being marched on a toilet run, bags over their heads, legs chained together, hands on each other’s shoulders. Filled with outrage, she said, “It’s terrible what you are doing to these boys!” Out of 50 or more outsiders who had seen our prison, she was the only one who ever questioned its morality.

Guilty of nothing. Put in solitary confinement, held in prison even when they begged and wept to be let go, made to push ups while someone sat on them, deprived of food, sexually humiliated, a boy sobbing unconrollably while other prisoners chant he is a bad prisoners.

And only one outsider finds anything wrong?

Something else: when the experiment ended most of the guards wished it hadn’t. Zimbardo felt the guards fell into three groups: the ones who seemed to enjoy using their authority, the ones who went by the rules the guards had agreed on, and the guards who tried to treat the prisoners well, especially when other guards weren’t around.

People don’t just do what they’re told to do, they do what they’re expected to do. We all know various roles: we know how to act like a brother, a sister, a student, a teacher, a father, a mother. We know how to act like a prisoner, a prison guard, a husband, a wife. We know how to act while on a plane, while going through pre-flight screening, while being questioned by a cop. We know how to be an employee and we know how to be a boss. We know how to do many of these things even if we’ve never done them before, because we’ve seen other people doing them, or we’ve seen it on TV or read of it or know people who have done it. And if we don’t know, then we follow the cues of the people around us, and we do what we’re told to by those in authority over us.

The findings of social psychology about compliance, rebellion and role-playing take up many books, and those books are worth reading, but let’s go back to our initial comment on human nature, that people are weak.

Weak doesn’t mean bad. If you were to take those same 9 boys who played prison guards in Zimbardo’s prison experiment, and you were to put them down in the middle of a disaster where people needed help and they could choose to help or they could choose to loot, most of them would help. If you were to give them medicine and medical training and put them amongst injured people, they would heal. We know this, too, because studies of great disasters show that people spontaneously come together and help those in trouble (which, as an aside, is why forbidding civilians from helping disaster victims is a bad idea).

Told to be prison guards, they acted like most prison guards and became brutal. Told instead to be a nurse, most would act much more kindly (though a few would abuse the power nurse’s have.)

Some people are bad. Some people are rotten. Some people will do the wrong thing whenever given the least chance. And some people are good. Some people won’t shock another person, no matter who tells them to. Some people will risk their lives to create an underground railroad for slaves or will hide Jews and Gypsies so they can’t be killed by Nazis, even at great risk to themselves. Some people will see boys being treated horribly, and will speak up even though they’re only a recent Ph.D. and the person they’re telling off is a professor.

But both the truly good, who will do the right thing if at all possible and sometimes even if not, and the truly bad, who enjoy hurting other people, are fairly rare. From reading the psychological literature I’d put each group at somewhere between five to fifteen percent of the population.

The rest of the population is weak. They do what they think they’re expected to do. They can be good, and do good, if that’s what is expected, and they can be bad, and do evil, if that’s what is expected of them. If there is a bias, I think it is slightly to the good. Most people think of themselves as good, and would rather do good. But this bias is slight, and people will do the wrong thing if it is encouraged.

And, generally speaking, when it comes to economic activity, we encourage bad behaviour.

This starts with our every-day economic ideology. Economic activity is primarily carried out by two types of organizations: governments and corporations. Our explicit ideology for corporations, which is codified in law, is that a corporations only responsibility is to maximize profit. Greed is good. We could go into a long discussion of the rise of this ideology and talk about Calvinist predestination (if God loves you he’ll make you rich) and misunderstandings of Adam Smith, as if the man who wrote an entire book on morality thought that greed was a good thing except under very limited and accidental circumstances, but the point is, this is our ruling economic ideology in the West: maximize profits.

It isn’t even, any longer, “maximize profits so long as you stay within the law.” The run up to the financial crisis saw widespread fraud, including the use of what were, at the time, called liar loans. After the crisis we saw companies hiring people to sign affidavits which would cause homeowners to lose their homes, and systematically lying on those affidavits (the so-called robosigning scandal.) Companies attested they had properly transfered ownership of mortgages when they hadn’t. Companies sold financial instruments to clients whom they had a fiduciary responsibility to while betting those instruments would fail, and in their private emails called those clients idiots.

The rule today is that you break the law if breaking the law maximizes profits and you won’t go to jail as a result. Fines are considered a cost of doing business, the legality or illegality is irrelevant.

This flows from the very top of our society. It is how our CEOs and executives think, and as our politicans and prosecutors refuse to investigate or charge those who are guilty of widespread fraud, it is clearly how our political and legal class thinks.

Authority, in other words, says that it’s all right to do illegal and immoral things in pursuit of profit.

Well, so long as you’re told to do so by someone important.

Humans are weak. They do what authority figures tell them to do, they do what their peer group values, they do what the incentives reward.

101 Responses
  1. StewartM permalink
    June 1, 2012

    Ian Welsh:

    If the majority of humans were good, and morally strong, the 20th century would not have occurred as it did. If they were not plastic, able to easily be convinced to support or at least tolerate massive evil, human history would be so far different from what it is as to be unrecognizable.

    I think we both agree about the plasticity. However, I just don’t call the human desire for socialization, a desire to subordinate our personal beliefs to go along with the group, “weakness”. We subordinate our own desires and beliefs to accommodate others all the time, and usually for ends which are good. We’ve all known how intolerable individuals for whom every little iota of existence is a matter some non-compromisable “principle” that can never be trespassed. It’s a necessary social lubricant.

    The difficult bit is when our socialization is used as a ‘hook’ to get us to do or accept evil things, by social betters. Then I see it as a case of our instinct to be go along with the group opinion (which in hierarchical societies is heavily dominated by elite opinion) vs one of heeding our empathetic nature. Ideology (or religion) is nearly always a component of this evil when it occurs; its purpose is to bolster submission to the group opinion by denying the ugly material reality of what is being done (which is why such ideologies, and religions, elevate ‘ideals’ and idealism over materialism). Carbonizing a witch alive, after all, was doing them a *favor*, according to the cultural superstructure of the 1500s.


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